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 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


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

Knowledge and Politics

Under what circumstances can observation of political behaviour invalidate political models?

Today’s TOK Tuesdays topic comes from Ideas Roadshow’s new TOK Sampler, Knowledge & Politics, to give teachers a tangible sense of how Ideas Roadshow’s TOK resources can directly assist with the new optional TOK themes starting this fall, while providing stimulating classroom material that they can use straight away while transitioning to the new course.  All references to WOKs and non-streamlined AOKs will be dropped. 

In the following clip from this Knowledge & Politics TOK Sampler, philosopher Brian Epstein, Tuft University, examines the motivations behind why political officials act in the way that they do, pointing out that the standard explanation assumes a framework which is actually quite at odds from what we observe and that our political models would likely be far more accurate if we paid more attention to their characters and the mechanics of the process that lead to people of that character being chosen as political leaders to begin with. 

(Excerpt from Ideas Roadshow’s TOK Sampler Knowledge & Politics)

UPDATE: Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal includes an extensive collection of TOK video and (digital) print resources for both teachers and students. The materials have been fully aligned with the new TOK curriculum. All resources, including the TOK Lesson Planner, highlight connections with the new core theme, the knowledge framework, optional themes, areas of knowledge, IA prompts, sample knowledge questions and citation details.”

TOK Tuesdays

The Map as Metaphor – Part 2

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.

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.


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

Fake “Fake News”?

How do we know when our collective moral standards are slipping?

Few these days would argue with the claim that we are currently wading through one of the most morally challenging moments in modern times: from the American impeachment proceedings to never-ending Brexit diatribes to the all-pervasive spectre of “fake news”, the world seems to be ever-increasingly polarized into rancorous tribes loudly decrying the unparallelled depths of moral turpitude displayed by their unconscionably brazen opponents.  

But is that, in fact, true? 

Renowned UC Berkeley intellectual historian Martin Jay’s careful, studied reflections gives us pause. Watch the video called Decline? featuring Prof. Jay.

Professor Jay, I am quite confident, would hardly claim that all ages are inherently identical or that we should necessarily be complacent in the current social and political climate, only that we stop for a moment to indulge in some careful, historically informed comparisons before rushing off to the land of hyperbolic judgements about the unprecedented moral decline we are living through.  

Such talk might well make for popular television.  But that hardly makes it true.  

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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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