Final project: a Grade 11 TOK unit on the Human Sciences

Course 5 Project rationale

Tomorrow I start a 12-week substitute gig at the International School of Phnom Penh. I will be teaching a class of each Grade 11 and 12 Theory of Knowledge.

As a workshop leader, I was upskilled in the new TOK syllabus but had not yet had a chance to teach the new syllabus. I felt this was a good opportunity to combine my PD from the IB with my COETAIL project and help my new colleagues in the process. As such, I designed a new 5-lesson unit on the Human Sciences for a Grade 11 TOK class.

ISTE Standards

During a recent interview with the admin of an international school, I was asked about how I use technology. When I use simple tech tools, I look to really leverage them as connectors of people. The focus is on the tech only when their complexity is both the objective and the beauty of it all: thinking gene sequence alignment software, Science models, and so on. As a digital native, however, I often use technology intuitively (how else would I do that?). So, I often reflect on the simplest way to accomplish deep learning tasks. Sometimes, that doesn’t involve tech at all.

In this particular unit, I wanted to make sure students were able to offer each other feedback in a more structured and visible way. I wanted the feedback given by one student to another to be visible to all. The reason is two-fold: emphasize feedback as kind (as well as specific) and COVID-proof the unit in case we had to return to an online teaching environment.

Unit planning: now and then

The school for which this unit was designed does not use the ISTE Standards. As such, the choice of standards does not fit into a larger scope and sequence of digital literacy. The principal advantage here is that no particular technology goal is required, and the most suitable for the task can be chosen. We don’t have to make an infographic. The principal disadvantage being that students would be getting information and digital literacy instruction piecemeal.

The main difference in the design of the unit in terms of the technology was considering the instructional challenges first, as the potential for returning to online learning, for instance. In the past, I might have deployed a particular tech just because it was ‘fun’ or ‘looked cool’.

Wishes for the unit design

As with any collaborative endeavor, I would like the final form of this unit to be the combined effort of teachers, rather than a mosaic of ideas. I would like for the final version to have so radically evolved that it would be impossible to distinguish who contributed which idea or resource — for the final product to be truly emergent.

Pedagogical requirements for the unit

“The person doing the talking is the person doing the learning” is a quote attributed to Jennifer York-Barr. It is one of the standards to which I hold my lesson planning. In this unit, the teacher is required to allow students to do the talking — a very difficult thing to do in Theory of Knowledge. The lessons are designed to have brief, 15-minute maximum download time by the teacher or through a resource, followed by a variety of tech-assisted and tech-free student-led activities. One resource I dug into for this part was Richhart’s new release: The Power of Making Thinking Visible: Practices to Engage and Empower All Learners.

Learning how to learn: shift in strategies by students

In the Secondary, and particularly in the Diploma Programme, students can become very results-oriented. They want to know the answer, they want to have the slides and be told what they need to write down in their notebooks. This approach may “work” in most subjects but is actually quite hard to do in TOK – the teacher would simply be passing on his/her own ideas, bias, and perspectives. Essentially, it would defeat the whole point of the course.

This unit requires students to deal with uncertainty: if they’re choosing a learning path, how will they know it’s the right one? When given a choice of which resource to use in an activity, how will students deal with the ‘fear of missing out’? What if the other resource was ‘better’? More interesting?

Students may also have to adjust to different expectations. Some lessons will require pre-reading and all end with reflections to be entered in their TOK journals or shared on a platform like Flipgrid. They might also expect to be told what they need to learn, and it can be frustrating to shift mindsets that are beneficial in the longterm, but that requires more effort in the short-term.

Measures of success

I do not know the students that will experience this unit — in fact, I do not even know if my new colleagues will welcome this unit to the scope of the course yet. If it does go ahead, I would wish to see two measures of success: (a) students selecting objects for their mock exhibition that highlight knowledge issues in the Human Sciences. That is to say, they explore knowledge issues inspired by the unit and select artifacts from their own experiences in producing and consuming knowledge. (b) students increasingly demonstrate the skills necessary to share and shape ideas with each other, online or face-to-face, and are able to recruit strategies both digital and analog to do so.

WIP: A Grade 11 Theory of Knowledge unit on the Human Sciences