Textbookless TOK

Textbookless TOK

We believe that students should explore TOK ideas from their original source. For that reason, we base our lessons on articles, books, talks, and films, rather than conveniently packaged textbooks.

Here we outline this argument, and why we believe our approach to the course – available to members of the site – offers a more authentic, engaging, and profound experience for students and teachers involved with the course.

7 reasons to keep the textbooks closed

There are excellent textbooks for TOK. They give clear outlines of the structure of TOK, mention influential thinkers, clarify difficult concepts, and provide tips on the assessment tasks. But we believe that you should never go near a textbook if you are teaching TOK, and nor should any of your students. Why do we say this?

TOK is a challenging course, completely alien to most learners, and assessment tasks are conceptually demanding. So why do we advocate closing off this convenient, familiar, and reassuring avenue of support? The answer isn’t just because we sell online memberships that we want you to buy (although it would probably be disingenuous of us not to mention that fact…) Instead, we feel strongly that textbooks undermine our work as educators, and are detrimental to the TOK experience for students. Here, in no particular order, are seven reasons why we believe this is the case.

1. TOK is different

TOK is unique; arguably the element of the DP that most sets it apart from other educational programmes. It asks students to learn in a different way, teaches them different skills, is assessed via different tasks. It should also be taught in a different way. But that offers us an opportunity, rather than presenting us with an obstacle: this is a course you don’t need to teach from a textbook, so why on earth would you?

2. TOK students shouldn’t be spoon-fed

Relying on a textbook gives students the idea that knowledge in general, and the TOK course in particular, is finite and manageable. It’s not. It’s a mess – a glorious, unmanageable mess – and it can’t be contained neatly between the covers of a 400-page textbook.

Students have to make sense of this mess for themselves, and figure out the challenges and the difficulties of doing so. TOK represents the context in which students can do this, and gets them grappling with the problems of sourcing reliable knowledge in a beguiling world.

3. Textbooks get old fast

Textbooks may be up-to-date when they are written, perhaps even when they are published, but after that, they get old very quickly. Real life situations, on the other hand, need be as up-to-date as possible, and deal with what’s going on in the world right now. Students need lessons based around the election of a new president, the latest scientific breakthrough, the release of a new movie, a new interpretation of an event from the past.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a great case in point. The world has completely changed, and we must change as knowers – how is this handled in your TOK textbook? If it isn’t the central real-world situation, discussed in relation to every area of knowledge and theme, then your textbook isn’t doing its job.

4 Discordant structure

Virtually all TOK textbooks are structured in the wrong way. They are based on a shopping list approach to the different parts of the course, which, whilst giving students a basic understanding of the areas of knowledge and themes, does not prepare students fully for the demands of the prescribed essay titles.

These ask tricky conceptual questions that require students to compare and contrast the different elements of the course, support argument with up-to-date and original real-life situations, and draw on their own experiences as knowers. Finding out that the vast majority of what they have learned is incongruous to the final assessment task alienates students, and does not encourage them to become ‘lifelong learners’.

5. Abrogating responsibility

Only you know the abilities, the interests, and the backgrounds of your students. And only you know what resources – in terms of cultural and educational institutions, people inside and outside your school, the technology – you can access in order to deliver and enrich your students’ learning.

Handing a textbook to them means following a one-size-fits-all approach, which is the antithesis of this amazing course. TOK, more than any other Diploma subject, should be designed with them in mind, which means the central resource you use for your students should be one that you can adapt, edit, and craft yourself.

6. Ideas and theories should be unfiltered

As soon as we apply the filter of a textbook to the ideas of key thinkers, we diminish their power. Cherry-picking and repackaging concepts not only imposes the perspective of another person on them, it removes an opportunity to witness a thought-leader express their ideas.

Thinkers such as Taiye Selasi, Neil deGrasse Tyson, John McWhorter, or Elif Shafak, are such skilled speakers, it would be unthinkable to explore their ideas without listening and watching them directly. In other words, the TOK course shouldn’t be just about absorbing ideas, but also learning how ideas should be communicated. Check out our YouTube playlists for the different Big Questions to see the breadth and range of thinkers which we use during the course.

7. Textbooks are – sorry – dull

Textbooks do not engage students. Media rich Internet sources do, films and videos do, articles by brilliant journalists and philosophers and historians and scientists do. As teachers of critical thinking, we’ve got a bigger challenge on our hands than ever. Those who seek to mislead and manipulate our children are using highly sophisticated methods to get into their heads, so we have to work harder than ever to engage our students, and make them understand not just the importance, but also the fun and the joy of being seekers of knowledge.

So what’s our solution?

It’s not enough, of course, to criticize something without offering a solution.

Our approach to TOK is based on 6 Big Questions, each one of which we explore via multiple AOKs and themes, within 12 beautifully designed, and ready-to-run lessons. Each of these is driven by the very latest real-life situations, and the most significant thinkers who have shaped the world. Let’s avoid false modesty here: they are truly brilliant TOK lessons. Alongside these BQ lessons is our unique TOK newsletter, which allows teachers to base lessons on additional, or alternative events, issues, and concepts.

Members can also draw on a number of other resources, including (but not limited to) our DP Integration Tool, that helps you to diffuse TOK throughout the school, our 10 Minute TOK lessons, offering single-concept, brief TOK lessons, and our Knowledge Lexicon, which links hundreds of key concepts to different aspects of the course.

All our resources are electronic, and constantly updated, meaning that they never get out of date, and always show how TOK matters in the real world. They are as prescriptive as you want them to be – either run them exactly how they are, or adapt them to suit your own students, and the cultural and social context in which you teach. And we are also always on hand to listen, advise, and hopefully also learn from you.

Don’t just take our word for it…

Dozens of our members and users of the site have been kind enough to provide us with unsolicited feedback about our resources, and it seems they are very happy with them. Read a few for yourself on this page of the site. They love how our priority is the engagement of the students, that we’re incredibly innovative, and that we provide full support for our members.

Finally, check out our videos that outline both who we are, what we do, and many other aspects of teaching TOK. This one explains the benefit of our BQ approach; find many more on our YouTube channel.

Contact us

Ask us any question about the course, how to become a member, or advice on teaching and learning TOK.

Find out about us here, and read testimonials from members here.