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Connecting Thursdays

The Science of Language

In the Ideas Roadshow compilation video, The Science of Language, 5 celebrated researchers in different disciplines discuss groundbreaking experiments that are performed in language research and explore fascinating questions related to language, such as: What is a language and what isn’t? How does bilingualism affect the plasticity of our brain and ability to learn? What does it mean to have an impairment when using sign language?

Underneath the video we’ll show you what the accompanying worksheet/mini lesson plan looks like on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.

Featured are the following experts:

  • Ellen Bialystok, world-renowned specialist in bilingualism, York University
  • Carol Padden, Dean Communication, UC San Diego & and sign-language expert
  • Martin Monti, neuroscientist and expert in brain-imaging
  • Victor Ferreira, psychologist and specialist in language development
  • Greg Hickok, neuroscientist

You can find 64 more compilation videos on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal in addition to 500+ videos in different formats for TOK, TOK integration, EE and 21 DP subjects!

TOK Tuesdays

TOK: Learning How To Learn

If your school does not have an institutional subscription to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal yet or if you’re interested in getting an individual teacher or student subscription, you can purchase a subscription on this website Annual individual subscriptions cost only $99 and provide unlimited access to all resources that are part Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.

The statement, There’s nothing like TOK, is one that will surely be widely endorsed among IB teachers, students and parents. Teachers might say it proudly, students might say it agonizingly and parents might say it exasperatedly, but everyone will unhesitatingly agree that TOK, or Theory of Knowledge, is a very different sort of course from any other one offered in the IB Diploma Programme. 

But from this basic consensus divergences rapidly arise, with many students convinced that TOK is some highly arcane and essentially pointless hoop that the IB powers that be mysteriously make them jump through, typically brushing it aside until the last possible moment before frantically engaging a battery of tutors in the hopes of somehow muddling through. 

I look at the matter very differently however. For me, TOK is the lynchpin of the entire Diploma Programme, the one course that truly separates it from every other high school curriculum and the one with the greatest potential to truly change a student’s life.  Everyone talks about “critical thinking”, but by creating the Theory of Knowledge course and placing it squarely in the core of the DP Programme, the IB has moved well beyond mouthing clichés, instead providing an explicit opportunity for students to do something far more significant than simply absorb specific facts: TOK gives them a precious opportunity to learn how to learn.

Read more: TOK: Learning How To Learn

As it happens, TOK is the reason why I elected to create Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal to begin with. As someone who had the unique opportunity to build and run an international research institute from scratch, I’ve learned a thing or two about transferable skills, critical thinking and the essential difference between believing something and rigorously assessing why you believe it. And I’ve learned from years of experience that this vital distinction, often widely unappreciated by those who equate “knowing something” with getting a good grade on a test, is precisely what separates the upper echelon of world-leading researchers from the many followers.  

Understanding precisely how it might be that today’s “knowledge” is often tomorrow’s “misconceptions” is a key component to the success in any field, which is why I was particularly excited to produce hundreds of explicitly TOK-oriented videos with dozens of different experts in history, biology, literature, psychology, anthropology, mathematics, geography, political science, physics and more. The point isn’t that TOK is “interdisciplinary”; it’s that a proper understanding of the principles of TOK is necessary for appropriately deepening one’s knowledge in anything

And as vital as a proper understanding of TOK is for academic success, it is arguably even more important for simply making one’s way in the wider world. The recent pandemic we are all struggling through, for example, is providing no shortage of exceptionally vivid examples of the fundamental power and importance of TOK thinking and the dangers of not having it in our toolkit.   

What if, in the spring of 2020, more people had asked themselves, Under what circumstances can we be certain that COVID-19 will follow the same trajectory that SARS and MERS did before?  Or, Does the fact that I am exhibiting specific symptoms provide proof that I am infected? Or even, Can I be sure that I am not contagious? Repeatedly asking ourselves any of those sorts of questions would surely have led to a much faster awareness of how the presence of asymptomatic cases can wreak havoc with our efforts to control a global pandemic.  

Meanwhile, instead of complaining about the prospect of being forced to take a booster shot or adamantly protesting that a vaccine was developed “too quickly”, why not pause and ask ourselves, To what extent can we know how long immunity will last? Or, How can we be certain when a vaccine is working? Investigating those questions in detail will rapidly open up a whole world of cutting-edge medical understanding that will surely do vastly more to inspire a curious mind than any high school biology course ever would on its own. 

 So yes, TOK is quite different from any other course an IB student will take. It is conceptually demanding, at times maddeningly confusing, and necessarily requires the development of an entirely different perspective than most students are familiar with.  But embracing the unique opportunity that TOK offers amounts to a lot more than just getting a few necessary points for your IB Diploma. It might well just change your life.  And everyone else’s too. 

Extending Wednesdays

The role of the Librarian in the IB DP

If your school does not have an institutional subscription to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal you can now sign up for an individual teacher or student subscription. Annual individual subscriptions cost only $99 and provide unlimited access to all resources that are part Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.

If you are reading this you are probably in an IB school – which means you are very lucky because you almost certainly have a school librarian to support you. But what is the unique role that a librarian should have in your education, and how can you make the most of what your librarian is offering?

It’s not all about books!

School libraries around the world are under threat (BBC, 2017ABC news, 2017; Citylab, 2019) and, as school budgets are being squeezed, many regard a professional librarian (and often even a library) as a luxury they can’t afford rather than an educational necessity. The problem is largely one of definition, and of understanding (both among school leaders and librarians themselves) of what a school librarian does – and that is why the situation is often different in IB schools. The traditional definition of a librarian is “a person in charge of or assisting in a library” (1), where a library is “a building or room containing collections of books, periodicals, and sometimes films and recorded music for use or borrowing by the public or the members of an institution” (2).

In a world where so much information is freely available online, ebooks are on the rise and many print books are cheap to buy, some have even suggested that libraries should be replaced by a well-known online retail giant (Guardian, 2018). But regardless of the arguments about the importance of books in education (and I am convinced they are still very important), the real problem often lies in school librarians grounding their identity in books and reading, not in education. The central purpose of schools is education and that should be the central purpose of school librarians too. If “they aren’t buying what we’re selling” then maybe the problem is with us, not them!

Fortunately, the IB recognises this and has published a document entitled Ideal libraries (IBO, 2018) explaining (3) what you should be able to expect from your school library. It defines (school) libraries as “combinations of people, places, collections and services that aid and extend learning and teaching.” (p.2). Notice that books aren’t mentioned at all – not because they aren’t an important and valuable part of our job, but because they are a tool we use to achieve our purpose, not the reason we exist. This astonishing and inspiring document goes on to explain the key roles of the librarian, and I am going to use it to explain what you should be expecting from your school librarian, and why they are a fundamental part of your IB education.

So what does a school librarian do?

The IBO says in Ideal Libraries that:

Library/ians act as curators of information, caretakers of content and people, catalysts of people and services, and connectors to sources of information, multiliteracies, and reading. Librarians’ responsibilities are inspired by the learning environments they engage with, and in that capacity, they are co-creators of information with the school and the wider community. They challenge learners to seek appropriate information, to use sound methods of inquiry and research, and teach them to question the information they find and use. (p.5)

In short, your librarian is the person to know if you want to learn how to access and work with information to generate and/or answer an inquiry question. You might expect your librarian to have the skills to locate and access information on whatever obscure topic you may have chosen for your EE (or IA), but our role goes far beyond that. It’s our job to be able to teach you to understand how to journey from the vague stirrings of an interest in a topic all the way through to a carefully researched, tightly argued and appropriately sourced and referenced essay answering a thoughtfully worded inquiry question within the space of about nine months, reflecting as you go. In short, it is our job to turn you into an academic researcher (although we prefer the term inquirer).

Shaping the EE process

Your teachers and supervisors are subject specialists, but your librarian is the specialist in inquiry. “Inquiry is an approach to learning whereby students find and use a variety of sources of information and ideas to increase their understanding of a problem, topic or issue. It requires more of them than simply answering questions or getting a right answer.(Kuhlthau, 2007, p. 2). More broadly, “inquiry is a dynamic process of being open to wonder and puzzlement and coming to know and understand the world, [and] as such, it is a stance that pervades all aspects of life and is essential to the way in which knowledge is created” (Galileo Educational Network).

The Extended Essay may be your first major step into the type of inquiry where you have real freedom to choose your own topic, so it makes sense that it should be guided by someone who really understands the process. At Oakham School, our journey with inquiry began with an examination of the EE process and how it could be reshaped to support our students more effectively. In 2010 Darryl Toerien, the Head of Library, had been developing his understanding of inquiry through the work of Carol Kuhlthau and Barbara Stripling. He realised that the EE process that he had inherited when he joined the school in 2008 was largely driven by an administrative need to make sure that students met certain deadlines rather than by a deep understanding of the inquiry process and what it would take for them to get there.

Oakham School’s first EE timetable (2001-3 cohort)

Most glaringly, students were expected to select their research question within four weeks of their first introduction to the EE, but were then only given dedicated off-timetable time to work on the EE six months later, a week before their first draft was due. While they were expected to start gathering research materials much earlier, there was no real expectation of any substantial reading until EE “research week”, when they needed to do their reading and writing together in a fairly short concentrated space of time.

From his understanding of Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process, Darryl realised that the inquiry question only emerges from a deep understanding of the topic, achieved by using resources to investigate the topic and build understanding. You go into your investigation with an idea and a direction, and emerge with an understanding of an appropriate question to answer. He also realised that the most challenging, transformative and important work of the EE is not what is often called the “research” – finding resources and reading them – or even writing the essay. It is what comes in between those two – constructing a new (to you) understanding of your topic based on what you have read. This is what changes you and equips you to write an original, evidence-based essay, rather than a disjointed patchwork of other people’s thoughts. But this takes time and support.

Our current timetable is based on a blend of Information Search Process and The FOSIL Cycle, developed by Darryl based on the Stripling Model of Inquiry within the Empire State Information Fluency Continuum.


The FOSIL Cycle

The FOSIL cycle is a clear description of all the stages of inquiry, resting on a foundation of decades of research and it would require a blog post of its own to explain how the cycle works and the impact it has on teaching and learning – if you are interested visit the The FOSIL Group website for more information about the cycle, free downloadable resources and a community of educators sharing their ideas in our forum.

By understanding how the inquiry process works, we can guide our students more effectively through it. In this particular case we realised that students had almost no time for Connect and Wonder (the background research and exploration required to understand a topic well enough to ask good questions) and often skipped Construct (building understanding) altogether as they jumped from Investigate (finding out) to Express (writing).

Adding Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process, which described what students might be thinking, doing and feeling at each stage, into the timetable was the final piece of the puzzle.

Oakham School’s current EE support structure (2019-21 cohort): Based on the FOSIL cycle and the Information Search Process

We began to understand how students might be feeling at different stages of the process and when the most appropriate times to offer support were. In terms of structured support (provided centrally to the whole cohort, as opposed to that provided by supervisors) we went from just one seminar at the start of the process to three, backed up by two dedicated IT workshops. We also split the Research Days into two chunks, giving students three Investigation Days off timetable to find resources and start working with them quite early in the process (February), with plenty of time to continue reading, follow up leads and acquire new resources, think through what they had read and discuss it with their supervisors in between that and the Writing Days (June). This Construct time is critical to helping students find their own voices. This is what the new timetable looks like in practice:

Hopefully you can see that this timetable is now informed by an understanding of the inquiry process and the student experience, rather than an administrative need for students to reach certain goals. The Library is also now integral to the EE process, not peripheral. This is the value of involving the Librarian in shaping the EE process.

Supporting the EE process

We now support the EE process through:

  • Offering three compulsory targeted seminars at appropriate intervention points.
  • Offering two compulsory targeted IT workshops at appropriate intervention points. As our provision has improved further down the school, we are finding more students arriving in the sixth form able to use the tools in Word to cite and reference and generate contents lists. This year we plan to offer parallel sessions for those who have never used these tools before and those who feel reasonably confident and just need a reminder.
  • Supporting students in small groups and individually during the Investigation and Writing Days. It’s amazing how often students who thought they were pretty good at searching come out of these seminars surprised at how much they have learnt – if your library offers similar seminars it would be worth attending.
  • Providing a web-based support resource (in our case a LibGuide) supporting students at every stage of the process. Our new EE LibGuide absolutely transformed our EE support last year, empowering students to access the support they need whenever they need it, moving through the process at their own pace. Having launched the resource in December 2019 with no idea of what was to come, the guide also enabled us to provide our strongest support ever, despite the coronavirus shutdown. We may continue to use some of the strategies we developed last year even after life returns to normal – for example using video tutorials for IT skills enables students to differentiate and self-pace and revisit in a way that live workshops do not, and allows them to choose PC or Mac based tutorials.
  • Offering individual support as requested. We welcome individual requests by email or (before lockdown!) in person, and students often contact us for help finding resources on obscure topics and on citing different types of resources.
  • Providing a broad and rich range of print and subscription resources, and purchasing new resources (or suggesting suitable alternatives) on request. Which leads us on to the third strand of the library service – and perhaps the one that springs to mind for most people when they think of the role of the library:

Resourcing the EE process

We have always emphasised using a wide variety of resources for in-depth research like the EE.

I. Books are perfect both for breadth – for reading around, becoming an expert in your topic and putting it into context. They are often (but not always) good academic sources, particularly when from well-known publishers, but you do still have to watch out for bias. Their biggest issue is the publishing time lag, which can mean it is harder to find a range of books about emerging issues, and the cost for niche academic texts.

II. Online journal articles often give very narrowly focussed depth (and can be very current) but have to be used carefully at this level because they can be too focused if you don’t have appropriate grounding in that area. Our most commonly used databases for the EE are EBSCO Advanced Placement source and JSTOR – and both have also proved invaluable last year for the range of ebooks they have during lockdown when the physical library was closed. We also saw increasing use of the Oxford Very Short Introductions ebooks, which offer the quality and depth of print books combined with the searchable convenience of online resources.

III. We have other subscription databases as well, and a third important category is targeted databases aimed directly at students at this level, which are increasingly starting to include video as well as print resources. We picked up the fantastic Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal resource quite late in the process last year, when many of our students were already quite far into the investigation and were moving towards writing. As we approach the start of our EE process this year, I am confident that this innovative and exciting resource will really come into its own during the Connect stage of the FOSIL Cycle.

The short clips and compilations (each of which comes with an accompanying 1-page PDF providing lots of helpful information related to each video, including citing instructions) and the longer, in-depth conversations with world-leading researchers are ideal for students with a vague idea of the subject and perhaps topics they are interested in, but no clear direction. They are perfect for browsing and stimulating interest – and students who discover a line of inquiry that inspires them are assured of a one-hour detailed conversation with an expert in the field (with an accompanying PDF e-book) underpinning each clip or compilation to kick off their investigation!

Shaping you

As you can see from the above, although my role as a librarian does involve the traditional “librarian” activities of acquiring and curating resources, and helping my students to navigate them, it is actually so much bigger than that. I see my role directly as an educator. Perhaps more than anyone else in the school, it is the librarian’s job to nurture, enable and empower life-long learners because our subject is inquiry. I am not constrained by the need to teach my students to pass a Chemistry or Latin or Sports Science exam as well as teaching them how to think and learn independently – how to find, access, interrogate, assimilate, evaluate information and transform it into knowledge for themselves.

Not for me, not for the IB, not for the EE, not for their parents or their teachers. For themselves.

My students think I am supporting them through the EE, but my goal is so much larger. Done properly an EE can be a life changing experience that transforms a young person’s relationship with information and knowledge. It may well be the first time in your life when you realise that you have the power to turn yourself into an expert – when you realise that you know more about an academic topic than anyone around you, including your teachers, and that your thoughts and ideas matter.

I want to empower young people to question the narratives the world offers them, and to have the tools to seek authentic answers to those questions. I believe that the skills and attitudes that you learn through a relationship with your Library/ians during your school career will be vital for your success, not just at university but through the rest of your life.

As Ideal Libraries puts it: 

“Libraries are where most forms of inquiry, not just academic ones, begin. The school may set the conditions for inquiry, encourage inquiry, and to some extent direct it, but learners must initiate inquiry for it to happen.” 

You may think librarians spend all day hiding away in the library waiting patiently for someone to come in and ask for a book, but actually we’re hard at work (often late into the night) on changing the world, student by student. As the author and film-maker Michael Moore said of librarians back in 2002:

 “They are subversive. You think they’re just sitting there at the desk, all quiet and everything. They’re like plotting the revolution, man. I wouldn’t mess with them.”


1)  Oxford University Press. (2010) Librarian. In Oxford Dictionary of English, edited by Stevenson, Angus. Retrieved June 8, 2020, from https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199571123.001.0001/m_en_gb0468920

2) Oxford University Press. (2010) Library. In Oxford Dictionary of English, edited by Stevenson, Angus. Retrieved June 8, 2020, from https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199571123.001.0001/m_en_gb0468930

3) IBO (2018) Ideal libraries: a guide for schools. Cardiff: IBO. Retrieved 12 June, 2020, from: https://uaeschoollibrariansgroup.files.wordpress.com/2018/06/ideal-libraries-for-ib.pdf


Jennifer Toerien, IB librarian

TOK Tuesdays

Investigating PT6 – Helpful Biases?

If your school does not have an institutional subscription to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal you can now sign up for an individual teacher or student subscription. Annual individual subscriptions cost only $99 and provide unlimited access to all resources that are part Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.

This is the final of six special TOK posts to directly assist students and teachers in appreciating vital nuances associated with each of the May 2021 Prescribed Titles.  For each title, I will identify some initial key concepts and highlight some specific approaches to address them along with specific Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal resources that can concretely assist in the development of a strong TOK essay for that particular title.   

This piece discusses PT6: “Avoiding bias seems a commendable goal, but this fails to recognize the positive role that bias can play in the pursuit of knowledge.”  Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.

Key Concepts:  

This title, together with PT3, are my personal favourites of the six on offer for this session.  Why?  Because along with the usual requirements of carefully parsing phrases and probing subtle aspects of meaning lies an additional opportunity to rethink core aspects of what TOK-thinking really is and how it can be applied to the world around us. 

For PT3, as we’ve already discussed, lurking behind the title’s typically dense wording is the intriguing notion of whether or not it can be justifiably argued that the imposition of any organizational structure to some extent inhibits aspects of our understanding, while in this title we are forced to ponder the notion of “bias” in a much more sophisticated way than is usually the case.  

In particular, this title asks us to consider whether or not biases might sometimes serve a positive role in the knowledge process.  To most students—and perhaps even many teachers—such a notion will initially seem quite startling.  After all, aren’t we all agreed that biases are generally a bad thing, representing a combination of closed-mindedness, pre-set expectations, and a needlessly blinkered world-view?  How can biases possibly be good things to have?

Well, I don’t have “the answer”, of course, and I hardly need to stress here that the entire point of this title is for you to come up with your own view.  But unlike many PTs where the onus is on the student to elaborate subtle shades of grey associated with specific words (e.g. To what extent can we distinguish between “useful” and “most useful”? What do we mean by “element of trust”, exactly, and under what circumstances can we maintain that it is always present?), this title strikes me as one which would appeal to those whose interests are naturally oriented towards the development of broader and refined conceptual frameworks: whatever can be possibly meant by a “positive bias”?  

My own perspective follows from a thought experiment. Imagine a world where knowledge-seekers always start their investigations from a position of total ignorance, wholly uninfluenced by anything that has happened before.   Physicists would sit down to do their experiments ignorant of Newton’s Laws (or any others), historians wouldn’t have read (or at least remembered) any other text before they begin their analysis, anthropologists would judge every human society they encounter as the first one they’ve ever seen. Of course these sorts of scenarios are hardly realistic, but that’s not the point. The idea here is to flesh out two things:

  1. What would it take, exactly, for a knowledge-seeker to be completely without any biases whatever?
  2. Assuming that could somehow be arranged, would it, in fact, be a good thing in terms of their ability to produce knowledge?

Reflecting on the first point makes me appreciate that, for all practical purposes, it is inevitable that—whatever the particular area of knowledge we wish to consider—those involved in the pursuit of knowledge inevitably bring some biases to the table as they begin their inquiries.  Moreover, the more experienced and knowledgeable they are, to a very real extent the larger the number of biases they might have. 

Meanwhile, a few moment’s reflection on the second point brings me to the swift conclusion that a world where knowledge-seekers were all strictly unbiased would be tremendously inefficient from a knowledge-generation perspective. 

OK, so that’s interesting: I’ve just concluded that not only is a certain amount of bias in the knowledge process inevitable, but that seems to be a good thing.  But now what do I do?  After all, and after sitting through hours of TOK classes, I’m also firmly convinced that bias can be significantly detrimental to our development of knowledge.   

There are lots of interesting ways to proceed here. One approach might be to make a distinction between “good” and “bad” bias, or “reasonable” and “unreasonable” biases, possibly based upon some statistical arguments of how likely any initial assumption is likely to be rendered invalid. Another might be to recognize that the problem with bias in this case isn’t so much that we will approach a situation with some pre-set expectations or inclinations but to ensure that we explicitly recognize what they are so that they don’t unduly prejudice our efforts. Again, you have to find the right approach that fits with you, but as usual whatever you decide to do, you’ll likely need to find some pointed and revealing examples of when bias might both help and hinder the knowledge process.  And that’s what the next section is all about.

Below we highlight a number of specific resource examples that are part of Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal  to build a world-class TOK Essay.

Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal offers a strong pedagogical framework where TOK is the backbone of interdisciplinarity throughout all resources.

In what follows, we provide numerous examples of what I referred to above as “good” and “bad” biases from four experts in four different research areas. The TOK Clips are all part of Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal and come with detailed supplementary print materials and citing details to build a great TOK essay. Only subscribers to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal can use the materials below!

In Predicting the Higgs, world-leading physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed reveals how, by assuming both the inherent correctness of our particle physics models and the common belief that “nature will avail herself of all possibilities that she has open to her”, we were able to successfully predict the existence of the Higgs boson.

In Astonishingly Simple, Prof. Arkani-Hamed again reveals his bias towards the intrinsically mathematical nature of physical laws when he describes how the conspicuously and surprisingly simple final form of a calculation is likely evidence of a deeper underlying structure. But in Distracted by Language Prof. Arkani-Hamed describes how, if we’re not careful, an undue reliance on the vagaries of language can result in a litany of unhelpful biases and assumptions that can lead physicists down the wrong path. 

Meanwhile, political scientist Mark Bevir freely admits to his guiding assumptions (to what extent, you might wish to consider, can “principles” be objectively distinguished from “biases”?) before moving on to demonstrate specific instances where the biases of many of his colleagues lead them astray. In Philosophical Thinking he adamantly expresses how he is convinced that adopting a rigorously philosophical approach is necessary to make progress in the social sciences.

In The Importance of Dialogue Prof. Bevir insists that, regardless of the particular issues at play or the prevailing public attitudes, it is always beneficial for policymakers to solicit the views of the general public before implementing any policy measure, even if it is one that most people object to. But in Descriptions vs Explanations he details how the prevailing bias that is unhesitatingly adopted by many of his colleagues—that the business of the social sciences is to uncover immutable laws just like those in the natural sciences—is both false and dangerously misleading. 

In Optimism, Confirmed, Evolving Moral Understanding and Breaking Down Barriers anthropologist Frans de Waal describes how his optimistic convictions about both human and animal nature played a central role in driving him to develop his extensive research agenda that eventually confirmed many of them, while in A Lack of Empathy, his segment in the TOK Sampler Encountering Assumptions, he relates how a socially conservative and vaguely misogynistic bias long held back biological research into the nature of human and animal empathy.

In Perfect Pitch and Tone Languages and From Song to Speech?, psychologist Diana Deutsch reveals how her personal love of music drove her towards investigating a possible link between perfect pitch and tone languages followed by the development of a broader thesis relating the origin of language to tone languages, while in Losing Control she relates how many psychologists refrain from investigating, or even sometimes recognizing, auditory illusions because it “makes them uncomfortable”.  

Additional resources that students might find helpful for this title include the TOK Samplers Battling Biases, Encountering Assumptions, Extending Experience and Investigating Values

Contact us for information about how you can get access to these award-winning resources!

TOK Tuesdays

Investigating PT5 – Meta-Investigations

If your school does not have an institutional subscription to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal you can now sign up for an individual teacher or student subscription. Annual individual subscriptions cost only $99 and provide unlimited access to all resources that are part Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.

This is the fifth of six special TOK posts to directly assist students and teachers in appreciating vital nuances associated with each of the May 2021 Prescribed Titles.  For each title, I will identify some initial key concepts and highlight some specific approaches to address them along with specific Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal resources that can concretely assist in the development of a strong TOK essay for that particular title. 

This piece discusses PT5: “Areas of knowledge are most useful in combination with each other.”  Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.

Key Concepts and Analysis:  

One of the first thoughts that occurs to me as I glance at this title is that it is, in some ways, a sort of “flip side” to PT3, as both deal with the notion of interdisciplinarity.   While PT3 maintains that the very act of grouping our knowledge into different categories necessarily inhibits our full powers of understanding, this title maintains that the most useful aspect of the categorization scheme of developing distinct “areas of knowledge” lies in its potential of combining them.

More specifically, the two words that immediately jump out at me in this title are “most” and “useful” (both independently, and as part of a compound expression), leading to the following two thoughts:

  1. What is meant by “useful” in this context?
  2. Under what circumstances can I rigorously assess to what extent something is clearly “most useful”?—that is, demonstrably more useful than anything else. 

Personally, the first part doesn’t seem all that problematic. Presumably what I mean by “useful” here is something like “leads to increased understanding”, by setting the stage for future knowledge generation and/or better appreciating and recognizing what I already know.  In other words, it’s clear that the creation and application of a scheme of “areas of knowledge” is an artificial construct we have developed—the world wasn’t made with little “AOK” labels affixed to things—and the reason we have decided to invoke such a structure is because we believe that by doing so we can both better organize our knowledge (i.e. understand the world around us) and provide a good framework for developing new knowledge/understanding.   

It’s when considering the second aspect—how can I know when something is most useful in this context?— that the situation becomes decidedly murkier.  In particular, I might believe that the AOK structure is useful in many ways, including the associated opportunity to specifically investigate combinations of different AOKs, but I might disagree that the notion of combining AOKs is the most useful aspect of this organizational structure. Perhaps I think that, in some overall sense, “more” knowledge (or, even more contentiously, “more valuable” knowledge) is generated within AOKs than “across” them. 

Or maybe I think that the key (i.e. in this context “most useful”) factor of the entire AOK schema is not so much knowledge generation per se but rather appreciating what I already know through a comprehensive organizational structure, and the most important aspect of such a structure is the comprehensiveness, or flexibility, or something else entirely, of each of my AOKs.   Or maybe I believe that the effectiveness of my entire AOK knowledge structure depends on my choice of AOKs themselves, and in some possible schemes the principal utility of my framework lies in the power of the AOKs themselves while in others it rests with how they might be combined.   

In other words, and somewhat more abstractly, this title involves a dip into a form of “meta-meta-thinking”.   If TOK is a form of meta-thinking—thinking about knowledge rather than simply acquiring knowledge—, then asking questions about how, exactly, we should think about knowledge—such as which AOKs we should use in our organizational framework and what their principal utility towards our understanding is—involves a form of meta-TOK thinking, or meta-meta-thinking.   

It is likely not a coincidence that three of this year’s 6 prescribed titles (I’ve already mentioned PT3 above, but note that PT2 also alludes to how the distinction between “change” and “progress” might well be “AOK-dependent”) are of the meta-TOK variety at precisely the time when the IBO powers that be have been thinking deeply about how best to restructure the TOK curriculum. 

At any rate, a successful exploration of this title will most definitely require you to plunge into an explicit analysis of the benefits of the “AOK organizational framework”.   And remember: it’s not enough to show that, however you define “useful” (and you must), combining AOKs is a useful thing to be doing.   A TOK student’s job is to demonstrate that the act of combining AOKs can be demonstrated to be—or not to be—or in some instances yes and in others no—the most useful aspect of the entire TOK knowledge framework. 

As always, a vital way to go forwards is to be working with some specific examples both to clarify what you believe and to best present your arguments, the details of which are naturally up to you. In what follows, I’ll highlight a number of related TOK resources that are part of Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal grouped in two sections: those that demonstrate the merits of interdisciplinarity and the “potential porousness” of AOK boundaries, and others that support the notion of the productive knowledge-generation capacity of separate self-contained AOKs. 

Below we highlight a number of specific TOK resource examples from Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal to build a world-class TOK Essay.

Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal offers a strong pedagogical framework where TOK is the backbone of interdisciplinarity throughout all resources.

I. The Merits of Interdisciplinarity

In A Historian’s Toolbox, UC Berkeley historian Martin Jay describes how paying close attention to evolutions of particular social and linguistic developments (Human Sciences) is an essential aspect of the development of historical knowledge (History). 

In Testing Reality and Applied Philosophy, National University of Singapore and Oxford University physicist Artur Ekert relates how philosophical probing (Human Sciences), mathematical formalism (Mathematics) and carefully-designed experiments (Natural Sciences) combined to lead to ground-breaking changes in our understanding of nature.

In Enlarging the Conversation, Princeton University historian David Cannadine argues that historians would significantly benefit from detailed discussions with neuroscientists and geneticists (Natural Sciences) in order to further their understanding of the human condition that lies at the heart of the historical enterprise (History).

In Testing Morality, Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal describes how the application of economists’ “ultimatum game” (Human Sciences) to the broader biological world (Natural Sciences) can provide a wealth of tangible insights into notions of morality (Ethics), while in Individuals and Community and Evolving Moral Understanding he relates his findings on the profound structural similarity between human and animal morality that not only bridge the Human Sciences, Natural Sciences and Ethics, but also propose insights on the development of ethical systems that are relevant to religious knowledge systems.

In Predicting Our World, Northeastern University psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett illustrates how a detailed understanding of the creative process of visual artists (The Arts) can better help us understand and appreciate how the brain interprets and imposes its structures on the world (Human Sciences, Natural Sciences).

II. Knowledge Generation Within Individual AOKs

In Retooling Our Brains and Constantly Testing, Duke University neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis demonstrates how a keen biological understanding twinned with rigorous experiment can drive our knowledge of how the brain works.   Meanwhile, in Necessary but not Sufficient he illustrates how interdisciplinary approaches can still exist within a given AOK, contrasting reductionistic tendencies in physics with the need for a more holistic approach in neurobiology. 

A similar demonstration of how illuminating interdisciplinary thinking can occur within the same AOK—once again using the example of physics and biology in the Natural Sciences—occurs in Scott Tremaine’s penetrating analysis in Darwin and the Butterfly, where he distinguishes the knowledge process in astrophysics and evolutionary biology with other areas of both physics and biology.

In Off Base, Cambridge University historian Stefan Collini describes how, by diligently returning to a careful examination of the historical record we can eliminate common misconceptions and develop a clearer understanding of past events. 

In History, Evolving and Seeking the Bigger Picture UCLA’s historian Margaret Jacob reveals how careful and experienced historians can make knowledgeable judgements about not only what has happened and why, but also what constitutes responsible and productive approaches to the historical enterprise. 

In Thinking It Through, University of Cambridge political scientist John Dunn describes how a rigorous analysis of the concepts of democracy, civil liberties and capitalism—all in the Human Sciences domain—enable us to reveal common inconsistencies and contradictions that might otherwise have laid hidden.

In Mathematics and the Real World, University of Warwick mathematician and bestselling author Ian Stewart describes how, within the domain of mathematics, pure and applied streams can combine to dramatically increase our mathematical understanding. 

Students and teachers who already have access to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal are also referred to each of the 5 Ideas Roadshow TOK Samplers dedicated to a specific AOK—Mathematics, Human Sciences, Natural Sciences, History and The Arts—for added perspectives on the breadth, depth, degree of self-containment and potential interdisciplinarity of these AOKs.

TOK Tuesdays

Investigating PT4 – All Lies?

If your school does not have an institutional subscription to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal you can now sign up for an individual teacher or student subscription. Annual individual subscriptions cost only $99 and provide unlimited access to all resources that are part Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.

This is the fourth of six special TOK posts to directly assist students and teachers in appreciating vital nuances associated with each of the May 2021 Prescribed Titles.  For each title, I will identify some initial key concepts and highlight some specific approaches to address them along with specific Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal resources that can concretely assist in the development of a strong TOK essay for that particular title.

This piece discusses PT4: “Statistics conceal as much as they reveal.”  Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge. 

Key Concepts:  

The claim in this title is a pretty strong one, and unlike some of those in other titles, represents a summary judgement that in my view is a lot harder to justify. But regardless of whether your knee-jerk impulse is to agree or disagree with it, clearly a key to successfully grappling with its implications involves coming to terms with the subjective aspects of the acts of “concealment” and “revelation” that lie at the heart of the claim. Statistics in themselves, of course, are merely objective mathematical expressions, but the very act of interpreting and presenting these expressions to others—expressed here by the words “conceal” and “reveal”— clearly has the potential to veer decidedly towards the subjective side of things in a way that could well involve an array of both inadvertent and deliberate errors.   

The idea that fundamentally specious conclusions could be “dressed up” and somehow rendered more authoritative using deliberately skewed statistical arguments is hardly a new thought, and lies at the heart of Mark Twain’s oft-quoted remark that he attributed to Benjamin Disraeli:

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. 

So the first thing to recognize is simply that any statistical argument necessarily involves an interpretation of the mathematics, which will often bring in an array of subjective factors and judgements that we need to make explicit and question, ranging from which conclusions are valid to larger structural issues such as how the statistical study was initially designed.  

That seems clear enough. But a quick glance at the title reveals that that is not, in fact, what it says. The claim is not that “interpreting statistical arguments invariably involve a certain degree of subjectivity” or even “there are times when statistics can be used to support a number of distinct, and even contradictory, conclusions”, but rather “statistics conceal as much as they reveal”.   

To be able to justify such a claim, you not only have to explicitly tackle the thorny issues of what it means to “conceal” and “reveal” concepts related to statistics (which you have to do anyway if you decide to take on this title, and among other things, will likely involve an explicit mention of the concept of beginning an investigation without any initial convictions as to the outcome), but—even more problematically—you are forced to demonstrate that in all instances of statistics, and presumably for any conclusion that is based upon them, there is an equal amount of concealed or hidden information to somehow “counterbalance” what is alleged to be demonstrated by the statistics. 

Once again, that seems a pretty hard position to maintain, and certainly not one I subscribe to. But that’s not the point of a TOK title, of course. I can’t just write: I disagree. I have to demonstrate exactly why I disagree in terms of what, specifically, I find objectionable about the claim. 

In this case, there appear to be two separate issues to tackle no matter what your final position is:

  1. Discuss what exactly could be meant by the words “conceal” and “reveal” in terms of related concepts we’ve discussed above (interpretation, subjectivity, objectivity).
  1. Evaluate to what extent you agree, or disagree, with the claim that the amount of “concealment” and “revelation” is always equivalent in statistical arguments, which I would argue is tantamount to declaring that statistical arguments can never give rise to objectively true statements. 

In my view the best way to go about making your case is to invoke specific examples of statistical reasoning, highlighting associated interpretative (subjective) aspects together with more objective ones. In what follows, I’ll present several helpful resources from Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal that involve explicit mention of statistical arguments and can be used to build an excellent essay.

Below we highlight a number of specific TOK resource examples from Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal to build a world-class TOK Essay. All TOK Clips come with a detailed print component and TOK Essay Practice Videos.

Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal offers a strong pedagogical framework where TOK is the backbone of interdisciplinarity throughout all resources.

In Divining the Date, University of Michigan classicist Richard Janko reveals how he used statistical arguments to date an ancient manuscript by looking at the frequency of certain linguistic expressions, giving additional support to the notion that objectively verifiable conclusions can be deduced from careful, independent-minded statistical studies. 

In Circular Reasoning, University of Oxford physicist Roger Penrose gives an explicit example of how a statistical argument that purports to give an account of “a random sky” wrongly incorporates pre-existing informations, although it’s worth emphasizing that he believes this to be a misinterpretation rather than an active attempt to promote an alternative scientific agenda.

In Defining What You’re Looking For and Subjective Distortions, award-winning violinmaker and acoustician Joseph Curtin relates his pioneering “double-blind” experiments to determine whether or not expert musicians can identify the sound of a Stradivari violin, presenting a compelling argument for how a rigorous statistical analysis could filter out many subjective biases commonly held throughout the world of professional musicians.

 In fMRI and Assessing Consciousness, neuroscientists Kalanit Grill-Spector and Martin Monti demonstrate how contemporary brain-scanning experiments that involve explicit statistical algorithms can give rise to an array of well-grounded insights. 

In Autism and Vaccines, UCL psychologist Uta Frith describes the various statistical arguments that went into establishing the conclusion that the development of autism was not causally connected to being vaccinated with the childhood vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella. I suggest that students investigate to what extent potentially “concealed” conclusions could be reduced by increasing the number of such studies and how, in general, the volume of studies impacts the statistics themselves. 

In Scientific Credibility, business professor and environmentalist Andy Hoffman describes how, notwithstanding significant amounts of scepticism from those who are convinced that climate scientists are “concealing contradictory data”, he believes that at the end of the day most people will recognize the objective validity of their many statistical models.

TOK Tuesdays

Investigating PT3 – Systemic Constraints?

If your school does not have an institutional subscription to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal you can now sign up for an individual teacher or student subscription. Annual individual subscriptions cost only $99 and provide unlimited access to all resources that are part Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.

This is the third of six special TOK posts to directly assist students and teachers in appreciating vital nuances associated with each of the May 2021 Prescribed Titles.  For each prescribed title I will identify some initial key concepts and highlight some specific approaches to address them along with specific Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal resources that can concretely assist in the development of a strong TOK essay for that particular title.  

This piece discusses PT3: “Labels are a necessity in the organization of knowledge, but they also constrain our understanding.”  Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge. 

Key Concepts:  

My approach to this title would be somewhat different from the first two discussed in earlier posts. Rather than embarking on a detailed search for a meaningful definition associated with a given concept highlighted in the title, in this case I feel fairly certain that I get the overall gist of what the issue is, and the associated subtlety to be explored is not so much a matter of definition per se, but more of interpretation and personal belief.   

In other words, I don’t believe that it would be terribly fruitful for me to spend my time investigating, What do I mean by a label here? or Under what circumstances can we be said to have our understanding constrained? The claim under consideration here seems to be that if we want to coherently structure our knowledge about the world around us it is necessary to group what we know into specific categories or areas; and that by carrying out this necessary grouping or labelling we will also, unfortunately, inevitably miss the development of some further insight that would have increased our knowledge.  

Personally, I find this the most interesting title of the six because I’m not actually sure what I believe. It might well be true; moreover, it might actually be quite a deep insight. For years educational theorists have trumpeted the importance of “interdisciplinarity”—that we need to move beyond the so-called “fixed silos” of our knowledge framework and instead “make connections across them”.   But the statement in this title is not, it is worth emphasizing, asking us to weigh in on  whether or not we believe in the merits of an interdisciplinary approach to knowledge creation, but rather whether the need for such interdisciplinarity will necessarily always be with us as a direct consequence of the inevitable act of structuring what we know.  

Further Analysis:

So first a bit of formal structure. 

For me to agree with the statement, I need to believe that:

  1. In order to organize knowledge one needs to put labels on things
  2. An inevitable consequence of labelling our knowledge is to constrain one’s understanding

Now, while I freely admit that it’s logically possible to believe that knowledge (or anything else, for that matter) can be “organized” without developing a schema of specific categories (i.e. “labels”) of some sort or another, personally I simply can’t imagine such a thing—indeed, for me, having some sort of categorization structure is precisely what I mean by being “organized”.  

Which means that the degree to which I will agree or disagree with the statement in the claim is directly related to #2 above. More specifically, can I imagine a situation where categorizing my knowledge doesn’t constrain my understanding (in which case I have a counterexample to the claim at hand)?   Maybe if I use sufficiently flexible labels, my understanding would be constrained after all, so the question is more about how I label my knowledge than whether or not I do.  Or perhaps those constraints only arise in some instances, like for particular AOKs in particular circumstances. 

After all, who’s to say that “constraining our understanding” is an established universally-agreed-upon concept anyway?  Perhaps one person’s “constraint” is someone else’s “insight”?

Whatever your final position, you’re going to need some specific examples to help illustrate your views.  They might also be highly useful to help you converge on what you actually believe in the first place. In what follows, I’ll offer some concrete examples that can naturally be interpreted in various different ways. 

Below we highlight a number of specific TOK resource examples from Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal to build a world-class TOK Essay. Each TOK Clip comes with a detailed print component and TOK Essay Practice videos.

Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal offers a strong pedagogical framework where TOK is the backbone of interdisciplinarity throughout all resources.

In Beyond the Textbooks, Princeton University physicist Paul Steinhardt relates how, by deliberately ignoring standard textbook views of how atoms of materials could be possibly arranged, he extended our understanding of a new state of matter known as “quasicrystals”  This example could be used to demonstrate the inherently constraining aspects of specific knowledge categories in the physical sciences in the form of “rigid laws”.  Alternatively, it could be used to illustrate the claim that constraints in understanding are much more a function of the training and personal orientation of a researcher than in a label per se. 

In Rethinking the Fifth, Duke University philosopher and law professor Nita Farahany reexamines the Fifth Amendment to the American Constitution in light of our enhanced understanding from modern neuroscience. This example could be used as evidence that any present categorization structure inevitably constrains our understanding and thus needs to be continually reassessed, or as a demonstration of how, by ascribing multiple “labels” to the same knowledge, we can potentially avoid constraints that might otherwise occur. 

In Modelling Politics, Tufts University philosopher Brian Epstein describes how a successful political model must fundamentally incorporate many things that go beyond most standard characterizations of the political realm. As per other examples in this section, this clip simultaneously demonstrates the constraints inherent in a given knowledge categorization framework as well as our potential ability to transcend them.

In Frank Drake’s Agenda, astronomer and former SETI director Jill Tarter illustrates how, by grouping what we know and don’t know into a transparent framework, Frank Drake set the stage for us to better address the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligence. This example concretely highlights the benefits—and potential liabilities—inherent in a given organizational framework of knowledge.

In Rethinking History and Towards Better Explanations, Princeton University historian David Cannadine details how he believes that deep historical understanding can be extracted by moving beyond the standard categorization scheme of religion, nation, class, gender, race and civilization. This example simultaneously illustrates the power of “labelling constraints to our understanding” and our ability to transcend them. 

A wealth of additional TOK videos directly relevant to this topic can be found in the TOK Samplers Developing Understanding and Personal Perspectives, as well as the TOK Essay Practice Videos which can all be accessed on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.

TOK Tuesdays

Investigating PT2 – Change vs. Progress

If your school does not have an institutional subscription to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal you can now sign up for an individual teacher or student subscription. Annual individual subscriptions cost only $99 and provide unlimited access to all resources that are part Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.

This is the second of six special TOK blog posts to directly assist students and teachers in appreciating vital nuances associated with each of the May 2021 Theory of Knowledge prescribed titles.  For each title, I will identify some initial key concepts and highlight some concrete approaches to address them before pointing subscribers to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal to specific TOK resources that are part of our IB-specific database that can concretely assist in the development of a strong TOK essay for that particular title.  

This piece discusses PT2: Within areas of knowledge, how can we differentiate between change and progress?  Answer with reference to two areas of knowledge.

Key Concepts:  

The first thing that came to mind when I read this title is a discussion of the objective/subjective distinction with respect to the quest for knowledge: Who’s to say (subjective) that, just because we are doing something differently than the way we did it before, we are now making genuine progress in our (objective) quest for knowledge? This sort of reasoning naturally leads us to consider related notions of validity, truth, and verification as we look to distinguish between “mere change” and “genuine progress”.


But while this is certainly an important component of this title, a little reflection makes it clear that this is not the only aspect that needs to be focused on, given that, in many (but not necessarily all) contexts, the notion of “progress” involves a meta-structural and even sometimes moral component to it. Let me try to clarify what I mean by that.  Perhaps I’m looking to establish whether or not specific changes made in the practice of psychology have, generally speaking, enabled the field to more generally “progress”. 

Or maybe I’m forced to assess the implications of a new economic framework that increased the average level of societal prosperity while conspicuously exacerbating the plight of the poor.   As these examples demonstrate, it’s important to take some time to explicitly distinguish between two quite different aspects of the notion of “progress” associated with any given change:

  1. Progress in terms of my level of certainty that the change in question can be interpreted as a bonafide, objective advancement in my knowledge. In what follows, I’ll call this “knowledge progress”. 
  1. Progress in terms of the extent by which some change—modifying our behaviour or implementing some new framework or idea, say—can be roughly regarded as, “the right approach”, and therefore justifiably give rise to a belief that the field in question is “making progress”.  In what follows, I’ll call this “domain progress”.

Below we highlight a number of specific TOK resource examples from Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal to build a world-class TOK Essay. Each TOK Clip and TOK Compilation comes with a detailed, downloadable PDF providing further support.

Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal offers a strong pedagogical framework where TOK is the backbone of interdisciplinarity throughout all resources.

Armed with this double-barrelled perspective, I can now set to work more specifically addressing matters by applying things to evaluate to what extent they apply, and in what ways, to different AOKs.

In what follows, I’ll detail my sense of the core issues involved with each of the eight AOKs, together with some associated Ideas Roadshow TOK resources that can concretely assist with appreciating the concepts at hand to assist our IBDP Portal subscribers. 

Mathematics:

For mathematics, the first notion of progress (what I called “knowledge progress”) would lead me to assess the notions of mathematical proof and certainty (i.e. what constitutes a proof), the role of insight and intuition in the development of mathematical knowledge, and possibly even the extent to which evidence of mathematical concepts in the natural world serve as some sort of objective indication of their importance or relevance. Related Ideas Roadshow content includes: Predicting the Higgs, Mathematics and The Real World, Playing on a Train, Proof by Picture, Increased Elegance, Mathematical Naturalism and the TOK Sampler Mathematics.

Turning to “domain progress”, what we’re focused on here is how we might go about evaluating the impact of changes in the specific engagement of mathematical activity, from the reliance of the appropriateness of specific mathematical techniques and models in certain domains, to the merits of collaborative approaches to a new appreciation of what mathematical knowledge and reasoning actually is—perhaps by examining the extent to which other animals can engage in mathematical reasoning. Related Ideas Roadshow content appropriate to this category includes: Measured Desperation, Doing Mathematics, Mathematics and the Real World, Valuing the Details, Unlikely Mathematicians and Squandering Big Data? 

Natural Sciences:

In the natural sciences, investigations of “knowledge progress” would centre around to what extent we can be certain that a different perspective or framework enables us to attain (or perhaps obscure) a genuinely deeper understanding of an underlying reality.   A large selection of Ideas Roadshow resources apply here, as you might imagine, including: No Explanation, Galileo’s Gift, Distracted by Language, Beyond the Textbooks, Hunting Exoplanets, Our Internal Internet, Positive Emotions, Neuroplasticity and the TOK Sampler Natural Sciences.  

Meanwhile, investigations of “domain progress” would include evaluations of the impact of changes to how science is being done (What does it mean, exactly, for a scientific field to “progress”? What sort of changes might achieve this?), together with the potential moral implications of specific scientific advancements.   Related Ideas Roadshow content includes: Too Much String, The Perils of Fashion, Suddenly Fashionable, Physics and Gender and Women in Science

Human Sciences:

In the human sciences, there is often a significant internal overlap between knowledge and domain progress. In Making Better Decisions, for example, Stanford University political scientist Josiah Ober contemplates how specific changes in contemporary democratic practices might be interpreted in both increasing our political knowledge (increasing our understanding of what people believe as well as how they come to believe it) together with, consequently, making our political systems more reliable, accountable, and hence lead to an overarching sense of societal progress.

In Knowledge vs Understanding, University of Cambridge literary critic Stefan Collini explicitly compares and contrasts the natural sciences and human sciences in terms of the notion of “progress”, while in Signing as Language, University of San Diego sign language linguist Carol Padden describes how changes in our understanding of language brought on by Bill Stokoe’s innovative “Dictionary of American Sign Language” not only deepened our understanding of what a language is, they also consequently enhanced our respect for signers.  

In Unintended Consequences, UC Berkeley psychologist Stephen Hinshaw describes how a change in public policy aimed at improving educational test scores inadvertently led to an explosion of ADHD diagnoses, while in Testing Morality, anthropologist Frans de Waal explains how applying the so-called “ultimatum game” in economists to chimpanzees enables us to develop a deeper awareness of both human and animal morality. 

The Arts:

In Airborne Horses, University of Warwick mathematician and bestselling author Ian Stewart describes how a change in our objective knowledge of animal motion was inextricably tied to the birth of the film industry; in Nationalism Through Film, UCLA Chinese Studies expert Michael Berry illustrates how the evolving political climate between the United States and China had concrete implications on artistic products in both countries (with the associated notion of “progress” necessarily increasingly subjective).

In Hearing Differently, violinmaker Joseph Curtin argues that, by deliberately changing the way they perceive sound, musicians would be able to significantly improve their performances, and in Redesigning the Violin Parts I and II, he argues that, owing to a strong sense of conservatism that permeates the international music community, changes to instrument design are often strongly discouraged, resulting in an a priori biased notion of “progress”.

History:

Just like for the human sciences, history is an AOK for which the line between knowledge progress and domain progress is particularly fuzzy, as many practitioners would claim that specific changes in approach to the historical enterprise are motivated precisely by an attempt to gain a deeper and more penetrating historical awareness (i.e. representing an objective sense of progress of our historical understanding).

The overarching “knowledge progress” question of to what extent objective historical progress (i.e. “uncovering the truth”) is possible, then (e.g. Bridging the Cultural Gap, Divining the Date, Non-barking Dogs, Opening Up Sightlines, The Historian’s Task, Towards Historical Truth? Uncovering Meaning), finds itself inevitably matched with the overlapping “domain progress” issue of whether or not specific changes in how history is being done results in an objectively improved historical understanding (e.g. Rethinking History, Towards Better Explanations, History, Evolving, Seeking the Bigger Picture, History’s Pendulum, The History Wheel, Enlarging the Conversation).

The last three AOKs—Ethics, Religious Knowledge Systems and Indigenous Knowledge Systems—are somewhat different from the first five as they are naturally significantly more oriented towards what I called “domain progress” than “knowledge progress”.  This might be worth explicitly noting by students keen to compare and contrast the notion of progress between various different AOKs.

Ethics:

While it’s conceivable that some measure of knowledge progress should be considered in Ethics (e.g. to what extent do advances in neuroscience or evolutionary biology reinforce the objective validity of ethical principles?) for the most part this is an AOK where notions of “progress” will primarily be of a domain-related orientation (e.g. how do recent changes in the prevailing societal attitudes gender and sexual identities impact broader notions of what it means to make “ethical progress”?).   Specific Ideas Roadshow resources that address issues of ethical progress include: Behaviour and Values and Fostering Social Change, where University of Michigan Business Professor Andy Hoffman considers both how changes in community behaviour can impact our ethical development and how a deeper ethical awareness can be deliberately fostered by modifying our collective behaviour.

In Leading by Example, UC San Diego Chinese studies specialist Karl Gerth describes the ethical implications associated with prospective changes in behaviour of Western countries towards China and in Making Progress? Cambridge University historian and literary critic Stefan Collini reminds us that The Two Cultures’ exchange between C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis pivoted around a debate about to what extent technological change has resulted in societal progress—and, by association—what is actually meant by that rather loaded phrase. 

Religious Knowledge Systems:

Given the nature of religious knowledge systems and the large role that interpretation plays in its development, most invocations of “progress” in this context will also be associated with domain progress: to what extent can changes in our approach to religious knowledge be somehow be recognized as a form of “objective improvement”? 

Ideas Roadshow TOK resources explicitly related to this issue include Nile Green’s deliberate application of a new economics-modelled vocabulary to yield better religious and historical understanding (Religion as a Marketplace), David Goldberg’s personal recommendation to redefine Jewish identity in a way contrary to standard contemporary practice (Know Thyself) and an examination of very aspects of how the missionary movement impacted religious understanding both at home and abroad (The Impact of Missionaries). 

Indigenous Knowledge Systems:

Lastly, the topic of Indigenous Knowledge Systems brings up an additional aspect of domain progress: how direct contact between two distinct AOKs can directly lead to a change (and possible progress, depending on one’s definition) in one or more AOKs. 

Specific examples include how sign-language linguist Carol Padden’s experience of how interaction with a remote Bedouin community helped modify her views on the evolution of languages (The Roots of Sign Language, Losing the Sharp Edges), and psychologist Carol Dweck’s discovery, in Cultural Mindsets, of how research carried out in an American aboriginal community led her to modify her appreciation of the pivotal role that cultural factors play in the application of her groundbreaking mindset work, leading both Padden and Dweck (it could be argued) to make substantial progress in their respective fields of knowledge.

Additional, AOK-interdisciplinary resources that students might find helpful for this title include the TOK Samplers Knowledge and Technology and Testing Theories

 

TOK Tuesdays

Investigating PT1 – An Element of Trust

If your school does not have an institutional subscription to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal you can now sign up for an individual teacher or student subscription. Annual individual subscriptions cost only $99 and provide unlimited access to all resources that are part Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.

This is the first of six special TOK blog posts to directly assist students and teachers in appreciating vital nuances associated with each of the May 2021 Theory of Knowledge Prescribed Titles.  For each title, I will identify some initial key concepts and highlight some concrete approaches to address them before pointing our subscribers to specific TOK resources that are part of Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal that can concretely assist in the development of a strong TOK essay for that particular title.  

We begin with PT1: “Accepting knowledge claims always involves an element of trust.”  Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.

Key Concepts:  Upon first reading this title, my eye immediately falls upon three key words: “always”, “trust” and “accepting”.  It might seem strange to present them in this order, since “accepting” is the first word I encounter, but this is deliberate, as you’ll shortly see. 

When someone tells me that something always happens in conjunction with something else, I’m immediately suspicious.  Always?  On every possible occasion?  How do we know that that’s necessarily the case?  That would seem to imply a necessary, structural link between the two things in question, but how certain am I that such a link necessarily exists?

Then there’s the expression “an element of trust”, which is one of those everyday figures of speech that we’re all very familiar with, but all too often such routine phrases actually hide a substantial amount of ambiguity lurking behind them: Who is trusting whom, exactly?  Do all people mean the same thing when they talk about trust?  And how big, precisely, is “an element of trust” anyway, and to what extent does it naturally vary from person to person?  

At this point, directly after musing over “an element of trust”, I’m led back to the notion of “accepting”.   After all, what am I talking about here?  What is this thing that allegedly, “always involves an element of trust”?   Well, accepting knowledge claims, of course.   But then, I think to myself, different people naturally have different criteria for acceptance than others.  How might that be addressed?

Some Concrete Approaches:

So now I’m ready to sketch out a few ways of how I might concretely tackle this title.  Can I imagine situations where the acceptance of knowledge claims don’t involve “an element of trust”, or at least strikingly different degrees of trust?

To what extent is trusting the opinions of authority figures the same sort of thing as trusting my sense perception or powers of reason?  Are there some types of knowledge claims that I somehow feel more compelled to accept than others?  In what ways does our knowledge of a subject impact our ability to accept subsequent knowledge claims?   If I’m a molecular biologist, say, how would that influence my acceptance of a newspaper reporting a proposed cure for the current pandemic?

A reasonable way forward would be to explicitly gear such examinations towards the particular two areas of knowledge that I want to invoke. Do “acceptance of knowledge claims” differ between the mathematical sciences and the human sciences?  Under what circumstances can the role of “scientific authorities” be compared to “religious authorities”?  To what extent do intrinsically subjective factors make “knowledge claims” in the arts similar to, and different from, those in history?

Lastly, it’s worth explicitly examining the specific impact that different ways of knowing have on the claim, a notion that was already alluded to when we mentioned sense perception and reason earlier: how can language or faith influence our willingness to accept or reject a given claim?  Under what circumstances can we trust our memory or our intuition?

Below we highlight a number of specific TOK resource examples from Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal to build a world-class TOK Essay.

Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal offers a strong pedagogical framework where TOK is the backbone of interdisciplinarity throughout all resources.

In Proof by Picture, philosopher of science Jim Brown investigates how we come to accept mathematical claims, while in Cultural Mindsets, psychologist Carol Dweck reveals the key role that cultural factors play in interpreting the applicability of certain knowledge claims. In Evolutionary Evidence, neuroscientist Matthew Walker describes how knowledge claims in the natural sciences naturally depend on our faith in the validity of underlying theoretical frameworks, while in Know Thyself, rabbi David Goldberg highlights instances of when subjective knowledge claims about our own identity are not accepted by others. 

In Testing Reality and Measuring Brain Activity, physicist Artur Ekert and cognitive scientist Ellen Bialystok emphasize the role that experiment plays in the acceptance of knowledge claims in the natural sciences.  In Political Games? political theorist John Dunn illustrates how all too often knowledge claims in political science are more of a reflection of internal sociological factors than objective knowledge of the political world, and in History’s Pendulum, historian Maria Mavroudi relates how trusted “traditional narratives” impact our willingness to believe associated historical knowledge claims.

Further insights related to the process of the acceptance of knowledge claims are covered in detail in the comprehensive TOK Essay Practice Video for May 2020 PT 3 (Does it matter that your personal circumstances influence how seriously your knowledge is taken?), while the TOK Samplers Navigating the World and Assessing Spin explicitly highlight how the media and popular opinion influence our inclination to accept knowledge claims across a wide range of different AOKs.

TOK Tuesdays

Autism and Scientific Beliefs

In what ways does the media we consume influence our scientific beliefs?

In the Ideas Roadshow TOK Clip called Autism and Vaccines, UCL developmental psychologist Uta Frith describes how the hypothesis that childhood vaccines are linked to autism, while initially plausible, was subjected to rigorous scientific testing and found to be false.

We’ve developed seven Knowledge Questions directly related to this clip, below are three of those:

  1. How do emotions influence our belief in the validity of scientific explanations?
  2. Under what circumstances can we distinguish between environmental or genetic causes of a particular phenomenon?
  3. At what point can we justifiably conclude that a hypothesis accounting for the development of a specific psychological condition is invalid?

Below is a screen shot of what the resource page for this TOK clip looks like on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal. The new PDF that comes with this clip highlights how this resource has been updated to be fully aligned with the new TOK curriculum: the related AOKs, how it directly connects to the new Knowledge Framework – Scope, Perspectives, Methods and Tools and Ethics – in the form of a Knowledge Question, three additional sample Knowledge Questions, related IA prompts for the TOK exhibition and citing suggestions for the TOK exhibition and essay.

If your school does not have an institutional subscription to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal you can now sign up for an individual teacher or student subscription. Annual individual subscriptions cost only $99 and provide unlimited access to all resources that are part Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.

All Ideas Roadshow’s TOK resources are digital – they can be seamlessly used for online or in-class teaching without the need to change your lesson plans!