Shauna Fitzmahan puts the "international" in International Baccalaureate — she's lived on four different continents! As the Head of Upper School Social Studies and a passionate Theory of Knowledge (TOK) teacher, Ms. Fitzmahan illuminates for students that learning can often bring more questions than answers. We sat down with her to discover more about her experiences and how TOK connects the classroom to the greater world.
You're a world-class traveler! Tell us about your journeys and path to becoming an educator.
I'm originally from Seattle. When I was 16, my family moved to Ukraine — we wanted to live abroad and a friend there made that possible. The year was 1997, and at that time Ukraine's economy was in shambles. Everything around me was so different from what I knew, motivating me to learn about Ukraine's history to better understand the present. I decided to study European history with a focus on dissidents in the Soviet Union, specifically in Ukraine, and remained abroad for 15 years. I moved to Wales, attended Franklin College in Switzerland, and later worked in a wilderness area in Mozambique teaching English to help local residents interact with Westerners and find jobs. Moving and traveling in my family is more normal than staying still.
At the time, I didn't know that I wanted to go into education — I thought I wanted to be a lawyer or work in the UN ... maybe go into international law. Before pursuing any of these, I received a call from the International School of Estonia, which was looking for a DP history teacher and TOK teacher. I took the job and fell in love with teaching!
After three years, I moved to Japan and taught at the Kyoto International School for a year. I then came back to America and pursued my masters in teaching social studies at Columbia's Teachers College. When I graduated, I started working at Dwight and the rest is history. As an international school in New York, Dwight was a great fit for me and teaching TOK was a dream come true.
What is your educational philosophy?
It's always changing! I believe that every student has incredible strengths as a learner, which fits with Dwight's commitment to igniting the spark of genius in every child. Students use that spark to overcome any challenges they may face in another area. A challenge I faced as a student was being dyslexic. I learned that I work well in groups and making oral presentations, but reading was always a struggle. The gateway to history is reading, so I knew that I had to learn to love to read and embrace that struggle.
It's my job to take a personalized approach to help students believe in themselves. It's important to teach students to take a deep breath when navigating anything they can't manage. I also think that confidence and humility are key — it's hard to admit that you don't know something and failing is part of the learning process.
TOK is a DP cornerstone class. What sets it apart and what do you hope students learn?
The TOK curriculum fundamentally places value on critical thinking and teaches students that it's more important to recognize the validity of multiple perspectives than to win an argument. Over two years of TOK courses, students learn to step back, ask questions, and to think critically about different perspectives.
In the 11th grade, we aim to dismantle what students think they know starting with defining the word "knowledge." We teach students about the strengths and limitations of how they gain knowledge. We push students to consider their assumptions and biases. We even look critically at other DP courses and texts, teaching them to ask where it came from, who agrees with it, and what might their biases be.
For the final project, students analyze a real-life situation from multiple perspectives. They can choose anything; for example, the Kavanaugh confirmation or the curative benefits of acupuncture for a particular ailment. We help students analyze, hone their presentation skills, and learn to make engaging arguments using visual aids.
In 12th grade, students continue to look critically at multiple disciplines as they explore answers to questions posed by the IB. They choose from among six prompts for an essay in which they reflect critically about their own experiences. This year's prompts include: "Do good explanations have to be true?" and "One way to assure the health of a discipline is to nurture contrasting perspectives. Discuss this claim."
TOK students don't learn about what philosophers think, but rather to think like philosophers.
What's new in TOK at Dwight?
This year, we're integrating TOK in other classrooms and working with those teachers to facilitate TOK conversations there, beginning with the History Department. Our current model is to learn what faculty are teaching, consider the connections between TOK and their material, and develop a lesson in collaboration with the teacher that directly complements and adds to his/her class.
I'm also on the Dwight Task Force for Interdisciplinary Learning; TOK by nature is interdisciplinary, so I'm using the Task Force as a vehicle to integrate lessons even more deeply.
How do the IB and TOK contribute to college- and life-readiness?
The IB's rigorous curriculum really helps students prepare for the challenge of college. Students finetune their writing and research skills through the 4,000-word Extended Essay and independent investigations that push them to ask questions and unearth answers rather than merely reproduce answers provided by teachers.
TOK connects what students learn in the classroom to real-world situations. I know that I've made an impact when students see TOK connections out in the world. Students often say, "You're blowing my mind! This is so fun, I see TOK everywhere now!"
Sometimes students will ask me to tell them the answer to a question, but that's not the point. As a TOK teacher, you have to be ready to stand in front of the class and say, "I don't know, that's a tough question," and to collectively wonder with the class. Humility is far more valuable than confidently claiming something that you can't back up. It's so important to learn that it's okay not to know every answer.
How does TOK inform your approach to teaching history?
When I first started teaching, I structured the curriculum chronologically from beginning to end and taught the commonly understood narrative of the past. TOK makes you realize that historical narratives are created by humans. We need to think more critically and ask, "Who wrote this history? What are their biases and how does this impact the story they chose to tell?" It's important to recognize that interpretations of facts change over time. So now I teach US history thematically to really look at the issues and think critically about multiple perspectives of historians.
How do you plan to bring learning from your latest PD experience back to campus?
This week, I am attending a NYSAIS workshop on gender and sexuality. I hope to learn to better identify biases in our curriculum and teaching, so we can try to ensure that more perspectives are included in our curriculum. Too often women and members of the LGBTQ community are marginalized and their valuable perspectives are overlooked. I look forward to helping Dwight become a more inclusive space from the knowledge and resources gained in the workshop.
This is not the first PD grant I was fortunate to receive, thanks to The Dwight School Foundation's generosity. A few years ago, I went to an outstanding IB workshop that helped me envision how to revamp our TOK program, which includes the integration into other classes mentioned above.
What's your personal spark of genius?
I'm a creative problem solver. When I was in high school, I competed in the "Odyssey of the Mind," a creative problem-solving program for students all around the world, which really trained me to tackle things "outside of the box."
What's a little-known fact about you?
I'm a very active outdoors person and spend over a month of the year in the backcountry wilderness. I've hiked and camped in remote places around the world by myself. I grew up backpacking and canoeing with friends. After leading in the classroom and in the department, it's refreshing to go out on my own with no one to lead but myself. I also value unplugging. Technology can be so noisy and distracting. It stops us from being present. It stops us from learning patience. It stops us from wondering.
Fortunately, when school is in session, Shauna is encouraging students to wonder. As Socrates said: "Wisdom begins in wonder."