Philosophical underpinning imperative to success of CBC

Competency-Based Curriculum Trainer and a Teacher Virginiah Wangui takes pupils through CBC based-Assessment at City Primary School on Friday, Sept 27, 2019. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

After years of ruminating over knowledge claims from various sources and authorities (teachers, mentors, thought leaders etc), it is worth taking a step back to ask yourself the ‘million-dollar question’; ‘How do we know what we claim to know?’ This question is central to the Theory of Knowledge (TOK) course within the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP), but it is relevant outside the confines of this curriculum as well. Today’s world is in need of thinkers.

Thinkers to solve complex problems facing humanity today. Thinkers to create and invent. Thinkers with the wherewithal to propagate tolerance and embrace diversity. And as such, we need to nurture minds to learn the skill of thinking at a young age. To explore knowledge. To question what they hold to be true, interrogate their belief systems, to learn, unlearn and relearn. To understand that truth is relative, and that their path isn’t the only path.   

In the spirit of emulating best practices in education, today, I will make a case on why infusion of a philosophical underpinning is imperative to the Competency Based Curriculum (CBC). And why the TOK course within the IBDP programme is a low hanging fruit against which to hold a mirror, because CBC is a replica of IB, having borrowed heavily from what is considered to be the gold standard in education the world over.

TOK is an area of philosophical speculation that plays a crucial role in the IBDP. It concentrates on the nature of knowledge and how genuine knowledge is achieved. It provides an opportunity for learners to reflect on the nature of knowledge, and on how people know what they claim to know.

According to Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, TOK is related to the conditions, nature, or/and first principles of genuine knowledge and also, according to some experts, with the reliability or truth-value, of knowledge attributions.

TOK is infused in everyday learning experiences within the IBDP. It works to nurture and sharpen critical thinking skills through ‘Ways of Knowing’ and ‘Areas of Knowledge.’ It is more like a tapered-down version of philosophy. The theory plays a unique role in the IBDP. It provides an opportunity for students to reflect on the nature of knowledge, and on how we know what we claim to know. This is something that stakeholders at the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) should seriously consider introducing and infusing in CBC.

How exactly is TOK structured in IB?

As a thoughtful and purposeful inquiry into different ways of knowing and various types of knowledge, TOK is composed almost entirely of questions. The most central of these is “How do we know?”, while other questions include: What counts as evidence for X? How do we judge which is the best model of Y? What does theory Z mean in the real world?

Through the discussions of these and other questions, students gain greater awareness of their personal and ideological assumptions, as well as developing an appreciation of the diversity and richness of cultural perspectives.

Assessment of TOK

The assessment of the TOK course is done through an oral presentation/exhibition and a 1,600-word essay. The presentation/exhibition assesses the ability of the student to apply TOK thinking to a real-life situation {this calls for strong transfer skills}, while the essay usually takes a more conceptual starting point.

For instance, an essay may ask students to discuss the claim that the methodologies used to produce knowledge depend on the use to which that knowledge will be used. This trains young minds to explore knowledge, question what they hold to be true and interrogate their belief systems.

The significance of TOK

TOK aims to make students aware of the interpretative nature of knowledge, including personal ideological biases – whether these biases are retained, revised or rejected. The theory offers students and their teachers the opportunity to: reflect critically on diverse ways of knowing and on areas of knowledge and consider the role and nature of knowledge in their own culture, in the cultures of others and in the wider world.

It prompts students to perceive themselves as critical thinkers, encouraging them to become more acquainted with the complexity of knowledge, and recognise the need to act responsibly in an increasingly interconnected but uncertain world. 

TOK also provides coherence for the student, by linking academic subject areas as well as transcending them. It, therefore, demonstrates the ways in which students can apply their knowledge with greater awareness and credibility.

In the TOK course, students gain: A passion for knowledge and an acknowledgement of human knowledge empowerment; an awareness of how contemporary philosophers and societies create knowledge; acknowledgement for the significance of the trans-disciplinary study; identification of the responsibility of having propositional knowledge and how to accomplish that responsibility at global and local levels; appreciation for the diversity between cultures in terms of values, practices and true beliefs; an awareness of the nature of language and how to apply linguistic abilities to discuss ideas, to name but a few.

Teacher views of TOK

Teacher views of TOK are overwhelmingly positive. TOK teachers believe the course is essential in developing students into global citizens, specifically enhancing their open-mindedness. And, it also provides valuable professional development for teachers enabling them to deepen their own critical thinking, interdisciplinary knowledge, and student centred pedagogies.

Teachers are confident teaching TOK and their confidence continues to improve with experience. Teachers are most confident addressing the ethical and moral aspects of TOK.


Implementation is overall smooth. It appears staff teaching assignments work well, but the TOK teachers creatively design their own solutions. Many teachers might initially express concerns about their preparation to teach TOK, fearing they don’t have the necessary content background knowledge. But, this fear does not appear to impact their confidence teaching TOK or their success teaching TOK.

Teachers ought to devise solutions to overcoming this obstacle by collaborating with their colleagues (team teaching, rotational teaching, or guest teachers). Generally, teachers are not specifically hired to teach TOK, but are often assigned (or volunteer for) this responsibility in addition to the content they were hired to teach. Meaning there is not a universal content background for TOK teachers. It’s more a way of thinking.

This approach seems to cause initial hesitation, but no lasting negative impacts. The vast majority of teachers (86.5 per cent) enjoy teaching TOK, and only a small minority (13 per cent) indicated they did not choose to teach TOK. This would suggest that IBDP coordinators might be better served by asking for volunteers or hiring specifically for TOK as opposed to assigning teachers to teach TOK.

The most important implementation challenge remaining unsolved is an assessment within the TOK. The materials provided by the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO) clearly address assessment (both formative and summative), but the teachers still struggle with measuring student progress.

It appears the TOK teachers receive unique training, support, and materials provided by the school or the IBO. But, the materials and training don’t enable them to develop helpful formative assessments that can assist in measuring student progress in critical thinking.

It seems many teachers struggle with identifying measurable objectives related to critical thinking and given that critical thinking is an essential aspect of TOK, it would be beneficial to provide support in this area. Perhaps, materials and training focused on creating measurable TOK objectives drawn from the course content could be offered. This support would need to expand on the existing assessment resources (that focuses on preparing for the oral presentation/exhibition and essay).

The formative assessment guidance provided addresses preparation for the essay and presentation of the subjective nature of the TOK course content. Teachers would benefit from resources on measuring critical thinking progress and student understanding of sources of knowledge.

As these are the skills that consume their class work and prepare them for the essay or oral presentation/exhibition. Even with the concerns surrounding assessment, the majority of TOK teachers greatly value the experience for themselves and that of their students.

Of course, nothing is devoid of challenges, and no new initiative is devoid of bottlenecks, but a course with philosophical underpinning such TOK is an idea whose time has come, and it ought to be in cooperated into the CBC for the benefit of the learner.