Tools and Thoughts for Teaching TOK Online 

Courtesy COVID-19, we teachers have befriended the screen, made it our fiercest ally, and forged new loyalties with Zoom, Google Meet, or Microsoft Teams. Yet, as Theory of Knowledge (TOK) teachers, we wonder: Will I be able to stimulate the same energy of a classroom discussion? Will my relatively reticent students unmute their mics often enough? Will abstract thinking be possible without the spontaneity and immediacy of in-person teaching? Having taught the new TOK course for nearly 7 weeks, here’s what I have learnt…or unlearnt! 

Choose Thinking over Talking 

An interactive classroom has since long been considered a reflection of active learning. It also manifests effective teaching that goes beyond the transaction of knowledge. Hence, when we experience time-lapse, lags and pregnant pauses while the students are trying to respond to a question, we feel the flow of the discussion drifting and the energy level dissipating. We almost hear a defeatist death knell when we have called a student thrice and only managed to elicit a black hole-ish silence or a bleak “Umm…I don’t know.”  And here’s when you go back to your TOK objective. The list of aims in the TOK subject guide is peppered with these verbs: “reflect”, “be more aware”, “make connections” and “make sense”. These are highly enriching cognitive abilities but they are also objectives that can be achieved in the invisible realm of the mind of the student. Every time you seek out vocalization of thoughts, you are despairing over proof instead of celebrating the process of critical thinking that the student could already be engaged in. The question is- are you comfortable enough to live without this immediate proof of thought? 

Live Thoughts v/s Lived Reflections 

Well, we don’t have to live in complete oblivion forever. The art is to find more tacit ways to find that proof. While the “live” factor is exciting, we presume the medium to be the message as well. While digital technology and video interface operate “in the moment” and progress inexorably in real-time, human minds wired with the world through them, may not. And that’s alright. Not all students have to listen, comprehend, process, analyze, connect and verbalize thoughts and ideas within the “live” session and dimension. In fact, a student who absorbs at a slower pace may leave your class with perhaps only one or two ideas that registered the most with him or her. There is a possibility that that single idea, because of its newness, would live with this student beyond the classroom screen. Do not take my word for it- test it out for yourself. You could make a rule for your online class- those students who do not contribute to a classroom discussion will note their reflections and share it with you anytime between then and your next lesson. 

While the “live” factor is exciting, we presume the medium to be the message as well.

Different Minds, Different Stimuli 

Armed with online apps and extensions, we know that our classes are now catering to a wider type of learners- visual, auditory, kinesthetic. However, differentiation, by its very definition has no perceptible depth. While we diversify the form in which knowledge is presented and constructed, there are still criteria like relevance, interest, and complexity levels, which might remain unattended. Even within the category of audio-visual stimuli, provide differentiated and/or different stimuli. Both choices will work to your advantage. For instance, while approaching the Area of Knowledge (AOK) of Natural Sciences, curating web links from all its different disciplines- Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Environmental Sciences- will help the class see how scientific methodology can differ within the same AOK as well. On the other hand, presenting differentiated video links on neuroscience and its application in education, psychology, music, and medical research can demonstrate to the students the interdisciplinary nature of knowledge. The varying nature of vocabulary in each of these disciplines would make the stimuli more accessible to a larger range of students. 

Even within the category of audio-visual stimuli, provide differentiated and/or different stimuli.

Be the Language Architect 

Even if we draw out the students from behind their seemingly impenetrable laptop screens, how do we ensure that they graduate from using subject-specific jargon to TOK vocabulary? This is when we might have to become the language architect…as well. Before the start of each lesson, share a list of 3-5 TOK words, which you plan to use recurrently that day. Encourage students to connect their personal opinions with this shortlisted group of words and then to use them while responding and contributing in class. With the new list of 12 concepts provided in the new TOK course, this task has become easier since we already have a reliable starting point. Let this shortlist be static as well as dynamic. Keep a few conceptual words constant or on rotation while you add and change the others. If you construct this language infrastructure for them in parts, the students will feel confident in building their TOK foundation, in more ways than one.