Authentic critical thinking & TOK
Understanding what this means will enable you to become a more focused TOK teacher, integrate of the course with the rest of the DP more naturally, and turn your students into nuanced, open-minded, and courageous thinkers.
Understanding authentic critical thinking & TOK’s place within it
1 TOK is part of a much bigger picture
TOK should not be viewed as a stand-alone course that begins when students enter DP1, and ends when they upload their essay. Instead, seeing it as part of a continuum of learning existing both vertically (by age) and horizontally (by subject) turns it into a much more meaningful and effective intellectual experience.
The development of the skills and ideas that characterise TOK begin as soon as students enter primary school, and continue way beyond school, as students learn to apply them to their life at university and in the workplace. Likewise, TOK does not take place solely within the TOK classroom, it happens in all the different subject classrooms, as students write their EE and carry out CAS, and as they participate in co-curricular activities. These all provide a great context for students to compare and contrast the nature of knowledge, how we use it, and ways in which it develops over time.
If we are to see TOK as a much bigger and all-encompassing entity, we need a different term for it. At theoryofknowledge.net, and at our sister site thinkinghub.org (which supports non-IB students), we use the term ‘authentic critical thinking’.
2 Critical thinking needs a clear, practicable definition: here’s ours
There are many ways to describe what characterises critical thinking, and what our aims should be as critical thinkers. These definitions can often be entirely valid, but just as often they can be overly technical and opaquely worded. This makes it harder to apply in the classroom, as students tend lack a clear learning objective for their critical thinking, and may find it difficult to discern whether they are becoming accomplished critical thinkers. In addition, it also makes it tricky to establish a unified learning manifesto which enfranchises all your teaching staff.
For us, critical thinking – or more precisely, authentic critical thinking – involves a single clear goal, and requires very little in the way of technical language or specialized training. We also believe that it is best conceived as a more personal process than is traditionally understood, whereby we primarily direct our cognitive efforts internally. Our definition is this:
Authentic critical thinking means to identify and challenge your assumptions and biases about the world, rather than confirm them.
In other words, before we can identify how others seek to mislead us, we must establish how we mislead ourselves. This takes courage, skill, and motivation, which is what our resources seek to develop in both learners and the teachers. This also means that it is much more about rethinking what we already know than taking on board a large body of new ideas and knowledge.
3 ACT takes place in the contemporary, real world
The single most important measure of an education’s credibility is the extent to which it can be applied to the real world. With this in mind, our resources are designed to ensure that learning is applied to the very latest events, issues, and developments going on around the globe.
Our three different newsletters for primary, middle, and DP learners, the mini-TOK lessons, three different classroom-ready TOK courses with multiple links to the latest media articles, the Thinking For Yourself course, Investigating Issues, Knowledge Heroes – all of these (and more) are updated every month, meaning that they are always relevant, always engaging, and consequential.
4 ACT helps to enrich and animate any academic subject
Authentic critical thinking should not be the preserve of specialized, specifically-trained teachers. It should be accessible to any teacher who is trying to encourage their students to look beyond the headlines, and apply an epistemological eye to their subject.
As we’ve already said, ACT is more about rethinking what we already know, rather than teaching a large body of new material. It’s about teachers encouraging their students to question what they’ve been taught, compare it to their other subjects in terms of how knowledge is produced, and consider what that knowledge is used for.
5 ACT aligns closely to the 4Cs
Academic, political, business, and scientific leaders have for a long time identified the ‘4Cs’ – critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity – as being the essential skills for students to develop in order for them to successfully navigate the online and real world, and become successful and fulfilled members of society.
Unfortunately, much of the education system clashes with these four skills: rigid curriculums do not require students to think particularly creatively, public exams encourage competition rather than collaboration, a narrow range of communication skills are required for the majority of assessment tasks, and overall, there is a paucity of critical thinking required to score high marks in assessment rubrics. In short, there is a standard way of doing things, and challenging this status quo is not rewarded (far from it, in fact!).
In contrast, encouraging your students to approach the world via ACT means that they will naturally take on board and apply the 4Cs as they develop as learners. They’ll learn to collaborate with others as they share and discuss ideas, they’ll hone their powers of communication in order to articulate their ideas, by challenging the way we traditionally view the world, the more they’ll understand the value of creative thinking, and as they support their ideas with evidence and examples, and demand that others do the same, the more effective they’ll become as critical thinking.
In fact, the more your students apply ACT in the classroom, the more they will blend all the 4Cs into one seamless cognitive process.
6 ACT is a perfect launchpad for a range of different final products
Whilst a lot of schools claim to (and undoubtedly do) promote critical thinking, it’s important that whether this occurs via stand-alone classes, or within other subject classes, it leads to a demonstrable final product. For students studying TOK, this is no problem: the course culminates in the production of an essay and an exhibition. For other students, the evidence that they have carried out critical thinking is far more nebulous.
Viewing ACT as a pathway towards the creation of a final product gives it more purpose, adds structure to lessons, and makes discussions and other activities that students carry out more accountable. It will also provide students with the means to clearly showcase their abilities as nuanced, sophisticated thinkers.
Whether it’s an HPQ, EPQ, TOK essay, TOK exhibition, or Ideas Portfolio, our resources support students highly effectively as they create these final products. They help students to take onboard big ideas, introduce key thinkers who will help them rethink the world, and help them to apply concepts and skills to real-world events and issues, all of which provides the perfect launch pad to create a project-based assignment.
7 ACT strengthens the university profile of any student
University entrance has never been more competitive, so many schools are looking to augment their student transcripts so that they showcase a wider range of skills and interests. Being a genuine authentic critical thinker, which as we’ve said above, incorporates the widely fêted ‘4Cs’, gives students a significant advantage when they write their personal statement, and, where relevant, attend application interviews.
Students can refer extensively to the ideas and thinkers that they’ve encountered during an ACT course, demonstrate how their learning is relevant to the latest events and issues going on around the world, and provide tangible evidence that they’ve become impressive knowers via the final product that they create – whether it’s a TOK essay or exhibition, an HPQ or EPQ, or a critical thinking portfolio.
8 ACT helps to create life long learners beyond school (and university)
Finally, ACT should be seen not only as the means to help students become better thinkers at high-school, but as a way to ensure that they will become life-long members of the epistemic community. We want to support students and teachers to become curious, open-minded, interested knowers of the world, who will always be willing to take on board new ideas, augment their understanding, and be receptive to the validity of different cognitive and cultural perspectives.
How is authentic critical thinking applied in the classroom?
Put very briefly, authentic critical thinking involves presenting students with ideas that will challenge their assumptions about the world, and supporting them as they consider whether this challenge is valid or not. ACT is therefore not ‘taught’ as such; rather, students are presented with the structure in which they carry out the learning themselves.
The diagram to the right indicates the different steps that you can take students through in order to achieve this. A perfect place to see how this works in practice is in our TOK mini-lessons, some of which you can download for free here.
How do we support authentic critical thinking?
Innovative classroom-ready resources via the theoryofknowledge.net site, that can be delivered by any subject teacher, to any depth, to hone students’ skills.
Three monthly authentic critical thinking newsletters, focusing on the latest issues and events, inviting students to apply their knowledge to the real world.
Online & in-person training helping all members of your faculty to implement a practical and meaningful authentic critical thinking programme in your school.
See our main page for workshops, which discusses how our online and in-person workshops can help your school.
Develop authentic critical thinking throughout your school via the wide range of teaching and learning resources available to members. These include newsletters for primary students, middle years students, and TOK students, and the Worldviews and Thinking for Yourself course. Join in seconds via this page.