By now, every TOK teacher has had the time to download from the OCC and read carefully the best professional development document of them all:  the annual TOK subject report.  This year again, it offers an immensely useful analysis of where students are succeeding and where they are falling short across the world in both essays and presentations.  In specific terms, its detailed breakdown of essay topics coaches us as teachers to understand exactly what is implied in a title and what is expected of an essay — using the particular examples of the essay titles of the previous session.  But, after reading all the analysis of the report, what advice would I personally offer to teachers trying to do the best for their students?

I would urge attention to one central thing. 

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Although the subject report does suggest that teachers’ weaknesses are passed on to students, my central advice would NOT emphasize teachers learning more about the course content of TOK.  That’s too obvious.  Any teacher who doesn’t have a background on the WOK and AOK can gain it more easily now than ever before.  I recommend, with gleeful acknowledgement of my overt bias, my own 2013 Oxford University Press TOK course companion for every teacher to read, especially for the new version of the course – but there are other books as well, and abundant support offered on the Online Curriculum Centre.  I think we can assume that any teacher trying to the best for students will have consulted such sources and talked with their AOK colleagues.

My advice would NOT centre, either, on analyzing the IB titles in detail with students, “unpacking” (as they say) the knowledge issues (or in the new version of the course, the knowledge questions).  Personally, I’d introduce students to the titles as soon as possible just to expose them to expectations, but lay the list aside firmly until they’re ready to deal with that level of generality and abstraction as the course nears its end.  Students need to grow familiar, through practice, with the idea that knowledge is alive with questions about its very creation, and to gain ease in posing them.  And when the time comes to assign the essay, worrying the titles to death with students — unpacking every last little sock or tee-shirt or hairbrush in the case! – risks overwhelming and paralyzing them.  The detailed analysis given titles in the subject report is for us as teachers, so that we recognize the range of possibilities for development.  For our students, we had better stand back – to encourage and just broadly guide onto an appropriate track their own less exhaustive engagement.

My central advice, the one bit I’d offer, would be far simpler and far more basic than these.

I’d say, “Go back to the TOK course aims and read them again, and again.”  Remember that what we’re trying to do in TOK is ambitious but purposeful.  If we bear in mind always that we’re teaching a course on critical thinking that leads to awareness of how knowledge is constructed, and that we’re helping students increase their awareness of perspectives as a shaping influence on knowledge, then we can keep our own sense of direction through the details.  It is only when we absorb the aims of the course and why we’re teaching it that we can fully appreciate the recommendations in the subject report on how to achieve that goal better in student assessment.

Never let it be said of any of us that we did not guide our students appropriately, in accord with an analytical and appreciative examination of how, as individuals and communities, we build our knowledge.

Photo Credit: Lachlan Hardy via Compfight cc