The world is a complex place. Discuss.

“So, what exactly is ToK?”

ToK, or Theory of Knowledge, is the IB Diploma Programme’s core class, the class that is grounded in the real world and supposed to help students make connections across their six subjects and to their everyday experiences. I love what this course aims to do and the way the newest curriculum has been designed. (And no, I am not being paid to say that.) I’ve been teaching ToK for four years now and the most common question I get from students and families is the question above: “So, what exactly is ToK?”

I generally explain that ToK is the class that allows us to say, ‘The world is a complex place. Discuss.’ It is a course that emphasizes critical thinking about the world around us.

The adults are generally intrigued by this and express regret at not having had such a course, or excitement that their students will have this opportunity. The students typically look at me with bemused or skeptical expressions and I hedge: “It’ll make sense after about a year.”

Generally, it does. It takes time to learn to think critically (and it also takes brain development, which is often neglected in popular conversation). It further takes maturity, and therefore time, to develop the academic confidence to do so. The expectations for critical thinking are remarkably high in many aspects of the IB Diploma, although unfortunately not so high in the media cycles our students are bombarded with as they try to navigate the world.

As a humanities/social studies/individuals and societies teacher, critical thinking is an area of learning that I am required to teach and assess, and provide feedback on student progress. This is hard to do, especially when students are young, and far too often, the emphasis on test scores robs students and teachers of the classroom time for discussions and activities that might actually build critical thinking skills. And yet, there is clearly a desire in society for students to leave school knowing how to think critically. (My somewhat lengthy reflection on that idea from years ago, which remains valid today, is here.)

Recently I had a moment with a grade 10 student in which he walked away having learned something and I walked away feeling like we’d done something right. I’ve been an educator for over ten years now and sometimes it’s still hard to know. We went over the instructions for a task in which students were to consider an essential system in daily life, break it down into parts and rank the parts by importance, and then construct a visual representation. (I take no credit for the task; there are some real gems in teacher resource books and I hadn’t even been the one to find it.)

The young man looked at me and I clarified the instructions further. He looked down at the text in front of him, paused, and then said, “It’s not so easy, actually.”

I nodded. “Exactly. That’s exactly the point.”

“Mhm. Okay,” he said and got straight to work.

Discussing the task after visuals were created and presented, students commented on how the activity had made them think about what we generally don’t think about, areas that seem obvious but are not so obvious when we take the time to look. Precisely. This is critical thinking, and this is what I pointed out to students. I urged them to be careful when looking at something that seems complicated and someone exclaims, ‘It’s so obvious.’ That’s how you immediately know it’s not so obvious. We talked about conspiracy theorists and how they look for simple answers to complex questions. If the answers were simple and straightforward, we wouldn’t have the questions.

Another activity that I use with many age groups is considering the significance of events in the news. We read the news for 7-10 minutes and students are asked to share not only what they read, but also why it is important. It’s always to watch critical thinking develop here, and to look at the connections students are or are not able to make. This also gives me information about which students to push and in which directions.

A final recent example is from one of my favourite teaching techniques that I learned as an undergrad. (Yes, we do learn techniques! There are methods!) Students were provided with a debatable question, positions assigned (for the most part, not the positions the students themselves would have chosen), and background reading provided. Students developed arguments in favour of the assigned side, presented them to an opposing group, took notes as the other group spoke, and then were able to provide an informed answer to the debatable question.

Significant value in this lesson comes in the debrief, by which point the bigger purpose is clear to most students. It’s a challenging skill to look at a perspective you don’t agree with because it forces you to consider arguments in its favour. This then means that you have a better understanding of your own perspective because you actually know what the other side is saying, which means you have evidence to counter what they are saying. I always appreciate when students say that they were actually persuaded by the other side because they realized ideas that they hadn’t thought of before. This is why we take the time to look at the other side. (I also like to bridge into psychology – cognition, confirmation bias, active listening.)

A critical part of my role as an educator is to prepare students for their assessments. As much as I might wish otherwise, it would be irresponsible and unethical to ignore this. But an equally critical part of my role as an educator is to raise young people who are able to contribute to the world and help it become better and more peaceful. This requires them to learn, to think, to reflect, and to learn some more.

The world is a complex place. Discuss.

Trieste, Italy – January 2020

This Time of Year

There’s a fun little calendar on the window sill. Its colourful flip pages track not only day of the week, month, date, and year, but also weather, season, and moon phase, which makes more sense when you consider that the day of the week and month are in Hebrew. I purchased this calendar at an art museum in Israel many years ago and it has travelled around the world with me. Before that, it sat on my desk when I taught at Catholic school. When an astounded student asked, “You can read that?” I had to clarify that Hebrew and hieroglyphics are not the same thing and my choice of the falling leaves picture (rather than sleeping forest animals, for instance) simply meant that leaves were falling.

Neither the illustrations of falling leaves nor sleeping animals have been used in quite some time. Seasons are far more subtle on the equator, signified by a shift in wind that changes the texture of the air and how it feels on the skin. There might be more or less rain, but that’s about it.

As I write this, I’ve flipped the weather image to “partly sunny”; we’ve been at “cloudy” for days. It is nice to watch the world change.

Last night, the air smelled like winter. Fresh, clean, sharp, coming down from high places rather than emanating from the ground like summer air. I could smell the grass when I first arrived here in July, and to say that I could not get over it is both silly and the truth.

Tonight is the first night of Chanukah, which I always think of, incorrectly, as a winter holiday. The lunar calendar shifts, after all. Chanukah commemorates the destruction of Jewish communities by the Greeks and the efforts made by groups of rebels to protect themselves and their Holy Temple. A tiny jar of oil burned for eight days, the story says, and we light candles for eight days in commemoration. Traditionally, there are delicious fried foods and a game that uses a spinning top called a dreidel in Yiddish. The only dreidel I currently have is a decorative one that I received as a Bat Mitzvah gift a shocking number of years ago. It hangs, as it always has, year-round in front of a window. My menorah (more accurately, chanukiah) was a Bat Mitzvah gift, too.

This brings me back to the calendar. My Bat Mitzvah, my coming of age in the eyes of the Jewish community, fell on the second night of Chanukah and also on American Thanksgiving weekend. It snowed that night.

We have snow in the forecast this week, as well, but right now we have a sunny morning. The sun came out in full force yesterday afternoon, and suddenly the world looked a little bit bigger. We were no longer huddled under a cloud. Yesterday, I was out in the rain to mail a stack of postcards and commented about the weather in all of them. I knew how easy it was to live on the equator, and I thought about it every time I ran out of the house in sandals and a tank top late in the evening because I suddenly decided I wanted a specific vegetable for dinner, but I didn’t remember how many actions were required to do the same when it’s dark in the middle of the afternoon and only getting colder.

I do think Chanukah comes at a good time of year. My consumption of fried foods will be limited, but I am looking forward to the glow from the candles. It feels different in a cold place.

May this time of year, with all of it festivals, traditions, rituals, and holidays, be a peaceful time for all. Chag sameach!

Weimar, Germany – November 2021

What I Didn’t Know

I’m surprised at how much I miss it.

I’m surprised at how often it is on my mind, on the tip of my tongue, a marker of how and where I spend my time.

I’m surprised at my own mentions of it (and a little embarrassed) and surprised by how much of it has shaped me.

I didn’t expect it to be everywhere.

I should have known better.

I don’t know how you can just switch things off, he said.
I shrugged. Survival mechanism.

And it is.

I’ve lived a lot.

If I had to guess, I’d say the letters started when I was in middle school and experiencing the first of what I consider my two most significant life transitions. I don’t know if I came up with the idea on my own or if the social worker suggested it, but I have always thought better on paper.

I have written dozens of letters that I will never send, letters that remain hidden away inside dozens of diaries in a box in my parents’ basement. (I’ve always said that one day I’ll burn everything.)

I’ve been thinking back a lot, back to things I should have done with the letters that I wrote. Back to things I wish I’d never lived, never known, never learned, or not in the ways that I did.

I realize now that I could have been angry, had every right to be angry, and making the choice not to be has made me who I am. The funny thing is that I didn’t know it was a choice. What was it again? Oh yes, survival mechanism.

Although it was rather darker and stormier than that.

So I ran.

I ran to, I ran back, I ran away. But you can only run so far and so fast and sooner or later, well, you’re only human, after all.

I don’t think I’m unique in having a complicated relationship with the word “home”. I’ve written about this at length and can summarize with the conclusion that has sustained me for a long time: Home is people, not places.

In this way, there are many places where I might feel at home because there are many places where I have people. In some senses, I’ve gotten used to missing them, both the people and the places. But being used to something doesn’t mean being comfortable with it; doesn’t mean being at peace with it; doesn’t mean it isn’t jarring or surprising, or soft or gentle.

Missing my homes, my people, is all of these things, and it happens all the time.

Having walked this road before, I should have known better. But even if I had, there was nothing else I would have done.

I don’t miss the weather but I miss parts of it: convenience, predictability, ease.

I miss running to the store just under the road at all hours, windows and balcony door open because I could see my apartment from there and I’d be back in a minute.

I miss bike rides on the beach and stopping, soaked, under the palm trees to drink teh halia that was sickly sweet, but not as sweet as the teh halia at the Indian place where they knew my order, chided me for not eating enough, and were worried when I didn’t turn up for a while.

I miss watching the sunset over the nearest temple (remember when they rebuilt it?) while sitting with a group of friends at plastic tables, bottles of beer and empty plates of hawker food all around us.

I miss seeing the clouds fade from their early morning footprints in the sky, miss the turquoise house on the corner as I ride up the canal on the way to school.

I miss familiar faces in the climbing gym, making jokes in the mirror at dance, running into people who I knew in places where I didn’t expect them to be.

I miss meeting friends on train platforms, wandering through neighbourhoods in search of cafés, taking photos, always stopping for something to eat.

I miss our department office full of choice words and laughter, colleagues who became friends. I miss knowing people well enough to know when someone was having a good day or a bad day or when something was, for whatever reason, just going on.

I miss the rhythm of days that were always too long, with rarely enough time to do what had to be done. I miss the camaraderie that, year after year, we built and maintained because that’s what you do when you’ve been somewhere for a while.

I miss tapping on a door, asking for a minute, spending ten or twenty.

I miss knowing where I was and who I was and how it felt to know this about myself.

I spent a long time looking.

Before the school year ended in June and before I left Singapore in July, I knew I was ready to go. And I knew that I wasn’t ready to leave. I missed the Singapore I had known before the pandemic, and I still miss it. But now I miss everything else, too, and everyone.

I didn’t know how much a part of me that world had become, or the people who were and are part of that world.

I didn’t know how much I learned there, how much I grew into myself, how important those years were for the person writing this right now.

Of course, I couldn’t have known.

Maybe if we did know, life would stagnate and we’d grow complacent, unwilling to make waves because they can hurt. Survival mechanism? Maybe.

Maybe, if we did know, we’d never change anything at all.

Most of my letters over the years have been fueled by frightening, intense emotion, but that’s not the case right now. That’s why this isn’t a letter.

Instead it’s a story, a story of the mess my life was and how I tried to rebuild it. It’s a journey in the way that walking a little slower, listening a little harder, loving a little deeper is a journey. A journey of the body, and also of the mind. And in this journey, in the knowing of people and places, perhaps we can also come to know ourselves.

I didn’t expect to miss this home as fully as I do, but that tells me something about myself that I think is worth knowing. And I am grateful for having learned it.

Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place