Structuring your TOK course

One of the first questions that faces any TOK coordinator when they set up or rethink the TOK programme at their school is how to structure the course, and what content to include. The great thing about the subject is that there is no set curriculum that’s examined after two years, so there is a lot of flexibility - there’s nothing your students ‘have’ to learn. But this, of course, means there is far less to guide you, beyond the IB precept that your students should have detailed knowledge of all the areas of knowledge, the core theme, and two of the optional themes as well as the prescribed essay titles that have come up during previous sessions. Here are some questions that can guide you as you decide on the format of your programme.

1. What has worked (and hasn’t) in the past?

Although the new syllabus means a rethink about course structure for every TOK Coordinator, you should still base your planning on pre-existing courses, as there is still plenty of scope to continue drawing on content that has worked before. Talk to students, and find out:

  • Which elements of the TOK course do students have a clear understanding of, and which elements did they find harder to grasp and understand?

  • What learning experiences made an impact on them, and what aspects of the course do they have difficulty recalling?

  • Have they managed to apply any of the concepts they’ve learned in TOK to their other subjects, and which concepts have been less helpful in terms of understanding the rest of the DP?

For teachers, in addition to the above, the information they could provide you with could include:

  • What have they enjoyed teaching, and what was less rewarding?

  • What elements of the course have students applied successfully to the production of essays and presentations?

  • What content, learning experiences and teaching strategies worked well in the past (see question 5 below)?

Building up a clear picture from your students and teachers will not only allow you to plan an effective course, it will also enfranchise the people who are most involved in TOK.

2. What’s the cultural context of your school?

One of the best resources you have available to you is the culture in which you work. Although your students may not all ‘belong’ to that culture, they will all have a relationship with it, so not making use of it would be an opportunity lost.

Examples of how this could inform the optional themes you decide to cover include :

  • How easily can you access indigenous knowledge in the culture you work in? Many schools are located in or near to indigenous societies; covering Knowledge and Indigenous Societies would enable you to draw on these societies, and increase your students’ awareness of how different approaches to knowledge can be amongst different societies.

  • Are lots of languages spoken in your school? If your students are multilingual, then this would be a great reason to incorporate Knowledge and Language, giving them an entry point to explore concepts as linguistic determinism and relativism, and the relationship between the words we speak, the knowledge we possess.

  • What’s the religious context of the culture you’re working in? Teaching students of different religious affiliations would make Knowledge and Religion a logical optional theme to include. Obviously, certain sensibilities might need to be observed, but students should be encouraged to share experiences of how their religious outlooks create their identities and understanding of the world.

  • Is your school located within a politically significant city? Being able to refer to issues and policies that are locally relatable to your students would give Knowledge and Politics extra resonance.

  • Do tech firms play a particularly strong role in the society in which you live? If lots of your students come from families that are involved in this industry, then they could provide extra insight into Knowledge and Technology, and give extra impact to debates and discussions about this optional theme.

3. What knowledge and expertise can you build on?

The course you create depends partly on the knowledge, expertise, and interests of the teachers who make up the TOK team. The starting point for this is the subject your teachers are trained in - the perfect department might include those who teach history, science, mathematics, art. But the subject areas of your teachers is by no means the end point (and many departments are successful without this diversity): what are their interests and hobbies? Building a course that gives teachers the opportunity to draw on these things will make your team more passionate about TOK, meaning it’s easier for them to deliver engaging lessons.

Virtually anything can be co-opted to create a great TOK course; below are a few examples of areas of expertise and interests that we have seen utilised:

  • Teachers who are interested in photography might find their interest a great way to initiate an exploration of the arts. Is photography really art? Has modern technology undermined the integrity of photography? Broadening this to include other artistic genres, how does artistic knowledge develop over time?

  • Many teachers working in IB schools are dedicated travellers. What does spending time in different cultures reveal about how our knowledge is determined by our perspective? Which areas of knowledge are more subjective? Do the ways of knowing vary from one place to another?

  • Do you have a teacher who has expertise in computer programming or website design? This can form a nice entry point into technology and mathematics, and, given the ubiquity of algorithms in today’s society, might enable some interesting ethical questions to be considered.

4. What big ideas do you want students to take away?

You don’t have to start with your elements of the course and then figure out which ideas to include within them, you could turn this process on its head, and begin with a consideration of the big ideas you want your students to come away with by the end of the course, and then decide on the element of the course.

These big ideas might be specific to one element of the course, or they might encompass multiple elements of the course. A few examples of the sort of ideas that engage you, and which you want to pass on to your students:

  • The concept of proof and certainty in knowing would be hard to do without a consideration of mathematics (eg axioms), perhaps compared to more subjective areas of knowledge like ethics.

  • Looking at how knowledge progresses via paradigm shifts would probably prompt you to include natural sciences in your scheme of work.

  • Looking at the viability of predictions works particularly well in the human sciences; perhaps this AOK could also be compared to the natural sciences.

  • Discerning progress and patterns in what we know is best viewed via history.

5. How can TOK learning experiences inform the content of your course?

Your school may already have a big TOK event, such as a conference, exhibition, presentation day, or retreat. This may be based on a specific theme or topic, which in turn may determine some of the the content you cover. If this is a successful part of your TOK calendar, then there’s obviously no need to change it; if, however, it doesn’t work as well as you might like, or if you don’t currently have any events based around TOK, then perhaps it is time to think about setting up a new event to showcase and promote TOK.

Possible learning experiences, and examples of how this could inform the content of your TOK course, include the following:

  • TOK conferences are held in many countries around the world throughout the year, although the present Covid-19 situation does present complications to this. These may have a specific theme, or feature several different ideas and concepts, so it might be difficult to build them into your course content. However, if your school does participate in one, the amount your students will get out of it will depend on the level of preparation you do. One great example of a TOK conference, and arguably the best known around the world, is the one held in February at United World College Maastricht. You can see details of their 2018 conference here.

  • An increasing number of schools are organising TOK retreats, which involve placing their students in a different environment for a few days to encourage them to view the world from a different perspective. How different that perspective is depends on the school, and its location. Newton College in Lima organises a trip to the Peruvian jungle where, as well as getting students to carry out coursework for geography, biology, and do their Group 4 projects, they spend time thinking about the knowledge they gather via the question ‘What makes someone an expert knower?’ This question is explored by comparing and contrasting knowledge in the human and natural sciences to indigenous knowledge systems, and presenting their findings at the end of the trip.

  • It’s great to showcase and publicise TOK to the rest of the school, and this can be done via displays, exhibitions, or activity days. What do you do particularly strongly that you could show to the rest of the school? What knowledge issue or controversy would you like to showcase? What work have your students done that you’d like to showcase? Giving students a couple of weeks focusing on something specific, and deepening their knowledge of a particular theme could enable them to carry off such an event successfully.

  • Your school might have an agreement with a specific guest speaker who appears every year. Again, preparing students for this experience is essential so that they get the most out the talk, and ask meaningful questions.

6. What resources do you use for TOK?

The resources you use for TOK should play a big role in determining what you cover during the course. Reading a great article from a media source, watching a particularly enlightening TED talk, seeing a thought-provoking video, or coming across a provocative opinion or interview, can all provide you with means to build and craft an engaging unit of study, or at the very least, pass on to your students for them to view in their own time. Although textbooks can play a role in delivering TOK in your school, you shouldn’t base your course on them, because they don’t provide the level of engagement or freshness that articles and videos can give.

So keep a folder of resources from things you come across as you use media sources, and don’t be afraid of using them to develop and change the structure and content of your TOK course - every year your course should be refreshed by new content; sometimes this new content should introduce radical changes in the way you do TOK.

Here are a few examples of individual resources that can have a big impact on the way you cover ideas and content:

  • TED is a fantastically rich source of ideas for TOK, and everyone will no doubt have their own favourites that they draw on in lessons. One talk that could be considered ‘seminal’ is Beau Lotto’s presentation on how optical illusions show how we see. Lotto not only demonstrates a series of mind-boggling illusions that will have your students tearing their hair out as they try to make sense of them (a great learning experience!), he also explains the incredibly important concept of how context is key to the way we see and make sense of the world around us. This is a great way to explore the Core Theme - Knowledge and the Knower.

  • Linking to what we have said about the cultural context of your school, find out what languages are spoken by your students, and connect this to the many articles you can find about the role of language in shaping our experiences of the world. Here’s one on how we have ‘untranslatable’ emotions; here’s another on the Portuguese sensation of ‘saudade’.

  • Exposing your students to controversial ideas or opinions is a great way to get a reaction out of them, and start a vigorous debate. If it’s a big enough idea, it can also form the basis of an extended series of lessons. Here’s Andrew Keen on how the Internet is returning us to a ‘pre-Copernican level of understanding’, which is guaranteed to generate a response. Use this as a launch pad onto an exploration of whether we are ‘progressing’ in terms of our knowledge, or whether technology is helping us to advance in terms of our knowledge, or whether the idea of progress is an illusion. This could be considered within the human or natural sciences, or in terms of history - and whether having such suppositions help or hinder us to discern patterns in human understanding changes over time.

  • Fake news has more emphasis in the 2022 syllabus, and reminds us why TOK is such a potent course for students. There are many ways of handling this issue; here’s a recent article that looks at the Moses effect, which will get students thinking about the way they utilise (or fail to utilise) reason. An older article from The Scientific American supports this, and provides us with a fantastic term - ‘cognitive miserliness’ - that can form another consideration point for the Knowledge and the Knower.

7. How ambitious do you feel?

If you are a new TOK coordinator, you may feel reluctant to make many changes to your TOK course, or you may feel that the changes you do want to introduce should be made within a traditional framework. This might mean basing your unit titles on the elements of TOK (ie the themes and areas of knowledge), and making as few changes as you can to the course. If this is your first stint at coordinating a TOK department, then this is perfectly reasonable. This, after all, is how TOK textbooks are structured, and how the majority of schools deliver TOK.

However, you might feel a little more ambitious, and be keen to revolutionise rather than reform TOK in your school. Going this way could involve introducing the following changes:

  • Abandoning the traditional structure of TOK, and basing the course on questions explored via multiple elements of the course. This sets up a more integrated TOK experience.

  • Building in a new learning experience for students (see part 5 above), and using that to dictate the content of the TOK course for part of the year.

  • Making a part of your course an ‘elective’, whereby students choose elements of the course to research, and you support them with self-guided resources.

  • Getting rid of textbooks as a means of delivering TOK, and only using articles and online sources as a way of delivering the course.

The first three of these ideas will be explored in the Enriching your TOK course section of Introducing Excellence into your TOK Department, the second part of this guide.