Epistemological Inquiry – Preparing Students for the Theory of Knowledge course in the MYP Classroom – Part 1: Inquiry

Disclaimer: This article is a draft of thoughts that are still developing. A canvas for connections that are still being made. Your thoughts and feedback are welcome in the comments section.

In this article I compare elements of the MYP unit plan and the Theory of Knowledge (TOK) curriculum and reflect on how an MYP Sciences course might be structured to better prepare students for TOK. 

When I was asked to join the Theory of Knowledge department at my school, I was excited to explore a subject that was always a bit of a mystery to me. Now that I’ve spent some time teaching the course, I’m starting to reflect on what impact the experience might have on my capacity to better prepare my MYP students for their first encounter with the Theory of Knowledge course.

In TOK we spend a lot of time identifying knowledge claims and knowledge questions, which are absent from the MYP vocabulary. Whilst the usefulness of both first and second order knowledge claims are described in the TOK Guide, only second order knowledge questions are discussed. Their definitions and intended uses are;

First Order Knowledge Claimsclaims made within an area of knowledge about the world. These will feature in examples offered in the essay and presentation illustrating the manner in which areas of knowledge go about the business of producing knowledge.

Second Order Knowledge Claimsclaims made about knowledge itself within a subject. These form the core of any piece of TOK analysis.

Knowledge Questionssecond order questions about knowledge itself that are not rooted within a subject area. They form the core line of inquiry from which second order knowledge claims are drawn, and first order knowledge claims from areas of knowledge are identified and discussed.

On knowledge questions, the TOK guide has the following to say;

“…the first task in trying to answer a TOK question is to establish an
understanding of the key concepts involved. There may be a number of different ways of thinking about these concepts. Each might give rise to a different analysis and ultimately a different answer to the question.”

TOK Guide, IBO Publishing, 2015

This is where we find an explicit connection to the MYP framework. MYP teachers are taught to plan units by constructing a statement of inquiry that consists of key and related concepts and a global context. Whilst global contexts might be useful for preparing students for other areas of the IB Core, it is the key and related concepts that appear to give us a foothold for exploring first and second order knowledge claims within the MYP. The definitions of both from the MYP Guide are given below;

Key concepts – are broad, organizing, powerful ideas that have relevance within and across subjects and disciplines, providing connections that can transfer across time and culture.

Related concepts – grounded in specific disciplines, explore key concepts in greater detail, providing depth to the programme. They emerge from reflection on the nature of specific subjects and disciplines, providing a focus for inquiry into subject-specific content.

It is worth noting here that from their definitions, it is apparent why an understanding of key concepts is required for the successful answering of TOK questions; these are inherently interdisciplinary and more likely to address second order knowledge claims. Related concepts on the other hand are rooted in first order claims and are the basis of disciplinary education. Understanding this, we can now recognise the statement of inquiry as a second order concept that is being explored through the first order concepts within that discipline.

example 1: Scientists observe patterns and use them to construct systems that explain how the world works. (MYP Sciences Guide, 2014)

Students explore the second order concept of knowledge existing across a system using the scientific concepts that scientists use patterns of observation to construct models in science and that these models can be used to explain further observations.

example 2: Systems that are designed to meet an individual’s ergonomic requirements can increase their ability to function within the world. (MYP Design Guide, 2014)

This time students explore the second order concept that knowledge exists across a system using the design concepts of function and ergonomics.

example 3: Nations form alliances to protect their military, cultural and economic interests. (Individuals and Societies Guide, 2014)

In this final example, students explore the second order concept of systems using the individuals and societies concepts of conflict and cooperation.

Looking at these three examples together, we get a view of how students in the MYP should be prepared to discuss second order knowledge claims by the time that they reach the diploma programme. However, we must ask ourselves: Are we making these connections explicit enough to our students? Are we making these connections explicit enough to our teachers?

For many teachers new to the MYP, these concepts can seem a little abstract and their utility in teaching content knowledge and skills can feel a little vague. If this impression percists, these concepts fail to become more than a guide in the planning process and rarely enter class discourse in any meaningful way.

The MYP Guide does not treat key and related concepts so lightly, explicitly stating that;

  • Students need multiple opportunities to explore the concepts defined for each subject or discipline. Students should have meaningful inquiry into all of the key and related concepts for each relevant subject group at least once over the course of the MYP.
  • Over the course of the programme, students need to develop an understanding of the key and related concepts at increasing levels of sophistication and abstraction.
  • Summative assessments should offer students opportunities to reach the highest levels of achievement with regard to their conceptual knowledge and understanding.

How do we achieve “meaningful inquiry into all of the key and related concepts” in our classroom? For this, the MYP introduces inquiry questions…

Generating Conceptual Thinking and Inquiry in the MYP Classroom

To achieve meaningful inquiry (Beyond asking students to simply research a problem), the guide asks that we direct the teaching and learning that takes place using a framework of three types of inquiry questions

Factual Questions – Challenge students to remember and describe a narrow range of correct answers. Promote recall and comprehension.

Conceptual Questions – Challenge students to analyse broader ideas with many correct interpretations. Promote analysis and application.

Debatable Questions – Challenge students to evaluate perspectives that involve a value judgement.  Promote synthesis and evaluation.

[Do we need to address the already clear connections to Bloom’s cognitive domains here? Don’t want to move the conversation to cognitive domains, but it strengthens the argument that we should move through Factual -> Conceptual to a final Debatable stance where students synthesise or evaluate a problem or solution]

As we progress from factual to conceptual inquiry questions not only are we reaching higher levels of cognitive complexity (Bloom, 1956) but we are pulling students above the layer of content and into the realm of discussing key and related concepts. Here, we can prepare students for the TOK course by strengthening their vocabulary when discussing these concepts within your discipline.

Yet further still, when students are challenged with debatable questions they are challenged to develop and justify a value judgement in much the same way that the TOK course asks students to deal with knowledge claims (TheMYPTeacher). Further, Lenny Dutton has already create a wonderful array of concept driven questions and claims that can be used in various subject areas to allow students to practice developing and justifying conceptual understandings. (ExcitedEducator.com)

In a nutshell, this is it: MYP units best prepare students for TOK by progressing from factual questions about content to conceptual questions and claims about the key and related concepts that the unit is based on and then challenging students to develop and justify value judgements using their conceptual understanding.

The question now is how do we best achieve this and what might that look like?

  • A conscious and communicated effort to highlight the overarching concepts between disciplines will strengthen students ability to work with key concepts. For this to occur, departments need combined planning time to discuss overarching concepts to ensure that conceptual understandings are harmonious across the teaching body and are therefore harmonious across the teaching and learning that occurs.
  • Enhancement of the MYP vocabulary to strengthen connections between the programme and TOK.  For example, in the sciences a laboratory assessment would be understood as a vehicle for students to synthesise  and test knowledge claims using their observations and data. Essay tasks are seen as an opportunity for students to evaluate first order knowledge claims.
  • Further to an enhancement of the language, could opportunities for reflection on and/or assessment of conceptual understandings of second order claims that use key concepts be better built into the MYP unit planning process? Perhaps this is another utility for journaling/ePortfolios, or perhaps it is a further interpretation of the assessment criteria.
  • Interdisciplinary connections are powerful opportunities for students to realise the second order nature of key concepts. If interdisciplinary units were planned by not just subject teachers of the subjects involved, but experienced TOK teachers then perhaps this opportunity could be taken better advantage of. 

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