Habits of Mind: Changing Dinner Table Conversations

By Paul Marble, Sturgis East Principal

ToKEric Hieser says Theory of Knowledge (ToK) is the course that changes dinner table conversations.  As a result of their ToK experience, students begin to skeptically and appropriately question everything.  But, mom, how do you know that? To try and capture ToK in a sentence is impossible, particularly for me as I work my way through my first year of teaching the course.  However, Sturgis has long relied on the question of How do you know what you know? to help adults understand this key aspect of our students’ IB experience.

All of us at Sturgis – students, teachers and family members – are lifelong learners, continually reflecting and inquiring.  Thus, the decision to create a faculty dialogue on TOK was a natural one.  Of the five aims of the ToK course, three in particular were instrumental in our decision last year to open up a discussion regarding Theory of Knowledge questioning and our subject areas:

  • Develop an awareness of how knowledge is constructed, critically examined, evaluated and renewed, by communities and individuals
  • Encourage students to reflect on their experiences as learners, in everyday life and in the Diploma Programme, and to make connections between academic disciplines and between thoughts, feelings and actions
  • Encourage an interest in the diversity of ways of thinking and ways of living of individuals and communities, and an awareness of personal and ideological assumptions, including participants’ own

As questions are at the core of learning, and of the IB program, Sturgis teachers were asked to reflect on the following questions as they relate to their subject area:

1.    How does a piece of information (e.g. an observation) get confirmed as a “fact”?

2.   What assumptions are built into the foundation of your field?

3.   How are theories, explanations, and/or stories developed?

4.   At what point do these theories, explanations, and/or stories become subject matter knowledge?  Who decides?

5.    What is the value of knowledge in your subject area to daily life experiences (or a different area of knowledge)?

Faculty discuss ToK in interdisciplinary groups

Teachers wrote personal reflections to these questions for their subject area; discussed their ideas within department meetings; and shared their ideas with teachers from other disciplines in a faculty meeting.  Moreover, members of the Faculty Leadership Council – lead teachers in each department and other school leaders – shared their own responses and that of their departmental colleagues in a FLC meeting.

I distinctly recall the particular power and flexibility of thought exhibited in the reflections of: Antonio Hernandez as they relate to special education; Joel Tallman for English; Chloe Roselander-Ginn for history; Jim Buckheit for history and science; Dan McKay for math; Robert Albis for Latin; and Johanna Kallio with biology.

Additionally, I was privileged to be in a fascinating discussion of the Faculty Leadership Councils of both campuses.  Every other week, our FLC – comprised of lead teachers and other school leaders – meets to discuss matters of importance to student learning.  On one particular day, our meeting was devoted to sharing our own reflections and that of our departmental colleagues.  I was struck by the wisdom, deep thinking, and open-mindedness of the group around “our dinner table”; to name just a few thinkers: Aaron Dunigan Atlee, lead teacher of math at East, Jenn Kirk, lead teacher of languages at West, Cindy Gallo, IB coordinator at East and science teacher, and Eric Hillebrand, lead teacher of history at West.

Many teachers then chose to share these questions, and their own profound responses, with their students.  Therein lies the power: I believe there is a direct correlation between teachers examining how they know what they know and the cultivation of fertile learners.

I hope you enjoy reading a sampling of some of the thoughtful responses, and seeing a few pictures of teachers sharing their ideas with their colleagues.  Most importantly, I hope that you recognize that all of these thoughtful reflections and dialogue have a greater purpose.You’ll find out soon, at the dinner table.

Robert Albis – Latin

Robert Albis (center) in faculty Tok discussions

The field of the Latin teacher is technically “Classical Philology,” which encompasses the study of Linguistics, Latin Literature, and Ancient History. Since it is really a nexus of disciplines, some of the questions below have no one answer.

1.  How does a piece of information (e.g. an observation) get confirmed as a “fact”?

The meanings of individual Latin words and grammatical structures have been the subject of inquiry since the times of the Romans themselves and because Latin (unlike Greek) was never really forgotten in the West, teachers of Latin today for the most part accept the tradition for the meanings of individual words– it is hard to imagine the circumstances under which the traditional interpretations would be overturned. The biggest and a very important exception to this is vocabulary dealing with morality and social constructions:   every generation  and every different culture will interpret antiquity through its own moral and social lens.  Classicists today are aware that they do this – it is another matter to be aware of how they do this.

As far as Roman History is concerned, the accepted belief is built upon fairly scant evidence in many cases. Unlike a historian of modern periods, who must sift through mountains of material and winnow out what is significant, an ancient historian must build up a plausible explanation out of small bits of information from ancient literature, inscriptions, archaeological evidence, comparative evidence from other cultures, etc. Thus, the accepted belief in this area of philology is much less stable because the evidence is scanty and new archaeological evidence could overturn traditional beliefs.  And, again, every culture and generation is likely to impose its own constructs onto Roman culture. (E.g., some claim that our modern conception of Roman Culture is really the product of 1930’s Fascists attempting to provide a historical precedent for their own political and societal goals.)

Scholars are perhaps most aware of their own cultural and generational  biases in the area of literary interpretation and indeed embrace them – the true value of  “Classics” is that they can be interpreted in a different and compelling  way each generation.  The word “fact” seldom appears in this area of Classics.

2.  What assumptions are built into the foundation of your field?

Classicists assume that the Latin language and literature is not a hoax fabricated by mischievous  monks during the Middle Ages.   We also assume that we are able to understand Latin at a level sophisticated enough to understand it in way not totally differently from the culture that produced it.  That involves assuming that human beings, even those separated by millennia and from vastly different cultures, have enough in common to be intelligible to one another to some degree.

3.  How are theories, explanations, and/or stories developed?

The capabilities of the computer have led to new explanations for linguistic evidence – e.g. the accepted meaning of Latin word might be refined now that a scholar can produce all the occurrences of that word in extant literature almost instantly.  Still, since these meanings have never really been forgotten and have been the subject of study for hundreds of years, new explanations are rare.  The discovery of a new text could alter this somewhat, but this almost never happens anymore. New archaeological evidence could allow a scholar to revolutionize the understanding of a period of history (especially an otherwise poorly documented one).   New theories, explanations are often also developed by Ph.D. candidates desperate to come up with something new to say in a field that is so old. These seldom make it past the notice of specialists in the field.

4.  At what point do these theories, explanations, and/or stories become subject matter knowledge?  Who decides?

Theories, etc. become subject matter knowledge once they have been subjected to peer review and published, usually then subjected to another round of review. At the moment, the internet seems to me to mainly support the traditional process rather than change it.  The decisions come from scholars in the field who edit journals, participate in peer review, and/or organize professional conferences.

5.  What is the value of knowledge in your subject area to daily life experiences (or a different area of knowledge)?

Unlike the study of a modern language, the primary goal is not to be able to communicate with someone from another culture.   Rather, it is precisely the value of the subject area to different areas of knowledge that makes it worth studying.  It is generally believed that the study of Latin and Roman Culture:

  • Improves one’s understanding of one’s own language through vocabulary building, comparative grammar study.
  •  Facilitates the learning of other modern languages, especially Romance Languages.
  •  Furthers one’s cognitive development in general because of the demands on discernment involved in learning the complexities of Latin grammar and syntax.
  •  Trains students in understanding a foreign and culture and also helps them become more aware of one’s own cultural biases.
  •  Helps students to understand the modern world.  (E.g., the effects of imperialism, the origins of the American form of government, the reasons for the commonality of culture that allowed for the creation of the European Union).

Jim Buckheit – TOK

I decided to answer your questions with respect to two fields, science and history, because the juxtaposition of the two sets of answers embraces what has been pretty much a life-long philosophical project for me – trying to answer the question, how is human freedom (which we do experience) possible in a universe apparently governed by natural laws? The questions (related to your subject area):

1.  How does a piece of information (e.g. an observation) get confirmed as a “fact”?

2.  What assumptions are built into the foundation of your field?

3.  How are theories, explanations, and/or stories developed?

4.  At what point do these theories, explanations, and/or stories become subject matter knowledge?   Who decides?

5.  What is the value of knowledge in your subject area to daily life experiences (or a different area of knowledge)?

Question w/respect to Natural Sciences w/respect to History
  • Careful measurement
  • Replication (by other scientists or in comparable experiments)
  • Consistent with theoretical predictions (controlled); if it fits, it’s accepted, regardless of how counter-intuitive it may be


  • Authenticity validated
  • Consistent with a broadly accepted interpretation of the context
  • Consistent with broadly held assumptions about human nature; it is unlikely to be accepted as fact if it is counter-intuitive
2. An assumption of necessity, based on a belief in a closed system of causality (otherwise experimental predictions would not yield reliable evidence and would be meaningless) An assumption of human agency, based on a belief in at least some degree of freedom (otherwise human motivations would be irrelevant, and we could gain no insight or guidance from the study of history)
3. The main theories are stories about mechanisms in nature, answering the question “how does it work?” The main theories are stories about human actions, answering the question “why did they do that?”
4. The “community of discourse” composed primarily of professional scientists apply a fairly consistent set of standards to new knowledge claims. Some degree of skepticism may be grounded in devotion to competing theoretical traditions, but in the end, the preponderance of evidence and the rigor of argument win out. The “community of discourse” composed not only of professional historians but also journalists and policy makers apply a rather wide range of standards to new knowledge claims. Wide disagreement often occurs, leading to fragmentation of the “community” along ideological lines.
5. Even though it may provide an incomplete or hazy picture of how nature really works, the picture is often good enough to make technology possible. We apply the principles we’ve discerned to yield results we want. Even though there may be disagreement about the complex causes of historical events, the stories (literally) of why people act the way they do in various circumstances yields wisdom about human nature and affirms our sense of moral consequence.

Aaron Dunigan AtLee – Math

Aaron Dunnigan-AtLee (left) in faculty ToK discussions

1. Most mathematicians will say that information becomes a fact through the process of proof.  Essentially, we make observations and create a conjecture (inductive reasoning), which is a proposed statement of fact, then we confirm the conjecture by demonstrating logically that it must be true (deductive reasoning).  This demonstration is called a proof, and once a statement has been proven it is called a “theorem.”

2.  Assumptions in mathematics include the following

that mathematical truths exist and can be proven

that we are in agreement about the logical rules which govern the process of proof (i.e. what types of logical deductions are valid)

  • there are always a small number of unproven statements (axioms) in any branch of mathematics, upon which the rest of the body of theorems is built (Euclid’s geometry axioms are a classic example–he developed five volumes of geometric theorems starting with only five simple axioms).  So an assumption about these axioms is that they are “true.”  In the last 200-300 years, however, mathematicians have changed their view on what it means for axioms to be “true.”  Originally we assumed they were true because they were self-evident.  For example, one of Euclid’s axioms says that given any two points, there is only one straight line that passes through them.  These seems to be evident from our experience drawing points and lines on paper, and that was why Euclid assumed its “truth.”  However, later mathematicians realized that the “truth” of a mathematical fact need not be related to our experience, nor that the objects we define (“straight lines,” for example, or “quadratic functions”) need actually represent real-life objects at all.  So now we say that axioms are “true” simply because we define them to be so.  As long as the resulting theorems are logically consistent (no contradictions) then the axiomatic system as a whole is deemed to be “true” independent of any application to real-life phenomena.

3. Larger bodies of mathematical knowledge are formed around groups of theorems, typically where a few theorems are used to prove other theorems, which are then in turn used to prove others, and this whole body of knowledge is a “theory,” as in “graph theory” or “number theory.”  Who decides?  In essence, anyone who proves a theorem and publishes it has created “subject matter knowledge”; however, the importance of any individual theorem to the whole body of mathematical knowledge is determined by consensus in the academic community, and its relevance to current trends in research.  Like any discipline, mathematics has “fads,” where at any given time certain topics are more “interesting” to research because there are more researchers working on them, or there are applications being developed.  For example, in the 70’s and 80’s a lot of researchers were interested in Fractal Geometry, and there was even significant coverage in popular media because fractals led to the creation of interesting computer graphics as well as ways to model unpredictable behavior in chaos theory.  Today, fractal geometry is not as popular as a research topic, and other topics have gained importance.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid that at the high school level this whole process of the creation of mathematical knowledge is rather opaque to students, because most of the mathematics they study has been well-established knowledge for at least 300 years.  I’ve always been an advocate for modifying the curriculum to include topics that are at the edges of current mathematics, and there are many such topics that are accessible to high school students, even those without a strong algebra background.  These topics entail interesting “open questions” (questions that nobody has yet answered definitively) that students could easily understand, yet whose answers clearly require more depth and exploration because they have eluded mathematicians so far.

5. Mathematical knowledge is obviously valuable to any life experiences involving computation, and thus also especially valuable to the sciences.  Engineers, biologists, physicists, and others use fairly sophisticated mathematics on a regular basis.  However, mathematics has moved beyond being simply a computational tool–I would describe mathematics as “the science of patterns” and in the search for patterns and structure mathematicians have created and analyzed models that are not at all numerical–for example, the branch of Graph Theory analyzes the structure of networks, and can be applied to any kind of network, from modeling the relationships among web sites on the Internet, to the way that diseases are spread, to the network of flights for an airline, to many more.

Marsha Yalden in ToK Discussions

Antonio Hernandez – Special Needs

1. How does a piece of information (e.g. an observation) get confirmed as a “fact”?

In any subject area, a fact is an agreed upon belief about a piece of information. Much of what we do in special education is compile facts about students in order to better assess their needs in order to accommodate their learning disabilities. In order to compile cogent facts about a student, we must examine a wide variety of factors that surround each student. These factors are the “checks” from our introduction to TOK. We can never have all the checks but based on these factors (e.g. past record, academic history, family relationship, behavior, socio-economic standing, ability to acclimate, overall appearance, etc.), we can create facts based on the observable information we receive. These facts are useful to us as educators in providing the best education to each individual student.

As far as the facts that we provide students? They mirror the facts that we build about them. What do they know about their disability? What do they have a right to access? We encourage students to find similar patterns in the outer community as well. What can you infer about any given piece of information based on the observable data? We try to teach them self-advocacy in order to better prepare students for life after high school. I often ask students, what do you know about yourself? What is the observable data? Now that you know what that is, make a convincing argument. That is what makes facts.

2. What assumptions are built into the foundation of your field?

Many of us as educators tend to assume too much about a student. There are certain factors that are important to our work; however, we need to be careful of assuming too much. We don’t hold all the checks, but we conduct our work as though we do. It is important to assume as little as possible, to work with each student expecting only great potential.

I believe that many people assume that SPED students are doomed to a lower form of education. Many people (even parents) think that these students are unable to achieve the same success that regular ed students are able to achieve. I have had parents ask me do you think my son/daughter will be able to attend college? Do you think they could get a scholarship? Our perception of what is possible, what knowledge is desirable, what colleges/universities desire seems to be limited by the success of regular ed students and past achievements. These students learn in a radically different way from their peers. It is our duty as educators to meet the challenges that they present with flexibility and creativity.

3. How are theories, explanations, and/or stories developed?

Our theories are developed through a high-level of communication. We are constantly talking to students, parents, teachers, guidance counselors, coaches, administrators, psychologists, education specialists, etc. We piece the story together by talking to all the people that are involved in the life of this particular student. What are they doing to meet the needs of this student? Has the student told me the same story? Where are the faults in this story? Are there similarities in what I have seen in my interaction with the student?

I teach the students to do the same thing when it comes to class work. What are your resources? Who can you talk to? Do you have all the resources available to you now? I am constantly reminding them to communicate with their teachers about the work. Teachers want students to succeed. If a student does not understand something, they would prefer that the student ask questions. Use your peers. Students are often afraid of being wrong or accidentally plagiarizing the work of another student. I encourage students to work together. Adults work together to find the best possible theory. I would rather a student plagiarize by accident over working alone believing they will be reprimanded for working together or for getting the wrong answer.

4. At what point do these theories, explanations, and/or stories become subject matter knowledge?  Who decides?

I suppose this is why we hold IEP meetings, in order to come to an agreement upon the theory or story. Everyone involved in the student’s education has a right to voice their side of the story (the student as well).

The students have the opportunity to contribute to subject matter and knowledge at any time; however, the best time is in class and in a paper. It is their chance to argue their beliefs based upon the observable factors that they have experienced.

5. What is the value of knowledge in your subject area to daily life experiences (or a different area of knowledge)?

The value of knowledge in special education is critical to all of life’s experiences. We teach them to look at all sides of a situation, not to assume too much, speak volumes with peers, take what one knows and argue, to not fear being wrong, to be knowledgeable about the rights they have, etc. If we can communicate these skills to students they can apply them to all experiences in life. They can apply these to further their education, the job world, the armed forces, relationships, spirituality/religion, travel, family, etc. These skills are important to succeeding anywhere in life. I think that is what special education is all about. Showing students that sometimes education isn’t really about education at all. It’s about life and experience. It’s about translating these experiences into something meaningful.

Johanna Kallio – Biology

1.   How does a piece of information (e.g. an observation) get confirmed as a “fact”? A piece of information in Biology is considered a fact only after many, many repeating experiments proving that the results are the same and hence can be considered a fact. Experimental results are also compared to existing literature written by other scientists who have found similar results. However, the nature of science is to be flexible and constantly changing. As new apparati and ideas, better microscopes etc. are invented new information is constantly coming forth, which may, in fact, change the understanding of what was previously considered a fact. New species are discovered almost daily and for example the periodic table of elements has changed considerably from the time I went to high school chemistry class.

2.  What assumptions are built into the foundation of your field? We assume that atoms, molecules, substances and hence cells, tissues, organs and organ systems function based on their molecular structure. For example carbon atom’s ability to form 4 covalent bonds with many other atoms causes carbon to form the “back bone” of most biomolecules = molecules that make up living things. Based on this fact we assume carbon compounds to function in certain ways. We also tend to assume that scientific papers that are published have their findings based on rigorous adherence to the scientific method. However, we all know that some results and findings even in Nobel Prize winning papers have been reached unethically( i.e. by “fudging data”) and are hence false.

3.  How are theories, explanations, and/or stories developed? In Biology theories, explanations, and stories are developed slowly and over time through repeated experiments, observations and data analysis compiled by labs, hospitals and research institutions all over the world. New ideas are tested over and over again before they can be considered even a theory not to mention a “fact”. Some theories remain as such, for example the theory of evolution will forever remain as a theory, simply because the experiment of world starting again cannot be repeated.

4. At what point do these theories, explanations, and/or stories become subject matter knowledge?  Who decides? This question in partially answered by the information above, especially in question 1. Scientific data should be the result of rigorous adherence to the scientific method and experiments therein should be repeated by many scientists who obtain the same results, before the findings can be considered a fact. Who decides is a difficult question, yet if proper, ethical practices have been followed throughout, the data ought to be reliable for anybody who is interested in the topic to use.

5. What is the value of knowledge in your subject area to daily life experiences (or a different area of knowledge)? Ha! Personally I could not imagine my life without scientific/biological knowledge! It relates to what I should and should not eat and drink, what vitamins to take or not to take and when, what doctors I should see and why and what do the lab test results mean and why and what can I do as a result.  I have pets, whose ailments I know how to treat without spending a lot of money at the vet (unless it is a serious condition, which I have also learned to analyze based on my understanding of how bodies work). I know what kind of exercise is beneficial and what kind might cause an injury. I know what to not to eat before I sing in a choir, what to take when I have a cold (and what not to take, such as antibiotics, which are useless against the flu virus), and how to get a better night of rest. Based on what I have learned in science I know how to make my garden grow, what plants like to grow with what and how to use praying mantis against pests, so that I don’t have to use pesticides and can have toxin free veggies. I recycle all the paper and plastic on my street because I have learned to care and that one person CAN make a difference. I take “airborne” when I fly so I’m less susceptible to the bacteria and viruses flying around the plane stuffed with 500 people. I know to take melatonin to re-set my biological clock when I fly to Finland, for they are 8 hours ahead of our time zone. The list goes on and on. I think I could write a 10-page paper just on question #5 alone!

ToK Discussions

Rachel Ollagnon – Theater and English

1. How does a piece of information (e.g. an observation) get confirmed as a “fact”?

In English and Theatre both, a “fact” is generally only something that we can refer to as in a quote from a work of literature or a play or what we are repeating as someone else’s opinion.  A “fact” may be an opinion that cannot be proved wrong. But there is little “right” and “wrong” in either subject. I often tell my students, “It is open to interpretation”, when they tell me their opinions or observations about character, theme, or plot. The idea of observation and analysis rather than any kind of proven or provable truth is the way that we work daily in Theatre and English. “How is it true for you?”

2. What assumptions are built into the foundation of your field?

In English and Theatre, the basic assumptions are related to using a specific vocabulary and generally accepted way of describing and analyzing. The assumptions are how to use language and terms in communicating and the ways or methods to try and understand and interpret. In Theatre, particularly in creating Theatre, the assumptions are even less ingrained and the conventions fewer. Every great theatre practitioner has in some way altered the “rules” or contradicted accepted assumptions. That is often true for great writers, as well.

3. How are theories, explanations, and/or stories developed?

Theories, explanations and stories are developed by observation, careful understanding and intelligent, consistent choices. Decisions about writing, acting or being creative in any way must be a combination of self-awareness, understanding of the subject and audience and an ability to allow inventive thinking and less self-judgmental ways of viewing one’s self and the society or community around. Having the tools and conventions of the medium is needed to be able to develop further and to expand upon ideas.

4. At what point do these theories, explanations, and/or stories become subject matter knowledge? Who decides?

The establishment of a certain set of knowledge or ideas as subject matter knowledge is extremely subjective. The work and ideas of one writer, practitioner or theoretician is accepted as a general “truth” when a substantial amount of that person’s peers and colleagues have deemed it so. This is often “critical acclaim” or widely popularized recognition. Yet, in Theatre and in English, in reference to articles, books, performances or any other work that is inherently creative and unique remains highly subjective and open to interpretation and disagreement.

5. What is the value of knowledge in your subject area to daily life experiences (or a different area of knowledge)?Knowledge in Theatre makes one more self-aware, more sensitive to others and often better as a communicator. Knowledge in Theatre, though, is an extremely broad term. There are a variety of mediums within the giant umbrella of “theatre”. Writing, designing, devising, acting, are just some of the varied areas of knowledge within Theatre. Since Theatre artists tend to be extremely creative and used to collaborating with varied groups or individuals, they are often adaptable, energetic, resourceful and imaginative – all aspects that serve in almost any area of daily life.

Peter Richenberg – Art

#1  Facts are generally (but not exclusively) based upon empirical knowledge.  However, I don’t need to have the earth move closer to the sun to prove that the oceans will dry up.ergo; facts are based upon the accumulations of “truths”. Someone who has never experienced fire might not know that it will burn them.

#2  There is no disputing taste, and the art world is rife with paradoxes. “Good art” or what is considered as such can vary from age to age and from culture to culture. It is assumed, however, that every so-called artist can defend their work in terms of its relevancy and purpose.

#3  As a means of an explanation to the unknown; eg; how the world came to be, why a snake has rattles, what happens when I die.  These “explanations” can become legends and even (in extreme cases) the foundations for religion.

#4  Commonality and universal acceptance and (unfortunately at times) assumptions.  If enough people or, an influential person or group says it is so, we might assume it is so.  Perceived reality IS reality. Some beliefs will always be theoretical, and even when a theory has proven to be a law there will be those who allow their own beliefs to cloud, or color reality.  Again, perceived reality IS reality. Did Goebbels say that?  I believe he did say that if a lie was monstrous enough, people will believe it.

#5  The value of “knowledge” is that it is often the foundation, indeed, the tenets which form the matrix of our belief system.

Chloe Roselander-Ginn – History

Chloe Roselander Ginn (left) in ToK Discussions

1.  How does a piece of information (e.g. an observation) get confirmed as a “fact”?

In my view, something becomes a fact when it is accepted and verified as “truth” from multiple perspectives. Where that line is in terms of how many and what perspectives must be included for this magical factoid process to happen is hard to define. I know my own bias comes into play given that I would be more likely to accept something as fact from certain sources, even if it was agreed upon by multiple sources that I am less apt to agree with.

2.  What assumptions are built into the foundation of your field?

There is an assumption that we can reasonably determine what happened in the past from sources we have available. It is also assumed that what happened in the past is relevant to understanding and operating in our world today.

3.  How are theories, explanations, and/or stories developed?

Theories, explanations and/or stories are developed at multiple levels, from as informal an interaction as around the dinner table to a history textbook. There are stories that were not necessarily meant to be told by those involved that are pieced together from the evidence they’ve left behind, or those that were very deliberate, such as an autobiography or account of an event. All of these pieces of evidence, with their various purposes and forms come together to tell a more complete story.

4.  At what point do these theories, explanations, and/or stories become subject matter knowledge? Who decides?

This is a very interesting question for the discipline of history, as there have been tremendous shifts in terms of what material and whose accounts are considered as relevant evidence to understanding the past. In designing courses and curriculum, teachers and academics have tremendous power in determining “what matters.” Yet, we’ve seen ideas to this change and for the better in my opinion, in terms of widening the scope of accepted perspectives. For me, this demonstrates the importance, which seems very built into the IB of reexamining our curriculum and classroom practice to leave room for progress and change.

5.  What is the value of knowledge in your subject area to daily life experiences (or a different area of knowledge)?I think more than ever, we are all consumers of information. There is so much out there–so many sources to pick and choose from, that the skills of examining multiple and diverse perspectives to understand what happened to the past that we practice in a history classroom are extremely relevant to understanding our world today.

Joel Tallman – English 

1.  How does a piece of information (e.g. an observation) get confirmed as a “fact”?

The nice thing about English and literature is that very little is confirmed as a fact.  Elements of grammar and spelling are codified in books as “rules,” but even then the rules are broken all the time, in poetry and prose, and writers are celebrated for it.  The canon (what gets taught and what doesn’t; what is a “classic” and what isn’t) evolves over time, but some things have persisted for centuries.  I suppose as long as enough people are in agreement that a work of literature is valuable or interesting or important, it can count as valuable or interesting or important.  But teaching students that these value judgments are not set in stone is explicit in the teaching of English.  Also, the concepts of symbolism or metaphors or author’s intentions are all explicitly open to interpretation rather than being thought of as “fact”.

2.  What assumptions are built into the foundation of your field?

That communication has value, from simple e-mail messages to the evocation of emotions and more complex ideas and beliefs.  Examining how such things are communicated can also have value, be it studying advertising and political propaganda or pulling apart Hamlet’s soliloquies, because such examination can make us more accurately expressive and accurately receptive of what’s being communicated in our own public and private lives.

3.  How are theories, explanations, and/or stories developed?

In literature, anyone can promulgate an idea or theory behind a text, or movement, or author–regarding symbolism, meaning, value, etc.  The more persuasive one is, the more others come to believe that the interpretation is valid–that is the extent to which it is accepted as valid.  Most such ideas are held to be subjective at best, ephemeral at worst.  Even the “rules” about language grammar, usage, and spelling are understood to evolve, much more slowly most of the time, but still even they are set in stone that over time cracks and gets paved over with new spelling and grammar rules. 

4.  At what point do these theories, explanations, and/or stories become subject matter knowledge?  Who decides?

“Who” is partly academics–university professors, literary critics, those who publish essays in literary magazines and scholarly journals.  However, within the confines of a classroom–even and perhaps especially high school classrooms–meanings and interpretations are often constructed together, on the understanding that interpretations need only evidence–as convincing as possible–to be considered valid.  A large part of high school literature classes is about finding that evidence, and then expressing it convincingly.

5.  What is the value of knowledge in your subject area to daily life experiences (or a different area of knowledge)?

Outside of: a) writing a best-selling book, or b) being a Jeopardy contestant, no one is involved in the study of literature for its practical or monetary value.  If it is not its own reward, it’s merely drudgery.  Learning to read, on the other hand, is of immense practical value, in English class and every other subject.  As they say, in primary school you learn to read; after that, you read to learn.  Finally, knowing the rules of grammar and spelling and usage–and knowing when it’s okay to break those rules–can help immensely when one’s employer, one’s grandmother, one’s bank loan officer, one’s lover or one’s listener, Facebook friend, or correspondent in any matter, recognizes the importance of the rules as well.

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