Newspaper headlines like these bombard us almost on a daily basis. And we are left with one inescapable conclusion - as a global community, we are facing a crisis level in terms of environmental problems. The task of addressing these issues (much less solving them) seems overwhelming - where do we start, what issue deserves primary consideration, who should be involved? We may even throw up our hands in frustration, unable to grasp the complexities of the situation.
“Lakes & Rivers Remain Polluted Despite Improvements.” “Mexican Smog Statistics Grim For Children.” “Environmental Protection Agency Cancels Pollution Tests Due to Budget Cuts.” “Dioxin Levels On The Rise.” “Acid Rain Corrosion Spreads.” “Asian elephants Could Die Out.” "Antarctic Ozone Hole Worse Than Ever.”
From an IB perspective, we may have already investigated many of these environmental issues within the context of ITGS, Biology, Chemistry, or even on an individual level as a volunteer through CAS. But such efforts have left students with a limited insight into the complexities of the environment. This problem became much clearer for me when I came across an article on the increased pollution levels of the Ganges River. Providing for the needs of over 500 million individuals and contributing to the deaths of almost 2 million children, the Ganges River is the focus of considerable debate over the viable solutions to its ecological problems. Here we have an example of an environmental problem that transcends scientific inquiry. The Ganges River encompasses historical, cultural, social and especially religious ramifications. In fact, devout Hindus prefer to say that the Ganges is “suffering” rather than “polluted”.
This is not a simple environmental issue. Any approach to a solution must acknowledge and address all of these aspects. In that regard, the thought occurred - why not examine one environmental issue (water pollution) through the prism of the Theory of knowledge class.
For a number of years, I have been using a thematic approach with TOK. Students have focused on a single object, such as a pencil, and used it as the binding element for the various subject areas of TOK. Imagine the possibilities of investigating a global concern through the resources of TOK, a multi-faceted, all-encompassing approach! If water pollution were examined from a TOK perspective, we would be able to explore not only the scientific causes but also the historical, ethical, political and aesthetic aspects as well. And we would end up with a more complete picture of the problem, as well as an appreciation of how no subject area exists in total isolation from others.
Now take it one step further. What if a number of TOK classes around the world coordinated their efforts on the same issue? What if each class examined a body of water in their locality, tested water purity, researched the history, politics, and social issues involved in cleaning it up, and shared those results with each other? Wouldn't we have achieved exactly what I believe Theory of Knowledge is designed for - the development of critical and creative capabilities and the ability to examine methods of thinking across the content areas?
Wouldn't we then have become a truly “international” baccalaureate program, interacting with other classes around the world, gaining insight into how other cultures live and relate, and increasing our knowledge and appreciation of the variety of human experience? So much is made of the special quality of TOK, that it stretches the imagination and pushes the limits of educational inquiry, a course unlike anything offered in the IB curriculum. Here is an opportunity to really put it to the test. If the purpose of TOK is to teach thinking across the curriculum and to integrate knowledge among the various disciplines, then perhaps the time has come to demonstrate it on a very practical level.
And that is exactly what is being planned. A number of TOK teachers have already expressed interest in just such a project beginning in January 1999. TOK classes in Mexico, California, New York, Chicago and Thailand are already in the formative stages of preparation and we hope many more will join in. Obviously the goal here is not to find a solution, as grand as that might be. Rather it is the mere fact of IB students from around the world collaborating on a common topic, sharing their individual and cultural perspectives. I have heard it said that TOK is unlike any course offered in the high school curriculum, that it is on the cutting edge of educational philosophy. This is a chance to sharpen that “cutting edge”, to “whet” our students appetite for knowledge and to demonstrate all that is unique about IB and Theory of Knowledge. We invite you along for the ride. Imagine the “ripple effect” we could create.
originally published in December 1998 edition of "IB World"