The Way We Teach: Out of Our Heads

There is chatter as class begins. “Who is leading the discussion?” “Did you finish the analysis sheets?” “What analysis sheets?” “Has anyone ever thought how it would feel to wake up without language?” The student’s face is full of inquiry, and he continues, “Would it be our worst nightmare or a relief…you know…we would be unencumbered by language.” Other students pause and seem to be pondering the dilemma. Rose, the teacher, appears, and today’s session of the Theory of Knowledge (TOK) begins.

Sometimes referred to as both the most challenging and most loved course in the International Baccalaureate Programme, TOK asks students to reflect on the nature of knowledge and on how we know what we claim to know. It is, in the words of one student, “very, very challenging” and also mandatory for all students enrolled in the IB Diploma Programme.

Today’s focus is on language, and the slide projected on the whiteboard reads “Reading critically allows us to recognize perspective.” The questions begin. Rose: “Language is a way of knowing—of sharing knowledge, but how do we get language? What are the sources?” Students respond, “What about body language?” “Language forms the basis of all other ways of knowing.” Rose broadens the frame: “IB started with four ways of knowing; now there are eight.” We make a note to research the ways of knowing and later learn that Language, Senses, Emotion, and Reason are the original four ways and Imagination, Faith, Intuition, and Memory were added later.

Students continue to share thoughts, and then Rose says, “Remember the prismatic qualities of diamonds.” A student responds, “Using imagery with two perspectives—the sparkle from diamonds can be about manipulating light (negative) or about a rainbow (positive).” The discussion moves forward to SELECTION, which now appears on a slide on the whiteboard. We listen intently to Rose to catch the gist: Out of all that could be reported, what has been selected? How do we know we are getting the whole picture when something is reported? Rose’s point, as she hones in, is “You must read critically; if not you can be hornswoggled…always know the sources being used…look for corroboration for what is asserted as being true.” (Our minds stray to the current landscape in journalism and the media, and we decide this lesson is very, very important for young people who will be in charge in fewer years than we think.)

Rose is now on to a new analogy: “When you have your first car accident, your mind will probably go blank. You will need to rely on the perspective of others.” With a look that signals Brain at Work a student says, “Perspectives will come from others in the car, from those ahead and behind, from pedestrians passing by—everyone will have a different story.” The point: accidents, like books, can have many interpretations.

Change in slide: EMPHASIS. Rose begins: “When you read an article what do you look at first?” Answers tumble out. “Headlines?” “The first sentence?” Rose doesn’t hear what she is looking for. “Let me ask again,” she says, leading them to reconsider. “You are short on time…you are in a rush…what do you do?” She scans the faces, and then a student says, “You read the first paragraph?” “Yes!” exclaims Rose, “because what is emphasized there will inform how you read the rest of the piece.” Suddenly a student makes a connection. “In scientific writing the passive voice is used to highlight cause and effect.” A new slide comes up, and the discussion moves to COLORING. We read in the handout about how emotions or values can color the use of language. And about what the choice of words tell us about the perspective of the writer. A lively discussion unfolds, then on to a new focus.

RELATIONSHIP OF PARTS, announces Rose. When you read a news account, are the parts of the story sequenced in logical ways? Or are they arranged to imply meaning through juxtaposition? (Our brains are spinning.) Rose continues, “Is language a form of brainwashing?” “That’s a strong word,” says one student, and another joins in, “But language is a tool and can be used to brainwash—think of articles on Hitler.” Another classmate counters, “But using language simply to convince is not the same as brainwashing.” Yet another classmate finds middle ground: “The goal is to find the balance.”

Time is getting short, and a new slide appears: FRAMING IN CONTEXT. Rose shares two headlines about a single story. The first, “Troops Abandon War-Gutted Iraq,” accompanied by a photo of bombed-out buildings. The second, “Joyous Families Welcome Troops Home,” with photo of family members hugging each other. Studying the slide, a student says, “‘Abandon’—that is a very powerful word.” Another student, “So is ‘home.’” This is “framing,” says Rose, and it can expose bias. She continues on, “What is the deeper message here?” No one speaks up. “I know I ask big questions, and by that I mean questions that can have a lot of right answers.” Silence. Then from a student, “We should develop a healthy level of skepticism and recognize that we can be influenced by what we read and know that we can write in a way to influence others.” Rose smiles.

This topic seems to capture everyone’s attention. A student asks classmates, “Can I take advantage of you with a single word or a snippet? Or do I need full sentences?” A classmate jumps in with a comment about the role of jargon. Now the synapses are firing. “Hmmmm—math is a language…as is science.” A light bulb: “We’re actually studying language in every course!” The upcoming elections come to mind and prompts one student to note the importance of “reading in depth on both sides of the issue…. Only then can I know what to do.” With impressive insight, a classmate acknowledges that when we read something we are often already predisposed in one direction or another and, therefore, we don’t read as critically as we should.

The class is drawing to a close, and Rose begins to describe the map assignment. We check the study materials and follow along as she explains that students are to pretend to be the president of a European country who wants to do nuclear testing in the South Pacific. “Before starting your testing,” Rose says, “you want to persuade Europeans that testing so far away will not cause damage or harm to Europe. With that goal in mind, how will you design the map you will use to persuade the citizenry?” Seeing puzzled looks on students’ faces, Rose explains that not all maps are geographical. There are other kinds. “Perhaps we want to put the South Pole at the top or design a map to show where people make the most money.” Then she reminds the class what the conversation has been about today: Selection, Emphasis, Perspective, Emotional Coloring, Framing. “All these factors can be applied to designing maps…it depends on what we want the map to communicate.”

Heads nod. Assignment is understood, and Rose suggests we spend time with the students alone to learn more about what they think of TOK. “It’s more challenging than I thought…it’s intense.” “I wondered if my brain would work this way.” We looked confused. “What I mean is I am having to think of so much I have never thought about before.” Another student chimes in, “That’s it…. This class makes us think.” Now we have hit upon a topic of great interest. From the other side of the table, “Even if you are not used to thinking, Rose will pull it out of you. She keeps saying ‘Think deeper.’ ‘Why?’ ‘More!’ ‘Why?’” As though summing it up, a student says soberly, “We think the most and the deepest here.”

And, we think we are finished and begin to close notepads when we hear, “Epistemology gives me an existential sense of dread.” We believe those words never came out of our mouths when we were 15 but we want to know more and ask for an explanation. “It’s the way knowledge is deconstructed—we’re used to how we think, then it all gets deconstructed.” We sit back down and open the note pad as another student begins to talk about “cubes.” “We look at every side of the cube, then we cut up the cube and examine every side of each of those new cubes.” Another summation: “This class moves us out of our own head to question… everything.”

As we leave we’re thinking of Imagination—one of the ways of knowing. This class leads us to imagine what the world will be like when these students are in leadership roles and thinking critically about the decisions that will affect others. Students, we are optimistic.

Rose Barnett teaches Middle School Humanities and Global Politics, another IB course, in addition to TOK and has been at MSR for 7 years.