Extending Wednesdays

The Derveni Papyrus

Today’s Extending Wednesdays topic comes from the History section of Ideas Roadshow’s Extended Essay Guide, where University of Michigan classicist Richard Janko describes the Derveni Papyrus, a half-burned manuscript found on an ancient funeral pyre in northern Greece in 1962.

This makes it the oldest surviving European book, with the common consensus being that the funeral took place sometime in the 4th century BCE.  While that alone would certainly justify historical interest, that turns out to be only the tip of the iceberg, because by far the most fascinating thing about the Derveni Papyrus isn’t its age, but rather what it actually says. Make sure to watch the video called The Derveni Papyrus.

The story of the Derveni Papyrus is a fascinating combination of archaeology, mythology, science, politics and sociology with no one clear professional consensus that has emerged to date.  Professor Janko, for his part, believes that it strongly supports the view of a “culture war” between rival camps of “traditional religion” and “modern science” in Classical Athens. 

Given this breadth of impact combined with its narrow focus on a particular manuscript, an associated extended essay could go off in many intriguing directions, from a history of the manuscript itself, funeral practices in the classical world, the technology of deciphering ancient manuscripts, cultural tension in ancient Athenian society, and many other topics.  

Related Ideas Roadshow content includes the clips Ancient Culture Wars?, Divining the Date, Idealizing Democracy and Putting the Pieces Together, the compilation videos Classical Greece, Being a Historian and History and Politics, and the eBook and hour-long video The Derveni Papyrus.

Your school has not subscribed yet? Visit our website – HERE – to learn more about Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal which offers an extensive database of authoritative video and print resources explicitly created to meet the needs of both teachers and students throughout the Diploma Programme.


Extending Wednesdays

Chinese Characters

Today’s Extending Wednesdays topic comes from the English A: Language and Literature section of Ideas Roadshow’s Extended Essay Guide (which you can find in the Student EE section on the homepage of Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal) where UCLA Professor of Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies and Chinese literary translator Michael Berry discusses the impact of the decision by the Chinese government to simplify Chinese characters in an effort to raise literacy rates.

This decision by the Chinese government to simplify Chinese characters in a way that wasn’t done in some other parts of the Chinese-speaking world effectively created a laboratory to study a number of intriguing effects related to a sudden change in the structure of a language.

“Chinese characters are made of radicals, and radicals do have meaning in and of themselves.  And sometimes, when a character is simplified, some of the radicals will be taken out, reducing the nuance and overall level of meaning.”

Possible areas of investigation for an extended essay include an analysis of the impact of simplifying Chinese characters on literature, pronunciation, and literacy rates, as well as more general evaluations of how language can be used as an objective measure of sociocultural continuity.  Further topics include the distinction between languages and dialects and the use of the structure of language as political propaganda.  

Related Ideas Roadshow content includes the clip Character Development, and the eBook and hour-long video China, Culturally Speaking.

Your school has not subscribed yet? Visit our website – HERE – to learn more about Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal which offers an extensive database of authoritative video and print resources explicitly created to meet the needs of both teachers and students throughout the Diploma Programme.



TOK Tuesdays

Exploring PT 1 – Establishing the Terrain

Today marks the first of 6 TOK Tuesdays posts that briefly explores various nuances and concepts associated with each of the May 2020 TOK prescribed titles. In each of these posts, I will offer some specific suggestions on how students might productively begin to attack each title.  

A separate, detailed “TOK Titled Assistance” video for each of the 6 prescribed titles is available on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal where many more concepts are explored, complete with specific examples drawn from our extensive collection of TOK resources that are part of our database.

Establishing the Terrain

Before I begin, it’s worth once again stressing that all of what follows is strictly my opinion and in no way reflects the official position of the IBO or anyone else. Hopefully you’ll find it helpful even if you disagree with its contents, as a way of suitably stimulating discussion. So let’s begin.

This title asks us to explore the distinction between two approaches to the knowledge generation process: “seeing what is and asking why” and “seeing what could be and asking why not”.

 There are, of course, many ways to move forwards here, but for me the most obvious way to proceed is a 3-stage approach, starting with some rough generalizations before moving towards increasing levels of nuance and subtlety. It is this initial sketching out of the general landscape that I am referring to when I talk about “establishing the terrain” as a helpful approach to get started with one’s analysis. 

I. Establishing the Terrain

Is there anything to the claim that a meaningful distinction between the two approaches exists at some very basic level? Can I say something like, “Very roughly, it seems that most of the time those associated with these AOKs adopt position 1 while those involved with those AOKs adopt position 2”?  In other words, I’m not going to dive right in and examine the nuances immediately, but rather try to establish some very general, coarse-grained lay of the land.

Is it even possible to do so?  Personally, I think that it is possible, and that by doing so we can help to create a reasonable structure going forwards that will not only help us probe the corresponding subtleties (i.e. when our general landscape is not the case) but also guide us in choosing a correspondingly appropriate pair of AOKs to examine. Others, of course, might well disagree with the particulars of a general assessment, but I would recommend that you start with some basic judgement that you think holds in at least a good many cases, otherwise it is difficult to know how to get started. 

II. Investigate exceptions 

The principal advantage to establishing a general landscape is that it gives us a ready framework to explore exceptions. Notwithstanding the fact that, generally speaking, approach 1 is often associated with these particular AOKs and approach 2 is often associated with those particular ones, are there times when the opposite is the case? Are there times when neither case holds? Are there some AOKs that strongly resist even the most basic categorization procedure when it comes to these two approaches? Do different patterns start to emerge if you look at some subcategories of particular AOKs? 

Any successful TOK essay will cogently explore the different shades of nuance associated with a title, and this is our first chance to do so in earnest. Indeed, the reason why we started off framing things in a general, non-nuanced way was precisely to give ourselves an easy mechanism to explore the interesting and revealing cases of when things didn’t fit our rough-and-ready categorization procedure. 

III. Question the initial assumptions 

Once we’ve established, as is not terribly difficult to do, that such exceptions exist, it’s time to go even deeper and probe our initial assumptions to see what additional insights we can develop.  

What were those assumptions?  

Well, first off we assumed that each of the two approaches was completely well-defined and coherent. A simple glance reveals that this is clearly not always the case. There are plenty of times, for example, when “seeing what is” is not so straightforward, as many astute TOK students will surely appreciate. Sometimes our senses fail. Sometimes our judgement fails. Sometimes there is no independently objective “what is” to “perceive” in the first place. So it can be complicated.

And then there’s the assumption that these two approaches are completely distinct from each other, and that I’m aware at all times whether or not I’m pursuing approach 1 or approach 2.  But it’s far from clear that that’s the case either. Many avenues of knowledge investigation simultaneously involve some of one and some of the other.  

Lastly, there’s the possibility that there might even be a relationship between the two approaches. In other words, not only might I find myself doing a bit of both from time to time, but that the very way I do option 1 might somehow impact the way I do option 2, or vice-versa. In this case that would amount to recognizing that the extent to which I “have seen what is” could impact my perception of “what could be”, say, or that the particular way I am going about “asking why” could conceivably be related to how I might specifically go about asking “why not?”.   

This, too, seems not only possible, but positively likely in certain circumstances at least.   Of course the challenge is to examine those circumstances in some detail and try to draw some specific conclusions that are more focused and illuminating then “It’s all very complicated”. 

But without having a suitable structure to start from, it’s often very difficult to even begin. 

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TOK Tuesdays

Try a Little Selfishness

In last week’s post, I urged students to use their imagination to ask themselves what the title-makers might have had in mind when they came up with this year’s version.  The idea was that by engaging in this thought experiment students could assess the titles in terms of how they believed they corresponded to those specific TOK concepts that interested them.

This notion of focusing on student interest is a core feature of Ideas Roadshow’s educational philosophy.   We strongly believe that students will succeed much more frequently, and to a much greater extent, if they have the opportunity to engage with ideas that already interest them, and that an essential aspect of the job of any educator, and any educational resource, is to present them with as many relevant opportunities as possible to pique their interest and launch them on their educational journey.

Of course at some level this is all pretty obvious.  After all, nobody would recommend that someone consider doing an extended essay or internal assessment on something they were profoundly indifferent to (or, worse still, actually repulsed by), but there are nonetheless times when we often fail to take a moment to explicitly consider what students actually get excited about.  Like the TOK essay. 

This post is about doing precisely that. 

We all know that TOK is a many-faceted, naturally interdisciplinary beast that surfaces in all sorts of intriguing and complex ways throughout the real world.  This often makes the associated concepts difficult to understand, and the entire subject virtually impossible to comprehensively define.

But this inherent depth and universal relevance has a very positive flip side: no matter what your specific area of interest is, there’s going to be an intriguing TOK angle to it if you take the time to investigate it closely.   Contrast this with many standard DP subjects. In most courses, at least some of the time will likely be spent wading through material that students aren’t terribly excited about. In some cases only a specific part of the syllabus will be particularly appealing, while sometimes the entire course is simply a necessary requirement that has to be navigated en route to a particular career choice. Often students simply have to grin and bear it, doing their best to plow through a body of material that doesn’t particularly captivate them, at least at the outset. We’ve all been there.

But happily, this simply doesn’t apply to the TOK essay.   Since TOK applies to virtually everything, one can simply turn things around and say that virtually everything has a TOK component to it.   Which means that as students go through the process of deciding which TOK prescribed title is best for them, an important aspect of that decision procedure should be – ironically enough – to forget about the titles entirely for a moment and instead just focus on TOK concepts aligned with their interests.

Then they can look at the titles afresh and see which of those give the greatest opportunity to tackle those TOK concepts.  The benefits of this technique include, but extend well beyond, the selection of a prescribed title. If writing an essay provides you with concrete opportunities to deepen your understanding about something you’re already passionate about, chances are that you’ll soon find yourself moving away from thinking, “I’ve got this essay to write” towards, “This is a really cool idea”.   And your essay will most certainly reflect that.  

Again, the good news is that, given its universal relevance and applicability, TOK provides that opportunity for just about any topic. 

So let’s take an example now to demonstrate what I mean.  Once more it should be stressed that these are only my thoughts, and hardly represent objectively true statements, but if I were to end things here without giving you something concrete to grab on to and agree or disagree with, then all of this would rapidly degenerate into little more than a stream of clichés.   

Suppose I’m passionately interested in the arts – one or more of visual arts, music, theatre, film and dance. Perhaps I have ambitions of being a film director or a professional musician.

 So what are some TOK-related concepts that would naturally appeal to me?  Well, probably something like the nature of intuition and imagination in the creative process and its relationship to the development of artistic knowledge; objective vs subjective judgements of artistic quality and how we can be certain in distinguishing between good and bad art; the mechanisms involved in the public reception of new artistic developments and their relationship to prevailing cultural biases; how societal judgements of artistic achievement change over time; what it means to come up with genuinely new ideas in the arts and to what extent that can ever be objectively assessed, and so forth. 

In other words, these are just a few of the sorts of things I’d naturally spend time sitting around discussing with my friends altogether aside from the fact that I have a TOK essay to write.   

Now look to the prescribed titles for May 2020.  Which ones seem to be the best fit with those particular interests?  Again, I can only offer my opinion, and even those are largely dependent upon the specific TOK themes I happened to have mentioned.   But my sense is that titles 1, 3 and 6 would probably provide the best opportunity for me to discuss the sorts of things that I’m naturally interested in.  

And now I’m away to the races, because not only do I have a clearer sense of what title I’m going to pick, I also have some concrete thoughts about  which TOK themes I’d like to explore in my essay. Better still, I’m starting to get surprisingly interested at the prospect of doing so because the whole thing is a subject that I naturally find fascinating and worth exploring.   

Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that.  

Aside from the fact that writing essays involves a good deal more time and deliberate effort than just chatting with my friends, construction of this particular essay will necessarily force me to make links to things well outside my core interests, in this case invoking other TOK concepts and areas of knowledge that I might not normally care much about.  

But now there’s a difference: I’m not just doing so because “I have an essay to write”, or because “I need to find another AOK”, but instead out of a desire to better investigate my own particular interests and passions. 

Sometimes just focusing on yourself is the best way towards developing a broader understanding.

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