TOKing the Econ classroom?


The IB Diploma Program expectations are that all students registered in the program write an Extended Essay (EE), do Creativity, Activity and Service (CAS), and take a Theory of Knowledge (TOK) course!

I find all three fascinating, but nothing has fascinated me throughout my years as an IBDP Economics teacher as much as the TOK course. In fact, I myself was expected to model a course on TOK to teach for the non-IB students at my previous school (there was a ‘Global Citizens Diploma’ division for students who did not want an IB Diploma).

So, TOK is all about ‘how do we know what we know?’ and ‘do we really know what we think we know?’ and ‘where does knowledge come from?’ and ‘what are the ramifications and implications of finding out that all our knowledge is incorrect or incomplete?’ and ‘what does knowing truly mean?’ etc… Basically, it’s a course designed to build critical thinking and challenge students to question their own and society’s knowledge, ideas, biases etc…

Of all the ideas explored in the TOK course, I’m most fascinated with the Ways of Knowing (WOKs) which are “traits which knowers can possess through which the knowers obtain and manipulate knowledge“.

The TOK course presents eight WOKs:

1- Language (oral and written)

2- Sense perception

3- Memory

4- Intuition

5- Faith

6- Imagination

7- Emotion

8- Reason

So, you might be thinking, well how does this tie in with an economics course? Many many ways my friend.

As economists and economics teachers, we need to recognize the limitations of the economic models and concepts that we teach! They’re not infallible! We also should spend some time looking at the history of economic thought and see where did these ideas and theories come from and what contexts they evolved from.

For example, students often struggle with understanding why the Keynesians and New Classical/Monetarist economists have different shapes for the Aggregate Supply (AS) curve: Keynesian AS is horizontal up until the economy reaches full employment level of output, then it becomes vertical, while the Monetarist/New Classical AS is vertical all the way.

This is a perfect TOK opportunity!

Even the IB Economics Syllabus lists this as one of the potential TOK connections:

“The Keynesian and Monetarist positions differ on the shape of the AS curve. What is needed to settle this question: empirical evidence (if so, what should be measured?), strength of theoretical argument, or factors external to economics such as political conviction?”

This approach to critical questioning of the various models and diagrams that we teach is very important. These models are attempts to make sense of markets or various parts of the economy or the economy as a whole, but they’re not as ‘intuitive’ as many Economics teachers believe. In fact, more often than not, these models and equations and quantitative techniques are what deter students from studying Economics. These models and diagrams and quantitative techniques are based on very limiting assumptions, and it’s ok to recognize the limitations of these models.

So, how do Keynesians and Monetarists ‘know’ the shape of the AS curve? How do both sides claim to ‘know’ the relationship between real output and average price level?

While I try my best to explain the ‘reasoning’ behind the models I teach in the Economics classroom, I often also try to harness the other Ways of Knowing (WOKs) in analyzing the strengths as well as limitations of these models, and constantly push students to question those models.

I believe TOK and Economics can go hand in hand in order to develop the students’ critical thinking!

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