Textbook-less TOK

Liberating TOK from the tyranny of the textbook

Here, the creator of theoryofknowledge.net, Michael Dunn, offers his argument for a ‘textbook-less’ approach to TOK
There are many excellent textbooks out there for TOK. They give clear outlines of the structure of the course, draw on the ideas of incredible thinkers, clarify difficult epistemological concepts, and provide valuable tips on the assessment tasks. But I assert that you should never go near a textbook if you are teaching TOK, and nor should any of your students.
This is a challenging course, completely unfamiliar to most learners, and assessment is so conceptually demanding, so why would I advocate that you close any avenue of support?
The answer isn’t just because I sell online resources that I want you to buy – although it would probably be disingenuous of me not to mention that fact. No, that’s just a convenient byproduct of my opinion (and partly what motivates me to do so). Instead, I feel strongly that textbooks undermine our work as TOK educators, and are detrimental to the experience for students. Here, in no particular order, are six reasons why I believe this is the case.

1. TOK is different

TOK is unique; arguably the most interesting element of the Diploma Programme. It asks students to learn in a different way, teaches them different skills, is assessed via different tasks. It should also be taught in a different way. But that should be seen as an opportunity, not an obstacle: this is a course you don’t need to teach from a textbook, so why on earth would you? TOK cries out to be explored via movies, books, guest speakers, articles, websites, museum exhibitions; TOK should get students thinking about their own learning experiences and personal histories, and lead to discussion, debate, and argument. Providing them with a textbook undermines their motivation to pursue knowledge this way.

2. TOK students shouldn’t be spoon-fed

Relying on a textbook gives students the idea that knowledge in general, and the TOK course in particular, is finite and manageable. It’s not. It’s a mess – a glorious, unmanageable mess – and it can’t be contained neatly between the covers of a 400-page textbook. Students have to make sense of this mess for themselves, and figure out the challenges and the difficulties of doing so. TOK presents an opportunity for students to do this, and gets them grappling with the problems of sourcing reliable knowledge in a ‘post-truth’ world.

Knowledge is a mess – a glorious, unmangeable mess – and it can’t be contained neatly between the covers of a 400-page textbook

3. Textbooks get old fast

Textbooks may be up-to-date when they are written, perhaps even when they are published, but after that, they get old very quickly. Real life situations, on the other hand, need be as up-to-date as possible, and deal with what’s going on in the world right now. Students need lessons based around the election of a new president, the latest scientific breakthrough, the release of a new movie, a new interpretation of an event from the past. Some textbooks try to get round this by providing hyperlinks in the margin, but this is at best a clumsy compromise.

4. Discordant structure

Virtually all TOK textbooks are structured in the wrong way. They are based on a shopping list approach to the different parts of the course, which, whilst giving students a basic understanding of the ways of knowing and areas of knowledge, does not prepare students fully for the demands of the prescribed essay titles. These ask tricky conceptual questions that require students to compare and contrast the different elements of the course, support argument with up-to-date and original real life situations, and draw on their own experiences as knowers. Finding out that the vast majority of what they have learned is incongruous to the final assessment task alienates students, and does not encourage them to become ‘lifelong learners’.

5. Abrogating responsibility

Only you know the abilities, the interests, and the backgrounds of your students. And only you know what resources – in terms of cultural and educational institutions, people inside and outside your school, the technology – you can access in order to deliver and enrich your students’ learning. Handing a textbook to them advocates a one-size-fits-all approach which doesn’t work for this amazing course. TOK, more than any other Diploma subject, should be designed with them in mind, which means the central resource you use for your students should be one that you can adapt, edit, and craft yourself.

TOK, more than any other Diploma subject, should be designed with your students in mind, which means your central resource should be one that you can adapt, edit, and craft yourself

6. Textbooks are – sorry – dull

Textbooks do not engage students. Media rich Internet sources do, films and videos do, articles by brilliant journalists and philosophers and historians and scientists do. As teachers of critical thinking, we’ve got a bigger challenge on our hands than ever. Those who seek to mislead and manipulate our children are using highly sophisticated methods to get into their heads, so we have to work harder than ever to engage our students, and make them understand not just the importance, but also the fun and the joy of being seekers of knowledge. Asking them to read through pages 115 – 129, and answer questions 1a – 5c, will turn students off from TOK. Asking them to watch a 3 minute video posted this morning by an Oxford psychologist, and compare her ideas to a new initiative just launched by the White House, will not.
There are some who might say that TOK doesn’t have to be taught from a textbook, but that textbooks can be provided to students when it comes to writing the essay and presentation, or just looking up a concept that they’ve found difficult to understand in the class. But for me it’s all or nothing – providing them with a security blanket indicates that you’re not confident about what you have taught, and lack the means of giving them what they need. You can’t deliver a fantastic course, then undermine it by chucking a textbook at them at the end.
It’s not enough, of course, to criticise something without offering a solution.
It’s taken us a long time – about 5 years – but we now have that solution. Our new approach to TOK (theoryofknowledge.net) Members – is now online, and ready for the 2017-18 academic year. Memberships are based on combining the well-established theoryofknowledge.net newsletter with a new, question-based framework to the course. These 8 ‘Big Questions’ allow teachers to explore multiple areas of knowledge and ways of knowing during each unit, meaning that students only ever do TOK in a comparative, integrated way, and from the very start are used to asking ‘How do we know?’ rather than ‘What do we know?’
We have provided a suggested pathway of ways of knowing and areas of knowledge to use to explore the Big Questions, with each lesson driven by multiple real life situations, perfectly planned assessments and activities (including ‘starter’ and ‘exit’ tasks, and other well-aligned assessments and activities), and gorgeously illustrated Google Slides and Docs. But the real potential of the resource lies in the fact that it allows you to do whatever you want with TOK – use our suggested pathway, or draw on the 400 or so links to RLSs related to alternative ways of knowing and areas of knowledge. Choose any of the 100 TED talks that we have unpacked to augment your lessons, or flip your classroom and get students to watch them outside of lessons. It is, in other words, as prescriptive as you want to be: either ready to switch on in your classroom, or provide you with the scaffolding to build a unique course all of your own.
There are more benefits to this approach – such as being more conducive to getting non-TOK teachers onboard – and you can read about these here. For information on our membership options, that give access to the the 8 Big Questions and the TOK newsletter, follow this link. If you have any questions about this revolutionary and much needed reboot to TOK, contact us at here.