Why TOK & Chemistry?

Why bring TOK into everyday Chemistry teaching?

This is a sensible question to ask. It could be argued that there is enough chemistry on the IB syllabus to occupy 240 hours (150 hours at Standard Level) of teaching without adding anything extra. In any case, TOK is not examined in the final chemistry examination papers so why bother?

It is worth bearing in mind a quote from Georg C Lichtenberg (1742-1799) who was a professor in Sweden in the eighteenth century.

“Wer nichts als Chemie versteht, versteht auch die nicht recht”

which translates as “He who knows nothing but chemistry does not know chemistry either”.

Students who simply learn what is in the text book without questioning and without thinking for themselves may pass exams but they will not be good chemists. There should be no question of bringing TOK into everyday teaching it should be thought of more that TOK is an integral part of good chemistry teaching.  Teachers are often worried about “bringing in TOK” because they do not really know what it is and what to include. I’ve included a separate section on what Theory of Knowledge is but put simply TOK is critical thinking in chemistry. Students need to be taught to question underlying assumptions. The text book is not always correct – many textbooks contradict themselves within the same book – and science is not always precise and predictable. In their TOK classes most students will not have a chemistry specialist as their teacher. As well as encouraging your students to think critically you can also provide chemistry examples to back up the non-specialist teaching they receive in their TOK classes. Examiners comment that students who use examples from their subjects in their TOK essays tend to score high marks. 

In their TOK classes (for first examination in 2015) students will look at the four of the eight listed ways of knowing in depth. These eight ways are language, sense perception, emotion, reason, imagination, faith, intuition and memory. Until 2015 the four ways of knowing were listed only as – language, reason, emotion and perception. All of these are highly relevant to understanding chemistry and I explain this further with examples under the individual headings. The language of chemistry is extremely complex – take a while to consider how many different meanings the use of square brackets, [  ], can have in chemistry. Chemistry is an experimental science so how we observe and perceive the world through our senses is crucial to understanding our subject. Deduction (reason) from the observations we and others have made is the essence of chemistry. The scientific method is not some logical process which will inexorably lead us to the truth (whatever that is). Emotion and intuition have played a key part in most if not all scientific breakthroughs. What you as a teacher can do is provide concrete examples of all of these in all the topics on the programme and encourage students to question everything. The best student is not the one who answers all the questions; the best student is the one who asks the right questions.

It can help to get a more general overview of the whole Theory of Knowledge course by reading one of the TOK IB-specific text books. Several have been written but the one I would recommend is Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma by Richard van de Lagemaat.  

I have provided many examples specific to chemistry to help you both in this section of the site and on the pages under Incorporating International Mindedness, TOK, 'Utilization' etc. in the Core/AHL section. Remember too that The Nature of Science is to all intent and purpose the same as the application of TOK to the natural sciences. There are also many suggestions throughout the "Pause for thought' sections on every sub-topic in the core, AHL and options.

Probably the best examples though are those you and your students arrive at simply by thinking and questioning.

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