TOK Tuesdays

TOK: Learning How To Learn

If your school’s library does not have an institutional subscription to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal yet, visit the Students section to learn about the different resources our platform offers to support students.

The statement, There’s nothing like TOK, is one that will surely be widely endorsed among IB teachers, students and parents. Teachers might say it proudly, students might say it agonizingly and parents might say it exasperatedly, but everyone will unhesitatingly agree that TOK, or Theory of Knowledge, is a very different sort of course from any other one offered in the IB Diploma Programme. 

But from this basic consensus divergences rapidly arise, with many students convinced that TOK is some highly arcane and essentially pointless hoop that the IB powers that be mysteriously make them jump through, typically brushing it aside until the last possible moment before frantically engaging a battery of tutors in the hopes of somehow muddling through. 

I look at the matter very differently however. For me, TOK is the lynchpin of the entire Diploma Programme, the one course that truly separates it from every other high school curriculum and the one with the greatest potential to truly change a student’s life.  Everyone talks about “critical thinking”, but by creating the Theory of Knowledge course and placing it squarely in the core of the DP Programme, the IB has moved well beyond mouthing clichés, instead providing an explicit opportunity for students to do something far more significant than simply absorb specific facts: TOK gives them a precious opportunity to learn how to learn.

As it happens, TOK is the reason why I elected to create Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal to begin with. As someone who had the unique opportunity to build and run an international research institute from scratch, I’ve learned a thing or two about transferable skills, critical thinking and the essential difference between believing something and rigorously assessing why you believe it. And I’ve learned from years of experience that this vital distinction, often widely unappreciated by those who equate “knowing something” with getting a good grade on a test, is precisely what separates the upper echelon of world-leading researchers from the many followers.  

Understanding precisely how it might be that today’s “knowledge” is often tomorrow’s “misconceptions” is a key component to the success in any field, which is why I was particularly excited to produce hundreds of explicitly TOK-oriented videos with dozens of different experts in history, biology, literature, psychology, anthropology, mathematics, geography, political science, physics and more. The point isn’t that TOK is “interdisciplinary”; it’s that a proper understanding of the principles of TOK is necessary for appropriately deepening one’s knowledge in anything

And as vital as a proper understanding of TOK is for academic success, it is arguably even more important for simply making one’s way in the wider world. The recent pandemic we are all struggling through, for example, is providing no shortage of exceptionally vivid examples of the fundamental power and importance of TOK thinking and the dangers of not having it in our toolkit.   

What if, in the spring of 2020, more people had asked themselves, Under what circumstances can we be certain that COVID-19 will follow the same trajectory that SARS and MERS did before?  Or, Does the fact that I am exhibiting specific symptoms provide proof that I am infected? Or even, Can I be sure that I am not contagious? Repeatedly asking ourselves any of those sorts of questions would surely have led to a much faster awareness of how the presence of asymptomatic cases can wreak havoc with our efforts to control a global pandemic.  

Meanwhile, instead of complaining about the prospect of being forced to take a booster shot or adamantly protesting that a vaccine was developed “too quickly”, why not pause and ask ourselves, To what extent can we know how long immunity will last? Or, How can we be certain when a vaccine is working? Investigating those questions in detail will rapidly open up a whole world of cutting-edge medical understanding that will surely do vastly more to inspire a curious mind than any high school biology course ever would on its own. 

 So yes, TOK is quite different from any other course an IB student will take. It is conceptually demanding, at times maddeningly confusing, and necessarily requires the development of an entirely different perspective than most students are familiar with.  But embracing the unique opportunity that TOK offers amounts to a lot more than just getting a few necessary points for your IB Diploma. It might well just change your life.  And everyone else’s too. 

Extending Wednesdays

The role of the Librarian in the IB DP

If your school does not have an institutional subscription to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal yet, you can use the contact form to request a free 2-week trial for your school. School-wide subscriptions are affordably priced based on the number of DP students in your school so make sure to mention how many students you have to receive a quote as well!

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

2) Oxford University Press. (2010) Library. In Oxford Dictionary of English, edited by Stevenson, Angus. Retrieved June 8, 2020, from

3) IBO (2018) Ideal libraries: a guide for schools. Cardiff: IBO. Retrieved 12 June, 2020, from:

Jennifer Toerien, IB librarian

TOK Tuesdays

Investigating PT6 – Helpful Biases?

If your school does not have an institutional subscription to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal you can now sign up for an individual teacher or student subscription. Annual individual subscriptions cost only $75 and provide unlimited access to all resources that are part Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.

This is the final of six special TOK posts to directly assist students and teachers in appreciating vital nuances associated with each of the May 2021 Prescribed Titles.  For each title, I will identify some initial key concepts and highlight some specific approaches to address them along with specific Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal resources that can concretely assist in the development of a strong TOK essay for that particular title.   

This piece discusses PT6: “Avoiding bias seems a commendable goal, but this fails to recognize the positive role that bias can play in the pursuit of knowledge.”  Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.

Key Concepts:  

This title, together with PT3, are my personal favourites of the six on offer for this session.  Why?  Because along with the usual requirements of carefully parsing phrases and probing subtle aspects of meaning lies an additional opportunity to rethink core aspects of what TOK-thinking really is and how it can be applied to the world around us. 

For PT3, as we’ve already discussed, lurking behind the title’s typically dense wording is the intriguing notion of whether or not it can be justifiably argued that the imposition of any organizational structure to some extent inhibits aspects of our understanding, while in this title we are forced to ponder the notion of “bias” in a much more sophisticated way than is usually the case.  

In particular, this title asks us to consider whether or not biases might sometimes serve a positive role in the knowledge process.  To most students—and perhaps even many teachers—such a notion will initially seem quite startling.  After all, aren’t we all agreed that biases are generally a bad thing, representing a combination of closed-mindedness, pre-set expectations, and a needlessly blinkered world-view?  How can biases possibly be good things to have?

Well, I don’t have “the answer”, of course, and I hardly need to stress here that the entire point of this title is for you to come up with your own view.  But unlike many PTs where the onus is on the student to elaborate subtle shades of grey associated with specific words (e.g. To what extent can we distinguish between “useful” and “most useful”? What do we mean by “element of trust”, exactly, and under what circumstances can we maintain that it is always present?), this title strikes me as one which would appeal to those whose interests are naturally oriented towards the development of broader and refined conceptual frameworks: whatever can be possibly meant by a “positive bias”?  

My own perspective follows from a thought experiment. Imagine a world where knowledge-seekers always start their investigations from a position of total ignorance, wholly uninfluenced by anything that has happened before.   Physicists would sit down to do their experiments ignorant of Newton’s Laws (or any others), historians wouldn’t have read (or at least remembered) any other text before they begin their analysis, anthropologists would judge every human society they encounter as the first one they’ve ever seen. Of course these sorts of scenarios are hardly realistic, but that’s not the point. The idea here is to flesh out two things:

  1. What would it take, exactly, for a knowledge-seeker to be completely without any biases whatever?
  2. Assuming that could somehow be arranged, would it, in fact, be a good thing in terms of their ability to produce knowledge?

Reflecting on the first point makes me appreciate that, for all practical purposes, it is inevitable that—whatever the particular area of knowledge we wish to consider—those involved in the pursuit of knowledge inevitably bring some biases to the table as they begin their inquiries.  Moreover, the more experienced and knowledgeable they are, to a very real extent the larger the number of biases they might have. 

Meanwhile, a few moment’s reflection on the second point brings me to the swift conclusion that a world where knowledge-seekers were all strictly unbiased would be tremendously inefficient from a knowledge-generation perspective. 

OK, so that’s interesting: I’ve just concluded that not only is a certain amount of bias in the knowledge process inevitable, but that seems to be a good thing.  But now what do I do?  After all, and after sitting through hours of TOK classes, I’m also firmly convinced that bias can be significantly detrimental to our development of knowledge.   

There are lots of interesting ways to proceed here. One approach might be to make a distinction between “good” and “bad” bias, or “reasonable” and “unreasonable” biases, possibly based upon some statistical arguments of how likely any initial assumption is likely to be rendered invalid. Another might be to recognize that the problem with bias in this case isn’t so much that we will approach a situation with some pre-set expectations or inclinations but to ensure that we explicitly recognize what they are so that they don’t unduly prejudice our efforts. Again, you have to find the right approach that fits with you, but as usual whatever you decide to do, you’ll likely need to find some pointed and revealing examples of when bias might both help and hinder the knowledge process.  And that’s what the next section is all about.

Below we highlight a number of specific resource examples that are part of Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal  to build a world-class TOK Essay.

Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal offers a strong pedagogical framework where TOK is the backbone of interdisciplinarity throughout all resources.

In what follows, we provide numerous examples of what I referred to above as “good” and “bad” biases from four experts in four different research areas. The TOK Clips are all part of Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal and come with detailed supplementary print materials and citing details to build a great TOK essay. Only subscribers to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal can use the materials below!

In Predicting the Higgs, world-leading physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed reveals how, by assuming both the inherent correctness of our particle physics models and the common belief that “nature will avail herself of all possibilities that she has open to her”, we were able to successfully predict the existence of the Higgs boson.

In Astonishingly Simple, Prof. Arkani-Hamed again reveals his bias towards the intrinsically mathematical nature of physical laws when he describes how the conspicuously and surprisingly simple final form of a calculation is likely evidence of a deeper underlying structure. But in Distracted by Language Prof. Arkani-Hamed describes how, if we’re not careful, an undue reliance on the vagaries of language can result in a litany of unhelpful biases and assumptions that can lead physicists down the wrong path. 

Meanwhile, political scientist Mark Bevir freely admits to his guiding assumptions (to what extent, you might wish to consider, can “principles” be objectively distinguished from “biases”?) before moving on to demonstrate specific instances where the biases of many of his colleagues lead them astray. In Philosophical Thinking he adamantly expresses how he is convinced that adopting a rigorously philosophical approach is necessary to make progress in the social sciences.

In The Importance of Dialogue Prof. Bevir insists that, regardless of the particular issues at play or the prevailing public attitudes, it is always beneficial for policymakers to solicit the views of the general public before implementing any policy measure, even if it is one that most people object to. But in Descriptions vs Explanations he details how the prevailing bias that is unhesitatingly adopted by many of his colleagues—that the business of the social sciences is to uncover immutable laws just like those in the natural sciences—is both false and dangerously misleading. 

In Optimism, Confirmed, Evolving Moral Understanding and Breaking Down Barriers anthropologist Frans de Waal describes how his optimistic convictions about both human and animal nature played a central role in driving him to develop his extensive research agenda that eventually confirmed many of them, while in A Lack of Empathy, his segment in the TOK Sampler Encountering Assumptions, he relates how a socially conservative and vaguely misogynistic bias long held back biological research into the nature of human and animal empathy.

In Perfect Pitch and Tone Languages and From Song to Speech?, psychologist Diana Deutsch reveals how her personal love of music drove her towards investigating a possible link between perfect pitch and tone languages followed by the development of a broader thesis relating the origin of language to tone languages, while in Losing Control she relates how many psychologists refrain from investigating, or even sometimes recognizing, auditory illusions because it “makes them uncomfortable”.  

Additional resources that students might find helpful for this title include the TOK Samplers Battling Biases, Encountering Assumptions, Extending Experience and Investigating Values

Contact us for information about how you can get access to these award-winning resources!

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

Knowledge and Language

To what extent is our use of language influenced by the nature of our bodies?

Today’s TOK Tuesdays topic comes from Ideas Roadshow’s new TOK Sampler, Knowledge & Language, to give teachers a tangible sense of how Ideas Roadshow’s TOK resources can directly assist with the new optional themes starting this fall, while providing stimulating classroom material that they can use straight away while transitioning to the new course. 

In the following clip from this Knowledge & Language TOK Sampler, linguist and sign-language expert Carol Padden describes the fascinating notion of “embodiment” – how our language and accompanying notions of meaning are significantly influenced by the physical means by which we interact with the world around us, highlighting sign language as one where possibilities for embodiment are naturally greater than most. 

(Excerpt from TOK Sampler Knowledge & Language)

UPDATE: Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal includes an extensive collection of TOK video and (digital) print resources which have been fully aligned with the new TOK curriculum while offering support for the ‘old’ 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.

Did you register yet for a free New TOK Webinar? For further details and to register, click HERE.

Connecting Thursdays

Narrowing Differences

To what extent can we objectively measure our moral beliefs?

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

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

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

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

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

Extending Wednesdays

Mindsets and Cultural Factors

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

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

Connecting Thursdays

A Worrying Lack of Evidence

How can we be certain that we know the true numbers of people suffering from the coronavirus?

Like many people familiar with TOK, I find myself profoundly bemused when someone starts lamenting how difficult it is to “integrate” theory of knowledge within the DP curriculum.   

In an age of increasing pressure to ensure that students learn the required material for their DP courses, I often hear, ruminating on “how we know what we know” is considered something like an intellectual luxury good  – a good idea to indulge in in theory, but in the real world, who has the time to fit such philosophical speculations into a biology or mathematics course? 

Well, sitting in my quarantined house in France, it’s pretty clear that “the real world” has suddenly caught up with all of us with a thud, and navigating the way forwards is going to be nigh on impossible without a clear understanding of core theory of knowledge principles.   

For a good example of what I’m talking about, check out a particularly thoughtful article by Stanford University epidemiologist John Ioannidis called A fiasco in the making? As the coronavirus pandemic takes hold, we are making decisions without reliable data, where he details how major public policy decisions are currently being made in the absence of any solid evidence, warning us that “the data collected so far on how many people are infected and how the epidemic is evolving are utterly unreliable”.   

This article has provoked considerable debate throughout the global health community, but the key point for us is not to directly address its implications for current government policy, but rather to stress that without a rigorous understanding of the true numbers involved it’s impossible to have any real faith in the models being unhesitatingly bandied about in today’s press – a point to most definitely bear in mind the next time you come across an article with eyebrow-raising specifics like, “UK coronavirus crisis to last until spring 2021 and could see 7.9m hospitalised.”

I have never met Dr Ioannidis, and it could well be that he has never heard of “TOK”, let alone the so-called “challenge” of integrating it in today’s Diploma Programme. But it’s hard to think of a stronger argument for its real-world relevance; and I would strongly urge any TOK, biology, business management, chemistry, geography, global politics, mathematics, philosophy, psychology or social and cultural anthropology teachers out there to use this article as a concrete discussion point in their current online teaching.

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TOK Tuesdays

The Map as Metaphor – Part 2

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

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


Image #7 File:London Underground Overground DLR Crossrail map.svg
Attribution: Sameboat [CC BY-SA (]

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