Critical thinking and the IB Diploma

Critical thinking and the IB Diploma

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How young people face a huge challenge when it comes to learning about the world today, and why TOK is one of the best preparations to overcome this.

It’s widely known and accepted that we’ve never faced such a huge information overload as we do today. You can take your pick in terms of which dramatically-presented statistic you use to support this assertion: either we’re exposed in a single day to as much data as someone in the 15th century would encounter in their entire life, or we now create as much information in two days as we did from the dawn of man through 2003, or every 24 hours we are bombarded with the equivalent of 174 different newspapers worth of data. Although it’s a little more contentious how reliable this information is (Sugata Mitra, for example, argues that the internet is self-correcting, and contains very little ‘rubbish’ on it at all) most people agree that we now require different skills in order to effectively access and process information about the world.
This is particularly pronounced when it comes to information provided to us from sites and organizations with vested interests, which make up the vast majority of sites on the Internet. A Nottingham University study found that amongst 500 Internet sites offering advice on health issues, not a single one sponsored by private companies provided the correct information about ailments on which they claimed to be an authority. In the media world, pressures of competition force news sites and media corporations to provide quick information rather than accurate information.

Gone are the days where a journalist would always seek out an expert in a field for their view. Now they take their pick from any number of anonymous postings, no matter how ill-informed, biased or stark raving mad they are.

The World Economic Forum considers the spread of false information so serious that it has ranked it as number 10 of the biggest challenges facing humanity today, behind such issues as global warming and internecine war.
In short, we need to develop our skills of thinking critically about the information we receive, and separate the chaff from the wheat. For ‘we’, read ‘children’. Those of us brought up in a world of half a dozen TV channels, a handful of established printed newspapers, and a perception of mobile phones as being a recent phenomenon, this critical thinking perhaps comes a little more naturally. Our ingrained conservatism makes us instinctively suspicious of the new online upstarts challenging the BBC, CNN, and Newsweek as sources of what’s going on in the world. But for those growing up in a society that takes Smart phones and tweeted news for granted, the plethora of sources about the world means there are no established sources about the world.
One educational programme has been ahead of the game for many years in helping to prepare children for such a society. The IB Diploma was set up in the late 1960s with the aim of providing an internationally recognized high school education for 16 to 19 year old students. Drawing on the Chinese proverb ‘Teachers may open the door, but you must enter by yourself’, the Diploma has always sought to train students to learn autonomously and critically. It encourages this in both within the six subject options chosen by students, and in a mandatory course known as ‘theory of knowledge’ (TOK), which the IB proclaim to be one of their ‘flagship courses’. TOK students are encouraged to think about the world by looking at both the ways in which we acquire knowledge (emotion, language, reason, faith, imagination, memory, intuition, and sense perception), and the categories into which we place that knowledge (the arts, history, human and natural sciences, religion, indigenous knowledge systems, mathematics, and ethics).
This gives them the framework to explore the big epistemological question: “How do we know what we know?” by comparing and contrasting how we take on board information in these different areas of knowledge and ways of knowing. In the 1960s and 1970s, the inclusion of such a course may have seemed whimsical and utopian, but TOK has now come of age, and the skills it has always tried to inculcate in its students now provide them with a valuable currency when it comes to university application, and life after higher education. This is not to say that the IB Diploma has a monopoly on critical thinking. Rival educational programmes, such as A-Levels, have their own courses in critical thinking. But TOK is superior for three reasons.
First, it is compulsory. This means that all IB Diploma students finish their studies theoretically equipped with exactly the right skills to face the problems of how and where to access reliable information about the world. They not only have to contend with first order knowledge claims about the world, but also second order claims involving the nature of knowledge itself.
Second, the contents of TOK are not set in stone, and the course is not assessed by an exam at the end of its two-year duration. Instead, students write a 1600 word essay chosen from a list of 6 prescribed titles, and produce a presentation on a real life situation of their own choosing. This allows a certain amount of flexibility – and, dare I say it, fun – when it comes to teaching and learning the course, enabling teachers to play to the strengths (or, indeed, weaknesses) of their students, and encourage them to bring their own experiences, opinions, and ideas into the classroom. It also gives educators the scope to bring in a host of theories and thinkers that can enrich the whole learning experience. These might include the virtues of the Socratic method, the respective strengths and weaknesses of rational and empirical thinking approaches, Kant’s views on ethics, the pitfalls of logical fallacies, and whether or not the scientific method is a ‘perfect’ way of gaining information about the natural world.
Third, and most impressively of all, theory of knowledge involves far more than just imparting one-size-fits-all critical thinking skills, thus avoiding the problem that undermines many rival courses. Modern research on the subject has moved on a great deal since the 1970s and Edward de Bono’s Cort programme: we now view thought processes as being intertwined with content, and recognize that there are different skills in processing knowledge in different subject areas. As Daisy Christodoulou puts it:

Most people recognise that it is possible to be a great critical thinker in science, for example, but a poor one in languages. A PhD history researcher will be able to think critically about a historical topic, but they won’t necessarily be so good at thinking critically about how to fix their faulty electrical wiring, or how to buy a reliable second-hand car.

Because of the way it is structured, and its emphasis on epistemology, TOK encourages students to differentiate between not only different knowledge areas, but also the methods of knowledge acquisition. In other words, TOK is an effective and sophisticated critical thinking course because it isn’t a critical thinking course.
Although the IB Diploma definitely has its issues – the IB organization has grown so fast that some teachers and coordinators claim that it struggles to support the schools that follow its programmes; it’s also undeniably expensive to set up – its ‘flagship course’ seems to have gone from strength to strength, providing young people with preparation for a world in which the truth has never been so accessible, and yet so elusive.
This article first appeared at

Cite this page as: Dunn, Michael. Critical thinking and the IB Diploma (14th October 2014). Last accessed: 19th March 2018


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