Extending Wednesdays

The role of the Librarian in the IB DP

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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

The Map as Metaphor – Part 2

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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


Connecting Thursdays

Missionary Boomerang

How does contact with other cultures change our own?

The standard view of missionaries is pretty one-sided. A smug, culturally imperialist power sends out its emissaries to unapologetically “convert” the “unenlightened” to their prevailing world-view.

Well, in many ways that’s a pretty reasonable account of what has transpired over the centuries.   But in a clip from Ideas Roadshow’s TOK Compilation called The Impact of Missionaries, UC Berkeley historian of religion David Hollinger explains that the impact of missionaries was hardly limited to the places they were sent to.

Prof. Hollinger develops this thesis in detail in his intriguing book Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America, describing the increasing tension that developed by what he calls the “cosmopolitan missionaries” and the provincial churchgoers” resulting in the current rift in today’s America between so-called Ecumenical Protestants and Evangelical Protestants.  

Meanwhile, from a TOK perspective, primary issues centre around our level of certainty of our religious and social world-views and how they influence, and are influenced, by our interactions with others.