“Where the historian’s interpretations of human behaviour are based largely on artifacts and documents, the human scientist’s are….”  “Natural scientists and human scientists share some core research methods, such as….”  “Unlike scientists, whether natural or human scientists, mathematicians….”  Comparisons lie at the heart of the TOK essay, comparisons drawn from the large overview of knowledge that our course takes.  Yet in what terms do we draw these comparisons, and what features of knowledge do we emphasize in the process?  As I promised I would in my last posting, I’m coming back to changes in the TOK course — this time to the knowledge framework.

It’s useful for discussing itself, isn’t it?  Appropriately, one of the categories of the knowledge framework is “concepts/language”. As we look at the knowledge framework itself, we recognize exactly what it is doing:  putting concepts into language, naming conceptual categories that will affect how we explore and discuss knowledge questions.  Just as TOK explores how areas of knowledge categorize and name the world and our concepts, with significant implications, we can see TOK establishing its own essential terminology for its own investigation.

This knowledge framework with named categories is really useful for TOK:  it encourages exploration that could drift in any direction to stay on the main track of the course, and it provides a set of terms in which all areas of knowledge are to be considered. As a consequence, it facilitates comparisons and encourages a grasp of the overview.

I confess, though, that it took me a while to be fully comfortable with the particular form the new knowledge framework takes.  I was thrown off at first by the double headings that seemed to blur the focus (scope/application, concepts/language). I was also surprised that one way of knowing (language) was pulled out from the rest for emphasis on one of its roles (concepts).  I had looked for greater integration of all of the ways of knowing into the areas of knowledge, especially as four ways of knowing had been expanded to eight.  And, I confess, I prefer simplicity in visual diagrams, along the line of a what/why/how approach (What subject matter does this AOK treat, and why/with what goals?  How does it study it? etc.)

However, as I became more familiar with the knowledge framework as given, I put aside my discomfort.  No framework will fit intuitively with everyone’s mind right away, and I’ve now adapted.  The categories really do work to provide common terms for comparison, and the diagrammatic presentation, in my opinion, is far more accessible and appealing than the lists of questions of earlier guides.

Moreover, the knowledge framework does not have to deal with all the important ideas of the course.  It is not a prescribed list of topics and questions for every TOK class to “cover” but a guide and a demonstration.

The TOK Guide is very clear on this point.  It says that the knowledge framework diagrams provide “examples” and that the topics for study are “suggested”:

It should be noted that these are suggestions only, and can be used or substituted for others according to the specific interests and needs of the TOK teacher and students.  These diagrams are tools which teachers should use with good judgment, being careful not to use them in such a way that the course becomes formulaic. (page 34, TOK Guide)

It would be impossible to teach TOK effectively in any case by ticking one’s way through a list of topics.  As the Guide points out, “Effective comparison of different AOKs is not a purely descriptive task.” (page 29)

It is always a balancing act in TOK to get the amount of structure just right. Providing nothing but questions is too open, so that many teachers have felt they had too little support for dealing with ideas in a way appropriate to TOK.  It’s likely that earlier versions of the TOK course erred in this direction.  On the other hand, imposing a rigid structure and prescribing a fixed list of course topics is too closed, because “covering the material” could suffocate the sense of inquiry and exploration.  We can hope that the present version of the TOK course gets the balance just right.  It does give clarifying structure, and at the same time stresses the central TOK concept (concepts/language) of knowledge questions.

By then, the Guide can only do so much.  It can, as its name implies, only show the way.  It’s up to us as teachers to take that guidance and, in our own ways in our own classrooms, bring the course to life.  It’s up to us and to our real students in our real classrooms to get that balance “just right”.