TOK Tuesdays

Theory of Titles


Welcome to the first of our “TOK Tuesdays” posts, where each week we’ll be focusing on highlighting how Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal’s comprehensive TOK resources can be explicitly harnessed to help TOK teachers and students.  

The idea of TOK Tuesdays has come directly from our TOK-oriented subscribers who have specifically requested that we offer concrete suggestions on TOK-related issues that are most relevant to them and that can be used directly in their classrooms. 

We’ve designed an exciting schedule of weekly posts for the coming months that we’re very keen to share with you.   For the rest of 2019 we’ll be gearing our TOK Tuesday posts to the May 2020 Prescribed Titles neatly divided into three separate sections:

Introductory:  In the first three posts we’ll offer some high-level overviews of the titles from various different perspectives. 

Analysis:  Then, for the next 6 posts we’ll go title by title to give our detailed take on possible approaches to each title, citing a spectrum of specific Ideas Roadshow’s TOK resources that we recommend as particularly well-suited to exploring different aspects together with brief explanations as to why we think so.

Conclusion: The last three posts will be devoted to some concluding thoughts, together with various recommendations for the construction of a strong essay. 

Those who haven’t yet subscribed to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal are recommended to register for one of our free webinars on demand (here).  All attendees receive a complimentary one-week pass to the full video and print content on our IBDP Portal.  

So let’s get started.  Today’s post, the first of our three introductory ones, is entitled:

Theory of Titles

The first point to make is that what you’re about to read are not official statements by the IBO or anyone who represents the IBO in any way.  I am not a TOK examiner and have never been one. Moreover, I have never taught TOK (or any other IB course for that matter).   

This might first seem to be disadvantageous, but a little reflection reveals a spectrum of distinct upsides to being something of an outsider: important fresh perspectives often come from beyond any established school of thought, while having a broad research background is particularly helpful to highlight TOK thinking in the real world, as the hundreds of video and print TOK resources on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal can well attest to.  

But the most significant feature here is simply the most obvious one: as someone who’s completely objective, I can simply say what I think, without prejudice or any fear of the slightest conflict of interest.   After all, if I were a representative of the IBO or a TOK examiner, it would clearly be impossible for me to share my views on this May’s TOK Prescribed Titles. 

Which brings me to the natural starting point of this post. 

The first thought I have when I look at the prescribed titles for the first time is, Why these titles?  This is a pretty obvious question when you start thinking about it, but my guess is that many teachers and students, feeling the pressure to adhere to an intense essay production schedule with the designated construction of outlines, key concepts and structural comparisons, might overlook it.   But I don’t think that they should. 

Given the TOK context of this discussion, let me put this thought slightly differently: let’s use imagination as a way of knowing.  

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a member of the group of people who make TOK titles.  Twice a year, you and your colleagues get together and come up with a list of titles for students to respond to in essay form to demonstrate their level of understanding of TOK.  

So why offer six each time?  Why not just one?  

A common reply might be, “To give the students a choice”.  Which is true, of course. But not really an answer. After all, why worry about giving students a choice in the first place?   If you want to know if people can solve quadratic equations, say, you typically don’t give them a choice.  

A better answer, I think, is that theory of knowledge is a very complex, multi-level course, with many distinct, equally essential, overlapping parts to it. Developing a genuine understanding of what theory of knowledge is and why it’s important involves appreciating the nature of evidence, appeals to authority, the limits of sense perception, our capability of reason, the nature of mathematics, the applicability of theoretical models to the real world, the impact of our biases and assumptions on our current beliefs, and many more things besides.   

It’s very, very messy – precisely because it impacts so many different areas.  

Which means that to do any sort of justice to an examination process, you shouldn’t really ask students respond to just one possible title.   Which, in turn, means that each of the different titles will likely highlight, and consequently be best suited to, particular features of TOK.  

Which is all to say that if I were a DP2 student right now needing to write a TOK essay for this coming spring, the first thing I would do is step back and ask myself which aspects of TOK are most naturally associated with each question.  Or, to put it another way, why did the guys who came up with these titles choose those particular titles? 

Of course, the conclusions I might draw might turn out to have nothing to do with what went through the heads of the actual title-setters.  But, interestingly enough, that actually doesn’t matter in the slightest: I don’t get any bonus points for my essay by guessing people’s motivations anyway.  

But the act of imagining what went through the minds of the title-makers will likely help to give me a clearer sense of which ones best fit my interests and inclinations while offering me a valuable conceptual guide to the construction of my essay once I have made my title choice. 

To give you a concrete sense of the sort of thing I’m talking about, let me share with you some of my thoughts (as I threatened I would earlier):  

I think that those who are keen to demonstrate how our beliefs are influenced by our culture and the people around us might naturally wish to gravitate towards titles 1 and 3; those that are drawn to the question of how we can distinguish between the validity of different theories might want to particularly consider titles 2 and 5, while those who are keen to examine aspects of the knowledge process per se and to what extent we can actually know anything with certainty might find titles 4 and 6 more up their street.    

As it happens, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if those actually involved in the creation of these titles would disagree partly, or even entirely, with these views.  But again, that doesn’t matter one bit: it’s my essay not theirs after all. I’m just looking to find the title that resonates the strongest with my particular TOK interests, while doing my best to ensure that, once I start writing my essay, I stay as much on topic as possible. 

It’s safe to say, too, that my personal conclusions likely won’t do much for anyone else.  Once again, in true TOK fashion, there’s no one, correct, objectively valid, “right answer”.   It’s the engagement in that knowledge process that’s key. But what a key it is.  

Use your imagination.

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