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Ways that students become knowledge experts

By Luís Campos Ferreira, Olivia Kelly, Sarah Román-Quezada and Taila Senanu 

The theory of knowledge course—more commonly known in the IB community by its abbreviation TOK—plays a special role in the IB Diploma Programme (DP). The course provides an opportunity for students to reflect on the nature of knowledge, and on how we know what we claim to know. The course is also central to the educational philosophy of the DP. TOK is composed almost entirely of questions, the most central of these is “How do we know?”.

TOK Interviewers Sarah Roman, Taila Senanu, Olivia Kelly and Luis Ferreira

Each year, here at Lincoln Community School in Accra, Ghana, students in Mr Anagnost’s TOK class complete a TOK interview process. Students choose an area of knowledge to explore in depth by having a series of discussions with a faculty member at their school. Students are required but not limited to meeting with their interviewee three times. This provides students with an opportunity to apply the skills and concepts (knowledge frameworks, ways of knowing, methods/means of justification, the relationship between shared and personal knowledge, role of experts, etc.) learned and practiced in the classroom to a real-life setting alongside an expert. At the end of Year 1, students compile a report based on their findings from their discussions and research.

The interview process is unique, as each student is required to seek an expert from outside the normal classroom setting. We hope that in sharing our experience, we inspire other IB readers to take part in this kind of process. Here’s what each of us thought about and gained from the experience.

Luís’ experience

Time can often be a constraint for many teachers. There are only so many hours a curriculum can accommodate for. With our TOK interview process, I was able to deepen my understanding of the arts alongside Ms Vitale (a middle school theatre teacher), without the time constraints of a classroom. We did a unit in class on the arts and a common theme from our class discussions was the idea of relativism within the areas of knowledge and the role of the spectator in deciding what constitutes the medium. Questions were raised, such as the extent to which indigenous knowledge systems influence our perception of art, which is why the interview process was so fruitful; it gave me an opportunity to further explore those questions with an expert. We had conversations about how the concept of ‘beauty’ is relative depending on the cultural context, and if a universal standard for art is obtainable. A class as heavy as TOK almost requires such assignments where students have the time and independence to digest and deconstruct new information.

Olivia’s experience

High school mathematics teacher Mr Tom Mischler with TOK interviewer Olivia Kelly

Prior to the interview process, I had always viewed subjects at school as being easily divisible into two categories: maths/sciences and arts/humanities. However, this process and my discussions with Mr Mischler (high school mathematics teacher) proved to me how untrue this is. One of the most interesting things I discussed with Mr Mischler was the connection to religious knowledge systems, which was something I never believed could be related to mathematics. This, in turn, led us to a debate regarding the role of certainty in this area of knowledge. The interview process has made me much more open-minded and able to find patterns and connections, demonstrating that all of the areas of knowledge truly are very closely related.   

Sarah’s experience

One of the most fulfilling aspects of the TOK interview process was that, during my exploration of the arts, the newly gained knowledge I had within that particular area of knowledge transcended into other areas of knowledge. In some of the conversations with Ms Rebecca Brink (elementary school art teacher), we not only discussed the fundamental framework of the arts, but also transferred our knowledge to different areas such as ethics and history. For instance, we discussed the famous artwork “Piss Christ” by Andres Serrano through an ethical lens. My interviewee thought the work to be immoral whereas I, on the other hand, quite admired the bravery of the artist. In this discussion alone, our differing viewpoints demonstrated how the arts invites multiple perspectives which spark disagreement among experts, but also how ethics can play a role when assessing a work of art. Such discussions made this interview process valuable, as I knew that I could later refer back to this newly-acquired knowledge throughout my life inside and outside the classroom.

Taila’s experience

TOK interviewer Taila Senanu with high school humanities teacher Travis Bishop

Initially, my understanding of history as an area of knowledge was rather simple. History is not, as I previously thought, everything that happened in the past, but rather an understanding of a selection of significant events in the past. My discussions with Mr Travis Bishop (high school humanities teacher), showed me that we cannot be certain of the past, but history can be constructed from the evidence that is currently available to us. For example, he does an activity with his students in which they are presented with evidence about the rise of Mussolini. The students look at the documents, and the disagreements that occur within the classroom demonstrate that different conclusions can be drawn from a selection of evidence. As an IB learner, inquiry is an important trait. Because we lack certainty in history, my interviewee explained that students need to learn to ask questions and have healthy discussions about disagreements. This led me to a greater understanding of the role of certainty in TOK, as it is through the process of discussing disagreements that we discover that there is uncertainty in everything we think we know. We also discussed how knowledge in history has an impact on the personal knowledge of individuals, so perhaps we have an obligation to continue to have discussions to get as close to the truth as possible.

Having completed our TOK presentations and the initial steps of our TOK essay process, we have already noticed the advantage we hold over our fellow students who did not engage with faculty through the TOK interviews. This is because we have had the opportunity to interact with and learn from subject areas experts active and engaged in the day to day production of knowledge. We saw the impact that the ways of knowing and methods or means of justification had both in their classrooms as well as in the real world and this helped to develop our critical thinking skills. All four of us had an extremely fruitful experience with this assignment, and we now feel more prepared to face whatever comes our way in and after our TOK class.