Zen and Connections in Theory of Knowledge

My goal of my COETAIL final project was simple: Have my Grade 11 Theory of Knowledge kids do something is now second nature to my middle school students.  The rest of this post is a long discussion of how I tried to achieve that goal.

The Project: Create a TOK Presentation

Every TOK student must complete a presentation at the end of Grade 11 that is 20% of their TOK grade, which is part of their IB Diploma. During first semester of TOK, students do a practice essay. All presentations must meet certain requirements (click here for way more information about these):

  • It must deal with a real life situation.
  • It must address a knowledge issue.

And all presentations are assessed on four criteria:

Criterion A – Identification of a Knowledge Issue Did the presentation identify a relevant knowledge issue involved, implicit or embedded in a real-life situation?

Criterion B – Treatment of Knowledge Issues Did the presentation show a good understanding of knowledge issues, in the context of the real-life situation?

Criterion C – Knower’s Perspective  Did the presentation, particularly in the use of arguments and examples, show an individual approach and demonstrate the significance of the topic?

Criterion D – Connections  Did the presentation give a balanced account of how the topic could be approached from different perspectives? Did the presentation show how the positions taken on the knowledge issues would have implications in related areas?

I have taught TOK for seven years and I have sat through dozens and dozens of these projects*. I wanted to kick it up a notch.

What makes this presentation different?

1) Something that is not in the official TOK presentation guidelines is anything about PRESENTATION. No points for bibliography or using Creative Commons. No mention of making the presentation attractive or effective. I have heard so many incredible ideas being discussed in TOK presentation that have just been killed by bullet-points. So for this presentation, I would require Presentation Zen style using Creative Commons images.

2) Criterion D is about connections. In traditional TOK presentations, students are supposed to make reference to different subject classes. I wanted to push it even more. So I required for Connections, student make connections between school, local and global resources. But I didn’t want to make the connections for them. These kids have thier own connections. They are international school students, Third Culture Kids, and multinational/multilingual individuals. So for this presentation, I would require students to make their own global collaborations using Skype, Facebook, or other Web2.0 tools.**

The Process

I had to sell these ideas to the kids. Sometimes for grade 11 students, if it’s not on the official criteria, they won’t want to do it. So I had to figure out ways to make them realize that there was value in what I was asking them to do. And I had to do it fast, because we only meet once a week.

Presentation Zen:

1) I showed them tons of resources:

2) I showed them my own presentation that I was creating for Learning2.0. I wasn’t asking them to do anything different than what I do. That helps build trust.

3) We talked about what freaked them out about using Presentation Zen. They were scared that I wouldn’t understand the message and that they would forget. Nothing that adults aren’t scared of.

Global Collaboration

Step 1: Have students brainstorm what connections they have.

School: Teachers, classmates, elementary school, middle school, The International Center for Japanese Culture (ICJC), etc.

Local: neighbors, off-campus sports teams, parents, grandparents, etc.

Global: Check out their Facebook networks.

These maps are analytics from Facebook via Wolfram Alpha.  These kids have global collections. There is no reason for me to find them for my students. They can do it themselves.

I think this is the part of the assignment that starts to lend itself to a tranformative lesson. When I started teaching TOK, there was no thought that they would make global collaborations. Now it’s ridiculous that we don’t have this happen with every TOK presentation. If we want them to think of other perspectives and arguments, then they must make global connections.

Student Reflections

Presentation Zen

I think it helped with expressing things in your own way because we weren’t reading off the board. I will definitely try and apply this concept to our class presentations.  Visually, I think our images were good, although could of been a bit more interesting. I think the images themselves help the audience concentrate on what your actually saying, compared to just reading off the board.

The Presentation Zen also required you to think about the choice of images carefully. The way you wanted things to be portrayed and also relate to your knowledge issue had to be taken into account.

By having a simple slide, the audience listens to the speaker more, whereas they won’t if there are much more information on the slide given.

Presentation Zen uses a minimalistic view of the presentation. It may be harder for the presenter, yet once you get used to it, it becomes a breeze. Also, from the audience’s perspective, the eye ache of being throw crammed words in one slide is mercifully avoided.

Global Connections

I made connections with my family member, my aunt, who can also be my global connection as well, because she is a Cambodian who has lived all her life in Cambodia. I contacted her via email, which was not difficult. Making connections was not too hard, because I had relatives with multiple cultural experiences in different country (and my partner Dessy interviewed Ms. Cox, her English teacher, who has lived in Tanzania and Japan). There could have been more methods, however, to ask others about their perspectives. I am now intrigued in setting up a forum on the web to see opinions from people around the world that I do not personally know.

I sent a survey about political issues throughout our school, Yokohama International school which is the represented group of Third Culture Kids and asked friends I know who lived only in the U.S. This was in some ways hard, especially getting in touch with those in the U.S since even if I do know them. I had to have the courage to ask them to answer a survey after not talking to them for a while.

We only had one global connection, who was my Aunt who lives in Australia. Perhaps a way we could have widened our connections would be to interview someone living in an LEDC and and MEDC.

I found that finding these connections were a lot of fun and by being physically involved in learning about each culture from such nearby sources, it was beyond belief. It surprised me to realize that we have so many people, who we can use as resources, to further expand our points.

My reflections

  • Their presentations looked incredible***. It was so much better as an audience to not have to read bullet points. In reading their reflections, I think they got what the purpose of Presentation Zen is. And if they are brave enough to do a presentation in another class using only visuals, I will have succeeded.
  • I wish I spent more time introducing Creative Commons to the students. I don’t know if they understand what it is. Creative Commons would actually be an interesting presentation topic for TOK.
  • They made global and local connections and did a good job of it. I wish they would have made more. I underestimated how intimidating it is for a grade 11 to make these connections. I love the one student who wants to start a forum.
  • I think in the future I will bring in more TOK students around the world to collaborate. Every student who is working towards to IB Diploma takes TOK. I would love for students to work on a presentation with people around the world. I think that is the next step. And maybe I will help lead that next step.


* I don’t plan on talking about this part of the presentation in this blog post. Another time I will talk about the topics of my kids presentations and the process of teaching the content and concepts of TOK.

** For those that care, NETS standard: Communication and Collaboration: Students use digital media and environments to communicate and work collaboratively, including at a distance, to support individual learning and contribute to the learning of others.

***I would add the presentations here, but this post is already absurdly long. I plan on using their exact same images in my COETAIL presentation and when I share that, I’ll include the links.

About Rebekah Madrid

MYP Humanities Instructor. International School Teacher in Japan. Google Certified Teacher. Apple Distinguished Educator. National Board Certified Teacher. Traveler & TV Watcher. This is where I write my thoughts about all of the above.
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3 Responses to Zen and Connections in Theory of Knowledge

  1. Awesome! It is kind of amazing that this kind of learning isn’t happening every day in TOK – it does fit so naturally! It should become part of the expectation from the IBO, so that students graduate with this understanding of the power of connections. Can’t wait to see some of their final images/presentations!

  2. mslyon says:

    I teach TOK and the students are beginning their presentations after Winter Break–I LOVE your ideas, and plan on introducing them to Zen Presentations. Thank you!

    • Thanks so much for your super nice comment. Let me know how Zen style works for you…I really do think it makes it tons better. And sorry for the slow response…I’ve tried to unplug a little over the holidays 🙂

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