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 $75 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. 


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”.


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.


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 $75 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.

Extending Wednesdays

ADHD medication on non-ADHD subjects

In today’s Extending Wednesday clip, UC Berkeley clinical psychologist Stephen Hinshaw discusses the psychological research on studies of the effects of ADHD medication on non-ADHD students, relating how, while the level of confidence of the students participating in the study typically drastically increased, their actual results told a rather different story. 

(Excerpt from Extending Ideas In Psychology)

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 that are part of Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal. Each video 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.

Our IB-specific digital resource platform offers reliable expert resources in different formats – clips, compilation videos highlighting ideas from different perspectives, long-format videos plus accompanying, enhanced eBooks with lots of additional academic resources and more to construct an excellent essay from start to finish!

TOK Tuesdays

TOK Title Tips, Part 2 – The Power of Persuasion

In last week’s post, TOK Title Tips, Part 1 – Getting Practical, I highlighted two of five key points (“Make an argument” and “Decide on your argument before you write”) that students should bear in mind as they turn to the concrete task of constructing their TOK essay.  Today, in this last TOK Tuesdays post of 2019, I will tackle the remaining three.  

3) Tackle the soft spots in your argument

This one might seem particularly strange.   After all, why should an essay writer point out the inherent weaknesses in her argument?  Won’t that run a serious risk of damaging one’s case and result in a poorer mark?  

No.  Not if it’s done right. 

It’s important to emphasize that any sophisticated argument is going to have strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes TOK advocates like to highlight that, “In TOK, unlike other courses, there is no one right answer.”  Which is true enough. But the important point to stress is that this is hardly simply an idiosyncrasy of TOK. There is “no one right answer” to how to go about addressing climate change, or which social programmes to fund over others, or how to conduct an effective international trade strategy, or how to shape an investment portfolio, or which historical “lessons” provide the most insight to our current situation or which work of music is a masterpiece. Indeed, it is safe to say that virtually all the really interesting questions one can encounter in life do not have “one right answer”. Which is, of course, why exposure to TOK thinking is so important to everyone, as there is no other course which better prepares people for critical engagement with the world around them.

But precisely because TOK forces one to grapple with the real, complex, messy world with a wealth of different perspectives and many shades of grey – that is to say, because a response to a knowledge question is necessarily open-ended and a matter of opinion, it is important to recognize that other people will have different views and different arguments, and that a truly persuasive essay will be one that explicitly considers those before later rejecting or minimizing them. By doing this, you will make it clear to examiners that you have considered a wealth of different arguments and counter-arguments before settling on your own, rather than merely opting for a particular view simply because it seemed immediately plausible.

4) Choose your examples (and AOKs) wisely

This point is really a natural consequence of the first three: your first job is to formulate an argument, which needs to be sketched out in general terms before you start to write.  Then you have to become aware of what a critic of your position would say. Now, finally, it’s time to make your case.  

One of the best ways to do this is by selecting concrete examples that reinforce your position while tangibly demonstrating why an opposite view is much less convincing.  

Clearly, if you haven’t gone through the first three steps carefully, you will have no good way of assessing which examples will be “good ones” for you and which ones will be worse. 

The same is true for your choice of AOKs.  As you are doubtless keenly aware, half of the prescribed titles specifically ask you to discuss matters with respect to two AOKs. Some students rush to choose their AOKs ahead of time, often based on which ones they “like better” or “feel more comfortable with”.  But this makes no sense. The two AOKs you select for such titles should be those that best help you make your argument as described above. Which means that you first need to have the clearest possible sense of what that is, together with which general issues need to be addressed.    

Maybe you will choose two different AOKs to demonstrate that the same sort of applies to two entirely different domains.  Or perhaps you will deliberately opt for invoking an AOK “naturally associated” with an opposing view to illustrate why it doesn’t hold water.  Or maybe you will become convinced that the most appropriate response to the title actually depends, somehow, on the AOK that is chosen. But whatever your direction, your choice of AOKs needs to be an inherent part of your argument and not simply some random choice or one made out of habit. 

5) Get a range of different views

Finally, let’s imagine that the first draft of your essay is finished. What should you do now? Well, most people simply submit their draft to their teacher as part of the standard TOK essay timeline procedure.

Of course that’s an important thing to do: bouncing your work off an experienced pair of eyes to get good, concrete advice is always a good idea.  But the point worth stressing here is that nothing stops you from getting the broadest possible feedback you can. What do your friends think of it?  What do your parents have to say? Remember, you’re making an argument here. Can others understand it? Are they convinced by it? Are there parts of it that don’t make sense to them?  

Of course different people will say and think different things, and it’s your essay: you have every right to ignore whatever anyone else says and simply do what you want. But chances are if nobody follows your argument you are not making it very convincingly, or at least not convincingly enough.  

Because of their combined experience in TOK and essay-writing, your teacher’s criticisms will likely be the most valuable and should therefore be recognized as such. But teachers are human too. Maybe you’ve discussed your essay so many times with your teacher that she “knows what you mean to say” even if you don’t actually say it properly. Perhaps she unthinkingly “fills in the blanks” of an argument which isn’t, in fact, made. Or maybe your teacher is naturally disposed to your argument, or is somewhat preoccupied with working with other students who are struggling more significantly with how to build their essay. At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that the point of the venture is not simply to make your teacher happy, but to have the strongest possible essay – and the best way to ensure that that is the case is to prove to yourself that your argument can convince the broadest cross-section of people.

Six comprehensive Titled Assistance videos – one for each of the six May 2020 Prescribed Titles – are now available on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal to all individual subscribers and subscribing schools. They can be found in the Theory of Knowledge section (under “TOK Compilations”), Student TOK section and Teacher Resources section.  All videos contain a wealth of revealing examples associated with each PT drawn from Ideas Roadshow’s extensive video resources.

Visit our informational website, here, if you’d like to learn more about the innovative TOK resources Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal offers to support students and teachers. 

TOK Tuesdays

TOK Title Tips, Part 1 – Getting Practical

Having examined every May 2020 prescribed title in the last six TOK Tuesdays posts on this blog it’s time now to take a step back and highlight some basic tips to directly assist in the creation of the TOK essay.   

Many students are currently in the midst of preparing either their outline or a rough draft of their essay and are likely experiencing the all too familiar frustration of recognizing that having a clear sense of the nuances and general avenue of attack for a given PT, while clearly important, does not, in itself, guarantee the creation of a successful essay. It is, in other words, as we discussed in last week’s post for PT 6: necessary, but not sufficient. 

Generally speaking, there are two essential ingredients for any good essay: saying something insightful and saying it well. Up until now, much of our focus has consisted in searching for appropriately meaningful things to say about each one of the titles – key conceptual issues at play, enlightening examples, ambiguities that needed rigorous, clarifying definitions, and so forth. But no amount of penetrating insight into the meaning of a title is a substitute for being able to clearly and convincingly express an argument. If the examiner can’t understand what you’re saying, you will not succeed (or at least, not succeed nearly as well as you might), even if, by some objective measurement, you actually understand quite well what needs to be said.

This point is, it must be emphasized, completely general, and thus doesn’t in the slightest depend on the nature of TOK itself. It is, in the sometimes overused lexicon of our day, a “transferable skill” – indeed, one of the most important ones that any student will rely on untold times throughout her life beyond high school: knowing how to make a convincing and effective argument. 

It’s important to stress that this is not a matter of intelligence or innate ability. It is a question of learning. We’ve all met brilliant people who couldn’t convey their ideas in any appropriate way, together with decidedly less brilliant people who had developed the power to be convincing, sometimes alarmingly so. And by forcing all students to construct both a TOK essay and an extended essay, the Diploma Programme is doing its bit to ensure that all of its students are equipped to succeed well beyond high school graduation. Because the only way you learn these vital skills is by actually writing something.  

And while it’s unreasonable to ask students tasked with constructing a TOK essay over the holidays to be grateful for the rigours of the Diploma Programme, to some extent they really should be.  OK, enough IB propaganda. What are we talking about here, exactly?

In what follows I’ll highlight 5 key points (2 in this post, and 3 in next week’s post) that students should take into account in the construction of their TOK essay independent of whatever prescribed title they happen to be addressing.

1.Make an argument

The first question anyone reading an essay is going to ask himself is, “What is this person saying?”  And if the reader can’t easily answer this question, the essay writer has failed. It’s just that simple.  A good test I use is to imagine that the reader is forced to describe my essay to someone else. Would she be able to do it easily and effectively?  Something like, “He believes X and Y, on condition of Z, but not in cases like W.”   

This might sound like obvious advice, but I can assure you that it is not.   All too often, the only thing someone comes away with after having read an essay is an “on the one hand or on the other hand” type of description of the question. Which is definitely not good enough. The point of writing an essay is not simply to demonstrate that you have understood the question, or even that you have understood a range of complexities and subtleties involved in the issue, but that you have a clear opinion that you can clearly express and justify. Having an opinion certainly doesn’t imply that you have to be dogmatic (The only conceivable interpretation is X, and anyone who disagrees with me is an idiot!), it just means that you have to put a clear, distinct, and well-supported position out there.

Some essays, like the extended essay, are completely unbounded: you have to come up with the topic and the argument entirely by yourself.   The TOK essay is clearly not like that. Not only are you forced to select one of six prescribed titles, but you also have to address the question at hand. Which means that if the title asks you to “Explore this distinction” or “To what extent do you agree with this claim?”, your argument better be focused around the distinction at hand or your level of agreement of the particular claim.  

 2. Decide on your argument before you write

Anyone who has written an essay knows that the experience involves several distinct stages, often coupled with feelings of anxiety, trepidation and frustration, typically with a good dose of procrastination thrown in for good measure. But through it all, there is usually a time when one is “in” the essay, when the experience is – if not necessarily “fun” – at least challenging and interesting. Almost always this occurs when the central argument has finally been established: you know what you want to say and are searching for compelling and innovative ways of making your case.  

The worst part of writing any essay comes when you stare at a blank page and don’t know what to write.  

So don’t.  

Don’t start to write anything until you have some sense of what you want to say.  Go for a walk. Listen to some music. Talk about your essay with a friend.  Close your eyes and think about what you actually believe, or at the very least, what you are willing to pretend to believe for the purposes of the essay.  

In all likelihood, the only thing staring at a blinking cursor will do is make you feel anxious that you have an essay to write.  After an hour of doing that, the likely end product of your efforts is that you will find yourself reflecting on how you have just spent an hour of your life staring at a blinking cursor and are no better off.  In fact, you are actually worse off, as you have now just wasted an hour of your life and have drastically increased your anxiety about that essay you have to do.  

So don’t start by writing.  Start by thinking. Even if you’ve procrastinated for weeks (especially, in fact, if you’ve procrastinated by weeks), the surest way to make real and substantial progress with your TOK essay is to turn away from your keyboard and decide what sort of argument you think should be made.  Once you have a clear sense of that, you’ll be well and truly on your way.   

Six comprehensive TOK Essay Practice videos are available on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal to all individual subscribers and subscribing schools. They can be found in the Theory of Knowledge section (under “TOK Compilations”), Student TOK section and Teacher Resources section. All videos contain a wealth of revealing examples associated with each PT drawn from Ideas Roadshow’s extensive IBDP video resources. 

If your school does not have an institutional subscription to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal yet you can now sign up for an individual subscription. Annual individual teacher or student subscriptions cost only $75 and provide unlimited access to all resources. School-wide subscriptions are affordably priced based on the number of DP students in your school.

Connecting Thursdays

Fundamental or Accidental?

To what extent can we determine if what we observe is an inevitable consequence of a fundamental law or simply happenstance?

For those who are scratching their heads trying to imagine how principles of TOK can relate to a subject like physics, it’s hard to think of a more illustrative example than Darwin and the Butterfly featuring astrophysicist Scott Tremaine, Institute for Advanced Study. 

Professor Tremaine confronts us with a problem that arises with remarkable frequency in his discipline: how can we be certain that what we detect in a given system is fundamental or accidental? 

He describes how, in our solar system, all the large planets – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune – are all considerably further away from the sun than the small planets like Earth, prompting the key question, “Is that an accident? Do giant planets somehow have to form at large distances away from their star? Or is it just a peculiar feature of the solar system?”    

For those of you who might be thinking that this is just of “academic interest”, in a related Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP clip – Hunting Exoplanets – Professor Tremaine describes how the current search for exoplanets which is garnering widespread interest among scientists and non-scientists alike could, actually, have been successfully conducted decades earlier, but astronomers simply assumed that all solar systems had to be structured similarly to our own.  And it turns out that they don’t. How’s that for TOK in action?

A sample of related Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP resources to integrate TOK across the DP curriculum:  TOK Connections Guide for Physics, TOK Connections Guide for Biology, TOK Connections Guide for Philosophy, Darwin and the Butterfly (TOK), Hunting Exoplanets (TOK), Sherlock Holmes vs. Stamp Collecting (TOK), Deducing Black Holes (TOK), Natural Sciences TOK Sampler.

TOK Tuesdays

Theory of Titles


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theory of Titles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Use your imagination.

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