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.

Connecting Thursdays

Narrowing Differences

To what extent can we objectively measure our moral beliefs?

Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal is a highly established researcher on the behaviour of chimpanzees and bonobos, but most people know him as a prolific award-winning popularizer of his research, with over 35 years of bestselling books beginning with Chimpanzee Politics in the early 1980s.

The fact that he has so consistently documented his thoughts for both a specialized and popular audience made him, I thought, the perfect test case to measure how, and why, our beliefs change. Sure enough, when I asked him how his opinions on animal morality have evolved throughout the course of his research career he was able to respond straight away.

(Excerpt from Testing Morality featuring Prof. Frans de Waal)

The “ultimatum game” that Prof. de Waal mentions in this clip is explained in detail in the video Testing Morality.  Essentially, he applies and extends the famous behavioural test pioneered by economists to measure people’s sense of fairness to other primates, en route illustrating not just that chimpanzees have a similar sense of fairness to humans, but – equally intriguingly – that moral understanding, at times at least, can be derived from the same objective experimental process that gives rise to so much of our natural and human science knowledge.  

We offer all schools affected by Covid-19 free access for 1 month to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal, an extensive IB-specific database of authoritative digital resources for EE/IAs, TOK, TOK integration across the DP curriculum and curriculum-aligned resources for 21 DP subjects. Please visit our website, HERE, for further details.


Extending Wednesdays

Mindsets and Cultural Factors

In today’s clip, Stanford University social psychologist Carol Dweck describes how our appreciation of the key distinction between a growth and fixed mindset, despite its universal relevance to a wide variety of different human societies, invariably needs to be presented in a way that specifically resonates with particular cultural values in order to be accepted and properly understood. 

This clip is an excerpt from Ideas Roadshow’s Extending Ideas Video in Psychology.  There are 7 different Extending Ideas Videos that are part of the extensive collection of authoritative expert resources for the extended essay on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal. Each of those videos features five specific topics highlighted by Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP resources for a possible extended essay or internal assessment in that subject area.  Meanwhile, the comprehensive Ideas Roadshow Extended Essay Guide for Students highlights an additional 5 possible extended essay ideas for each of the 21 different DP subjects we cover.

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.

TOK Tuesdays

The Map as Metaphor – Part 2

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.

Bringing it down to street level:  We have seen that since maps cannot display all the information that is contained in the world, they have to make choices of what they are going to present.  The map, after all, is not the territory. And, among those choices are the type and quantity of information to include as well as the scale (size), orientation, and the projection of the map. These choices will be determined, wholly or in part, by the purpose the map will serve. 

It seems to me that these previous maps are at such a small scale (and thus display a vast territory) that it may be helpful to move to more large scale maps and therefore explore a smaller, and perhaps more familiar territory. In the following images we can see several depictions of the city of London.  Again, each of these maps depict, essentially, the same “territory,” or the same physical location. But, the map maker couldn’t include everything, and so had to ask the question, “What is the purpose of this map?” and then included the information that best suits that outcome.  For example, map # 7, depicting the London Underground, doesn’t even try to show you what is on the street surface of London, but it will prove a useful tool to travel on the Underground. 

 

Image #7 File:London Underground Overground DLR Crossrail map.svg
Attribution: Sameboat [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Image # 8, a “London Tourist Map” wouldn’t prove very useful in navigating the underground, but would certainly help you plan a sightseeing day around the city.  And, while map #9 won’t really help you travel anywhere, this map of London showing levels of income deprivation might prove very useful if you were looking for a good neighborhood in which to buy a flat, which areas to avoid when buying a flat, or where you might most effectively place social services. 

Coming back around to TOK:  Similar to the way these maps function, we can extend our metaphor to include the Areas of Knowledge in TOK. An Area of Knowledge attempts to “map”  the “territory” of a specific body of knowledge. For example, the Natural Sciences are seeking to describe (map) the Natural World. A discipline within that Area of Knowledge, like Biology, is then “mapping” the physical processes and structures of living organisms. Just as no map can include all the information about the world, an Area of Knowledge will only be able to describe a portion of the (potential) knowledge in any given area. Maps (which take the form of formulas, models, equations, laws and theories etc.) will never equal the territory but can depict particular slices of it. 

Picture a World Atlas, full of many different maps of the same territory. Some maps show topography, others vegetation or precipitation patterns, while still others still may display population distribution. Each map has a particular and specialized function, and together they form a solid representation of the Territory, but are still inferior to the real deal. The Areas of Knowledge are like a Grand Atlas of Knowledge, in which an Area of Knowledge describes or maps a particular section in that atlas. Each Area of Knowledge uses a specific set of filters and displays only the appropriate portion of knowledge it is designed for. In the chart below we can fill in the blanks to help us understand the knowledge/territory each Area of Knowledge maps.

There is a powerful message here for the IB student. The chart above implies that each Area of Knowledge has a corresponding territory of knowledge that it best represents. But life is never that neat and easy. The reality is that knowledge areas overlap and often compete. Sometimes in the margins between the two, a beautiful synergy emerges. I think here about how the marriage of quantitative and qualitative data produces fantastic results in the Human Sciences and how mathematical approaches can aid in understanding the natural world, for example in the juxtaposition of biology and mathematics in the mapping of the Human Genome.  

But what happens when that intersection is less neat, or less orderly?  Can ethics describe, or map, the territory of the natural world? Conversely, how can the Natural Sciences map the territory of Faith and Worship?  This doesn’t mean that they don’t try. And, here, problems emerge. The map now is of the wrong territory.  Imagine trying to use your London Underground Map to navigate the streets of London.  It isn’t that the map is wrong, it is that we have chosen to use it for a purpose it was never intended.  In building knowledge, we have to choose the appropriate map, just like we have to choose the correct methodology and area of knowledge depending on the knowledge territory we are trying to navigate.  Just as we don’t use a hammer on a screw, we need the right tool for the right job. 

It might seem easier to just try to avoid these conflicts. I could say to you, “Choose easy and straightforward maps,” and you will be sure “to find the correct route,” whether your destination is knowledge or an actual physical locale.  The easiest pathway might be to try to isolate those Areas of Knowledge that don’t seem natural partners. But, this convenient evasion would ignore the fact that sometimes, in knowledge, we need to facilitate “arranged marriages.” Science, for example, does not naturally seek ethical restraints, it just wants to experiment and learn, and so it needs a little Ethics, the layering together of these strange bedfellows is often a necessary condition on the knowledge journey. 

By guest author Daryl Hitchcock.

References:

Monmonier, Mark S. How to Lie with Maps 3rd Edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018

Turnbull, David, and Helen Watson. Maps are territories: science is an atlas : a portfolio of exhibits. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Further Reading: 

An online exhibit of Turnbull’s excellent book is available here

A link to Korzybski’s original article from which the metaphor is derived, here  

Our brain as a map, here

How maps shape our mind, here

How digital maps change our notion of “getting lost”, here