Unusual course on critical thinking succeeded until tough teacher was removed
One of the most unusual courses in high school these days is TOK, the initialism for Theory of Knowledge, part of the International Baccalaureate program. Most Americans have never heard of it.
It is a course on critical thinking and how we know what we claim to know. It demands a lot of writing and thus, by the standard teenager definition, is not easy. But most of the IB teachers I have encountered, and many of their students, call it special and deep, a distinctive element of a program now offered in nearly 900 U.S. high schools.
Jeremy Noonan felt that way when he was a science teacher in Douglas County, Ga. He taught Theory of Knowledge for four years, with increasingly good results.
But his is a story of TOK going wrong, something I had not encountered before. When many students began to complain that it was too difficult, Noonan said his principal asked him to make it easier. Noonan said he learned later this was so that enrollment in IB — a major selling point for the school — would not decline.
Douglas County school officials declined to comment on Noonan’s account.
IB’s own data show that only 0.5 percent of students get a failing TOK grade. Grades on the TOK and IB’s unusual 4,000-word extended essay earn a maximum 3 points toward an IB diploma, while each of the six required subject grades earn up to 7 points.
Spencer Caro, a former student who said Noonan’s TOK was the “the highlight of my IB experience,” noted that “students only need a D in TOK” to qualify for the IB diploma, and consequently many don’t try very hard.
Even a sophisticated course such as TOK can be damaged if a school does not guard against softening demands. Noonan said he did not expect TOK to take much time outside of class compared with the main IB courses, but to “get an A in the course, students had to be making progress and perform at an excellent level.”
It took time to establish that mind-set. Noonan said many of his first TOK students were in a state of revolt against the IB program. They thought they didn’t need it to get into a regional public college with low admission standards. But as they began to see how intriguing TOK was, attitudes improved and essay scores rose above global averages. “Parents regularly told me that they saw their children maturing into adult thinkers before their eyes,” Noonan said. “Alumni described the advantages they had in college due to being able to argue well and think from different points of view.”
When he resisted diluting the course, Noonan said, he was reassigned in 2015 to non-IB science courses. His replacement in Theory of Knowledge, according to Noonan, had no IB teaching experience. Noonan said some students told him that TOK had become “the course where you go to catch up on work from your other classes.”
Noonan had assigned several graded essays each year. He said the new teacher assigned none. Noonan said his principal told him that at a regional meeting of IB principals, it was agreed that TOK should be easy and not treated as a serious course.
That was not what Dina Dreyfus, inspector general of philosophy in the French government’s education department, had in mind when she introduced the TOK idea to the original plans for IB. The courses were formulated by European and American teachers at the International School of Geneva in the 1960s and 1970s.
Dreyfus, married at the time to legendary anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, was a tough educator who fought for her idea. Such enlightened stubbornness is necessary when defending courses as complex and interesting as TOK.
I remember how the eyes of Bernadette “Bernie” Glaze, a stalwart of the early years of TOK classes in Fairfax County, would light up at the journals her students were writing and the connections they were making with the intellectual roots of civilization. Glaze died much too young, in 2008 at age 62, but there are still plenty of teachers like her enshrining TOK in student memories. Turning it into a Mickey Mouse course is not the best way to teach our kids how to understand the world.
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TOK is not a therapeutic Kumbaya for students to come together and just share their worldviews with no expectation of feedback or discourse. The course is about the essence of knowing and pursuit of truth through debate and dialogue governed by the laws of logic. And honestly, some students seemed too thin-skinned and emotional to handle that kind of respectable discourse with people of different world views.
Part of intellectual rigor is having your beliefs subjected to rational scrutiny. And some students couldn't handle that. Mr. Noonan would respectfully identify logical fallacies and incoherence when he saw it, but it was done so respectfully and furthermore, it never changed the fact that he cared for his students and even went out of his way to show those who disagreed with him that he cared about them both academically and personally.
Many of my peers acted as though the sheer act of rational scrutiny was "disrespectful" and felt as though their opinions somehow deserved validation without any defense or logical case.
It was this kind of thinking and immaturity that was anitithetical to the entire goal of the course, and it was this kind of thinking that had students rally around and support Mr. Noonan leaving the program. And his leaving was a great loss for both the students and the school's entire IB Program.
My point, exactly. This important data should have been included in presenting a position.
Even though it isn't relevant to the claims to this column, as much of these ad hominem attacks and simplistic mis-charactertures here are not, since it has come up so many times and obviously caused some deep wounds, I'll speak to the cancer incident.
It's hard to either defend or apologize for something you barely remember. Obviously, there are some deep hurt feelings, and for that I regret whatever I did to cause that.
My memory was jarred by a specific recounting below that quotes me as saying that you could go to the library if you couldn't sit through class. It wasn't a revolt against the administration's whereby I prevented you from seeking grief counseling. It was up to my discretion whether to have class that day. I decided that we should, but contrary to what you said, I also felt like it was best to give people the option to leave class if being in class would have been difficult that day. I decided to give people a choice, rather than cancel class or make everyone stay. The incorrect conclusions that the two of you have drawn from that about my own character disclose to me a deep bitterness related to many other things that you are still clinging to.
That's all I'm going to say about it. To argue with you about the incident from here would be fruitless.
If so, your position completely contradicts the IB TOK standards, which distinguished poor understanding of knowledge from good and from sophisticated understanding, which describes certain ideas about knowledge as 'basic' and 'rudimentary' in the lowest levels of the rubric, which requires that ideas and perspectives be scrutinized and judged, not just expressed and discussed. A TOK class where that doesn't happen is not in sync with the IB standards. A TOK class where defective understandings of knowledge are not challenged and replaced by healthier, more sophisticated ones misses the goals of the course.
So yes, I had 'strong views' about knowledge, which were in keeping with IBs ideals and which I sought to impart to you, and was very opposed to certain flawed ideas about knowledge, some of which I enumerated below.
If one knows anything about the IB program, they know that students have to thrive on challenge and rigor in order to make it through the program. Claiming that the TOK course was “too hard” is a pathetic excuse that Mr. Noonan has used to give reason to why he was dismissed. Instead of encouraging discussion of varying points of view, Mr. Noonan halted our intellectual debates by thrusting his strong viewpoints on the class.
I tried to give Mr. Noonan the benefit of the doubt, as our class struggled to adjust to his inflexible ways. However, I lost respect for the man after the way he treated our grieving class when one of our classmates passed away. He made students feel guilty for their grief and condescendingly lectured us on death.
Honestly, as I sit here reflecting back to five years ago, I feel many emotions. I pity Mr. Noonan for his bitterness toward the program and his blindness to the reality of HIS course being a failure. I am frustrated that the journalist didn’t perform his due-diligence to validate any of these claims and used this half-baked article to further the stereotype by shouting “these darn millennials are so lazy!” from his front porch. But mostly, I am proud of our program and the students of the IB Program at DCHS for standing up for themselves. It speaks volumes that students and teachers from a half-decade ago are here to protect the integrity of our program and provide a more accurate account of why Noonan was dismissed.
The 'dismissal' happened years after you graduated, and I challenge you to consider all that may have happened then, and all the conversations that were had with administrators that you have no idea about. The integrity of the program did gradually diminish after you moved on, and it did become primarily about high enrollment numbers, since having so many above average to superior students made DCHS look like a stellar school overall (consider the US News Top 10% ranking, for instance, which was definitely a consequence of having one of the largest IB programs in the state), thus benefiting administrators, leading to promotions, pay raises, etc. It was shocking to get outside the IB bubble and see firsthand the state of the rest of the school, academically.
Your wonderful math teacher (and I'm not saying this tongue and cheek, she was amazing) was likewise viewed as a threat to this agenda, since the 2014 class was rebelling against her for her honesty about their poor math skills and refusal to relax standards.
I know I made some mistakes with your class that first year, and I did much different in later years, but this isn't what this is about.
By 'well versed' do you mean privy to the many various private conversations that took place concerning complaints over low course grades and softening the academic commands on the course (and no conversations with me about the stuff you're talking about), why your wonderful math teacher was removed, the growing preoccupation with the size of the program, and the downward pressure that competition from other magnet schools had?
Your choice of the word 'belitting' to describe what I have done here is revealing, and supports my thesis about where this is coming from. I disagree with most of these claims, and am seeking to correct them by making a reasoned counter-argument, while challenging your justification for them, just as you are doing with me (is that 'belittling' also?)
Similarly, if I encountered claims about the nature of knowledge that I believed were inaccurate, defective and harmful, and that also could lead to poor results on IB assessments, I would likewise seek to change students minds, also through reasoned arguments. To invalidate such ideas requires the use of reason to show the idea to be false or incoherent, with an aim towards developing better, richer ideas about knowledge.
There is always room to improve one's teaching methods, and I learned a lot from my mistakes that first year and sought to improve each year. So yes, there is room for valid criticism concerning methods on your part. But at the same time, it is clear to me now that some of you didn't think 'knowledge claims' were the kinds of things that should be evaluated and corrected by a teacher, the kinds of things that required rational justification to be believed, the kinds of things that could be true or false, better or worse. Hence, the opposition that a teacher might seek to impart to students better, more mature ideas about knowledge.
While teaching TOK, he did make it clear that he is a Christian. However, one of the goals of the class is to understand the role one’s worldview plays in shaping the way one attains knowledge. He shared his Christian worldview with us to show how it affected his epistemology so that we could do the same with our own belief systems. I disagree with Mr. Noonan about many issues, both religious and non-religious, but I never felt threatened by our differences. He never made it a point to try and convert me or shame me for my opinions. Instead, he would challenge my beliefs so that I could end up with a more nuanced worldview.
Of course, I can only speak for myself. But my own experience with Mr. Noonan impacted me so profoundly that I wanted to make it known. TOK means a lot to me specifically because it was rigorous and all I want is for future IB students to be able to receive the same enrichment from it that I did.
I wonder if part of what is going on here in these starkly different comments is that what you experienced as your deep beliefs being challenged in order to develop and mature and of being 'pushed', others experienced as being 'shot down,' 'condescended to,' etc. Because I did try to challenge everyone in similar ways, and did want everyone to walk away with a healthier, more mature theory of knowledge, which did require some persistent confronting and correcting of defective ideas about knowledge. It's fascinating to explore how such varying experiences could arise from differences among students in their theories of knowledge.
And I also wonder whether complaints about the rigor/demands of the course and not distinct from these other complaints, but instead are one of the same. After all, having one's basic assumptions challenged, or arguments corrected as being incoherent, is not very pleasant or comfortable!
You say you quoted the one student you could find when it sounds like Noonan provided you with the name of an individual who would act as a positive character witness and support the claims he had. I find it hard to believe that in the age of complete interconnectivity that you could only find a single student and that they were not able to provide you with other people, either in support or dissent of your initial thoughts.
I will tell you that in discussions had with classmates or with other teachers, the issues discussed were mostly about his treatment of students and his inability to teach this difficult subject correctly. You notice a theme of religious discussion because that is what he would nearly always use as evidence to support his own claims. He argues in many comments that teachers were to share their own opinions, and I agree with that. It just did not need to be laid out as "absolute truth."
There are right and better ways of thinking about epistemology; some views of knowledge are deeply flawed and even dangerous to society. So yes, I sought to inculcate more rational, sophisticated, and healthy views of knowledge, while correcting, sometimes strongly, deeply flawed ones. Like:
1. The idea that truth is merely personal and relative to the individual, especially in 'subjective' areas like Ethics and Religion.
2. The idea that some disciplines are "objective" and universal (like math and physics) while others are "subjective" and are just a matter of opinion (like art and ethics).
3. The idea that emotion, intuition, imagination were just 'subjective' and could not be relied upon for knowing.
Really any simplistic dichotomies that split the objective from the subjective. And these positions were all resonate with the IB curriculum, rubrics, advice from examiners, etc. So, I would not have been properly educating my students if such beliefs about knowledge were left unchallenged. My goal was to help students mature epistemologically, which required correction and academic discpline along the way. Thanks for the comments!
He was out of touch with students and oddly enough seemed intolerant of views that opposed his own in a class that should remain open-ended and discussion based. When students shared their opinions, he would retort with why they're wrong. He was not even trying to play devil's advocate to encourage more in depth analysis. I learned that to do well on essays and presentations, I had to construct arguments that agreed with his personal opinions. Furthermore, he was inflexible when dealing with moving assignments and working with students. When taking 8 IB courses (college level) deadlines were often adjusted by others to avoid have several major assignments due on the same day.
I learned to think critically, but that was the IB program as a whole and not Mr. Noonan. Students in this program are highly achieving. Past graduates have gone on to accomplish incredible things and I'm certain future graduates will do the same. Students did not complain his class was too hard. We complained because we were tired of his belittling and intolerance.
I feel like I had to share this article along with my own thoughts because my high school and the IB program are being incredibly misrepresented by a man who cannot accept his own faults.
However, I do agree with the general consensus that he was simply out of touch with his students. I am by no means defending him because if anyone in my cohort I was probably on some of the least positive terms with the man, but he was not terrible. He provided challenging assignments that reflecting back on now that I'm about to graduate college in nursing I can say I enjoyed.
On the other hand, there were many times when he was condescending and did belittle his students. Is this saying the students were soft and not seeing this as an attribute to grow? No, that was not the case... it was not a case of tough love. I remember Noonan as a man who would openly shoot down opinions that defied his own. In a class about exploring knowledge, this is the wrong approach. Exploring the students opposing opinions would be the right approach. I still remember the comment stated prior about cancer and it was appalling for any person to say.
My main complaint though is to knock the entire curriculum simply because a person was found to not be desired. If someone does not realize their short comings they cannot grow and if they are not open to opposing arguments then it will lead to their own demise. This all sounds like the board spoke to Noonan and asked for him to change how he teaches. Due to his stubbornness, which many former students have expressed he failed to comply. If your boss asks you to do something because it is not working and you do not do it what do you expect? You cannot cry over spelt milk and knock the entire program.
I do know that philosophy (reasoning) is the major subject required for the French equivalent of High School and also taught in most European countries like Switzerland where I live.
The young people I have meet in Europe are generally far more thoughtful and capable of intelligent communications and discourse than equivalent young Americans I have known.
Demand little, that is what you will get.