Designing an Integrated Course

It’s well known that one of the key purposes of TOK, alongside CAS and the Extended Essay, is to integrate the different strands of the IB Diploma Programme. However, one of the most commonly discussed issues at IB Conferences, or other get-togethers by Heads of School and IB Diploma Coordinators, is how this integration happens. It is something that certainly doesn’t happen by chance.

By integration, we mean both including a ‘TOK approach’ within the teaching of the other DP subjects, and also bringing in expertise of the subjects to the TOK course. This can be visualised on the diagram below.

The first, and most important, way of ensuring that integration happens is via the careful construction of a TOK course. Examples of what this means in practice are outlined below.

Unit titles that go beyond the themes and AOKs

When you start off as a TOK coordinator, there is nothing wrong with basing your unit titles on the themes and areas of Knowledge. This is a solid, reliable, and easy way of designing your first ever TOK course.

However, when you become more experienced, and are looking to infuse a little more originality and sophistication, you’ll realise that this approach can be rather limiting when it comes to making TOK inclusive.

Instead, basing your unit titles on broader questions or claims that can be explored via several aspects of the course, will provide you with a much more effective method of integrating TOK with the other elements of the DP (and bring many other benefits to your course).

This is one of the most important ways of bringing excellence to your TOK department, and we discuss it in a lot more detail here.

Focus on concepts and thinkers which can be explored in other DP courses

In order to allow other subject teachers a way into TOK, you need to provide them with recognisable content. This means drawing extensively on concepts, ideas, and thinkers who are well established and recognised in the aspects of the course that dovetail with the DP subjects. In addition, you need to ensure that you share details of this content with the relevant teachers working in your school. Here are a few examples of ideas and thinkers you can include in your course that will link easily and naturally to other departments:

  • Link up with the history department to get across the concept of historical revisionism, a key part of the way historical knowledge develops over time

  • Link up with the science department, and consider paradigm shifts, a theory advocated by Thomas Kuhn, arguing that scientific knowledge develops via ‘violent revolutions’ that throw off previously accepted knowledge about the natural world and universe

  • With the geography department (or anthropology if you offer it), look at the observer/Hawthorne effect, in which the presence of someone gathering information can affect the data collected

  • The work of the novelist Elif Shafak, who may feature in literature classes, can show how the arts play a central role in helping us to overcome antagonistic perspectives, and form links with other knowers

  • Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist, whose theories on how the brain works have changed the way we understand the relationship between emotion and reason, and should be well-known to any psychology department

  • Cedric Villani, one of the world’s best known mathematicians. Here he discusses the key ways of knowing in producing mathematical knowledge

  • Elizabeth Loftus, whose work should feature prominently in any psychology course, has shown us how malleable the knowledge provided by our memory can be

Using RLSs that can be discussed in other subject

As well as using well-established ideas and thinkers as central elements of your TOK course, you should also use regularly-updated real life situations that can be discussed and analysed in other subjects. Again, make sure you inform other teachers that you are using these cases. A few examples are shown below:

  • A USA Today article, exploring how we use language to explain and make sense of the protests against the killing of George Floyd, and the racism that exists in society (language acquisition, global politics, group 3 subjects)

  • A Forbes article, arguing that mathematics alone cannot provide us with a complete picture of the nature of the universe (mathematics, group 4 subjects)

  • An Aeon article, looking at the validity of thoughts experiments (such as the Trolley Problem) in providing us with ethical insights (psychology, Philosophy)

  • A Guardian article, which argues that the destruction of a statue of a slave trader during the Black Lives Matter protests wasn’t an attack on history; it was history (history)

  • A Telegraph article, looking at the way in which an art expert trains special-forces operatives in ‘visual intelligence’ (visual arts, and most other subjects)

Create opportunities for students to support ideas with personal learning experiences

Your TOK course should be well prepared and developed, with all lessons carefully planned in advance. However, you should also ensure that there is scope to allow students to bring in their own experiences, many of which should come from what they encounter in their DP lessons and the two other core elements of the IB Diploma - CAS and the Extended Essay.

Not only will this provide them with a familiar context in which to understand aspects of the TOK course, but it will also set them up well for the presentation and essay, both of which require students to reflect on first-hand experiences as knowers.

This can help you to begin dialogues with other departments on TOK-related issues, thus raising the profile of the course, and helping non-TOK teachers to grasp what’s covered during TOK lessons.

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