International Baccalaureate – An Open Letter to a Workshop Facilitator Who Didn’t Know What She Didn’t Know

Open Letters

I recently attended a workshop to prepare me for teaching a course called Theory of Knowledge in the IB Program. TOK “asks students to reflect on the nature of knowledge, and on how we know what we claim to know.” A heavy task, to be sure. I wondered, before attending the Toronto conference, would I be up to the rigors of the academic environment? Was I up to the challenge of pushing students to think at this elevated level and to get them to engage in the kind of dialogue that really gets to the heart of ‘questioning what we think we know’?

I was relieved to realize, quite quickly, that we were all in the same boat. Our workshop had twelve teachers, from Canada and abroad, who were all ready to think about ‘knowing’. I suppose that given my background in equity studies, where thinking about my own privilege, ignorance, assumptions and lenses, I was well equipped to start thinking about how I ‘know’ things and how that might change depending on my own experiences and identity.

The twelve of us were remarkably similar for a group whose mission included ‘thinking about diverse perspectives’ and exploring knowledge systems like Indigenous, Religious and Historical areas of Knowledge. We were all white, all able-bodied, employed, English-speaking adults. And as far as I could tell, everyone but me was straight. That became apparent quite quickly.

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Sometimes you don't know what you don't know until you are hit in the face with it; at some point, you have to consider that your ignorance has an impact on others. The biggest take away from my three-day conference could just as easily been taken from my grade nine's study of To Kill A Mockingbird: you can't really know a person, until you've stood in their shoes and walked around in them.

Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know until you are hit in the face with it; at some point, you have to consider that your ignorance has an impact on others. The biggest take away from my three-day conference could just as easily have been taken from my grade nine’s study of To Kill A Mockingbird: you can’t really know a person, until you’ve stood in their shoes and walked around in them.

Welcome to my experience of Theory of Knowledge:

With a conference hosted in Canada, it would seem logical to have leaders be familiar with Canadian expectations regarding a teacher’s obligation to provide a safe and equitable classroom free from discrimination and hate speech. Differing opinions and exploring how we come to understand and establish what we ‘know’ is an important part of an IB education and certainly there are opportunities to explore these issues deeply and to look at sensitive issues that are globally relevant, but instructors need to be aware of how to deliver this material in a way that does not marginalize their class or create an oppressive learning environment; first and foremost, our students must feel safe and supported in order to engage in the rigorous academic challenges that we create in our programs, and consciously establishing respect for differences is a key part of this goal. Productive academic discourse is very valuable, but there was a definite lack of equity background and knowledge in my session and the instructor struggled to effectively create a safe space for dialogue about issues which are protected by law in Canada/Canadian schools. There were some very troubling materials and content recommended by the instructor (anti-gay marriage essays, etc), and no context or preamble was provided by her. As a lesbian who is out at work and fully supported by my school community it was extremely offensive to have to sit in a room while educated adults debated the value of a resource that proposed, from an ‘ethical’ standpoint, to eliminate me and my family from existence. The casual manner in which the material was introduced was very alarming. Facilitators of workshops should assume, as in their classes, that diverse identities are present in the room and that we are not statistics to be discussed dispassionately as though we are not present for the conversation. Certainly this is a huge issue of debate, globally, but it was not presented in a thoughtful or ethical manner. This had a very negative impact on my experience, and the instructor was extremely obtuse about her own lack of equity practices and how to create a safe(r) learning environment. On a positive note, it was a great teachable moment because it gave us lots to talk about at lunch, as many of the other teachers hadn’t considered the impact that articles of this kind can have on invisible minorities within the room, but it’s alarming to think about what a horrible effect this would have on a student if delivered in a similar manner in a school setting. IB, as I understand it, celebrates diverse perspectives and the IB Learner Profile strives to build Caring individuals. An awareness of these important points was markedly absent in the delivery of the workshop I attended.

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So, to you, Mme. Facilitator,

How did you picture that conversation going? What did you think a queer person in the room would feel while you debate their right to exist? Did you expect me to sit there, smiling, happily contributing to your discourse about the what a useful and well-written article this was?

I’ll leave you to ponder a Theory of Knowledge for a question I definitely know the answer to:

At what point does the human cost of an academic exercise outweigh its usefulness as a lesson? What is the value of subjecting a student to being a spectator to yet another example of oppression and dominance in discourse? I’m sure I could find a super article that eloquently outlines why rape is an effective strategical move and a brilliant tactic used in times of war to dehumanize and oppress a civilian population and wage psychological warfare on a nation you are trying to subjugate. I could probably find similarly well-written analyses of child-labour, slavery, racism, human trafficking, genital mutilation and myriad other issues…

But just because I can argue it, doesn’t mean I should. That much I know.

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