TOK Tuesdays

TOK Title Tips, Part 1 – Getting Practical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.Make an argument

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

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

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

 2. Decide on your argument before you write

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

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

So don’t.  

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

TOK Tuesdays

Exploring PT 3 – Leading With Our Gut

This is the third of six TOK Tuesdays posts that briefly explore various nuances and concepts associated with each of the May 2020 TOK prescribed titles.  In every post I will highlight a few specific themes that students may wish to consider related to each title, themes that are fleshed out in considerable detail, together with specific examples, in the corresponding Titled Assistance video available directly on our Portal. Subscribers might wish to regard these posts as high-level summaries of those videos, illuminating large-scale structural motivations that can further assist students both before and after watching the associated Ideas Roadshow Titled Assistance video. 

Today we tackle prescribed title 3.  Once again it’s worth emphasizing that these thoughts, together with those in the related Titled Assistance video, are strictly personal opinions and are designed to highlight key conceptual points associated with each title rather than provide any particular thesis or response to the title in question. 

In my view, PT 3 is distinct from all the others on a number of different fronts.

The first thing that you’re likely to notice is simply the way that this title is formulated.  While every other prescribed title asks the student to explore, discuss and investigate certain claims and statements, this one abruptly poses the question, Does it matter…?

What are we to make of this?  Well, it’s not so easy, I think.   

After a first, second, and even third reading I was preparing myself to launch into a standard type of detailed exploration of the wording in order to highlight the relevant nuances involved.  While it seemed reasonably straightforward that “your knowledge” referred to the notion of personal knowledge, rather than shared knowledge, there was a whole range of associated subtleties to explore: how might we define, precisely, “personal circumstances”? To what extent can “influence” be objectively assessed, not to mention the “seriousness”of how one takes knowledge?  Not to mention the concepts lying behind the words: “taking knowledge seriously”, after all, implies a specific “taker” who goes unmentioned in the title. Presumably the situation changes considerably depending on who is doing the “influencing” and who is “being influenced”. So there is all of that.  

My initial plan was to build up things brick by brick until I was ready to finally address the whole business of mattering, but, frustratingly, it seemed like I was never going to get there, as the more I started thinking about how I was going to address these points, the further away I seemed to be getting from the actual question being asked.   

After all, the title wasn’t asking me to describe to what extent personal circumstances influence the development of my personal knowledge, and it wasn’t even asking me to investigate under what circumstances personal circumstances can influence how seriously others take my personal knowledge (which personal circumstances? which “others”? “influence whom?”).  Instead it was assuming that personal circumstances influence how seriously knowledge is taken and then asking me: does it matter?

So, suddenly, my standard analytic approach of breaking things down carefully and then building them up again seemed deeply problematic.   It was time to try something different.

I decided to switch gears and focus on the whole question of mattering.  What does it mean, I asked myself, to matter?  Clearly this was a subjective appraisal: I might think that something matters, while someone else might think it doesn’t. But that, in itself, didn’t really help. After all, I was unlikely to find any objective truth in a core aspect of any TOK title – that is, after all, the whole point of the exercise. 

Then I began thinking of how I could be sure that I felt something mattered.   This is quite different, it should be stressed, than the subjective/objective distinction referred to a moment ago: I’m not talking about how I can be sure that something does matter (which is pretty well impossible given its inherently subjective nature) but rather how I can be sure that I think that something matters.  Are there some surefire signs, in other words, that I can point to that indicate that I think that something matters.  

And the more I thought about it, the more I began to conclude that indeed there were such signs: when I think that something matters I feel it instinctively in my gut. It is deeply tied, in other words, to a combination of emotions, intuition, and my personal moral judgement.   

Suddenly, I instinctively felt that I was on a more productive path to addressing what was being asked.  

The Titled Assistance – Supporting PT 3 video is now available on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal to all individual subscribers and subscribing schools.  It can be found in the Student TOK section, TOK Teachers section and general Theory of Knowledge section (under “TOK Compilations”).  It provides a detailed discussion of PT 3 with four specific examples from our resources to highlight the concepts under discussion, with the accompanying PDF recommending a further 4 Ideas Roadshow resources.  It is slightly less than 30 minutes long.

For information about an affordable individual teacher or student subscription which provides full access to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal, including all Titled Assistance videos PT 1-6 please visit our website, for students, here and for teachers, here.


Extending Wednesdays

Phantom Limb Pain

Today’s Extending Wednesdays topic comes from the Biology section of Ideas Roadshow’s Extended Essay Guide which you can find in the EE section of Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal, where Duke University neuroscientists Jennifer Groh and Miguel Nicolelis highlight how the intriguing phenomenon of “phantom limb pain” can be used to probe a wealth of issues related to the structure of our brains. 

Excerpt from the clip Suddenly Painful featuring Prof. Jennifer Groh

While Professor Groh focuses on the mysteries underlying what “spontaneous neural firing” really means, her fellow neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis invokes phantom limb pain as direct support for his belief that the brain actively constructs our representation of the world around us rather than simply recording sensory inputs, as biologists long believed:

“Interestingly enough, if you now change the framework and you put the brain in the centre of the picture, you find a completely different explanation for phantom limb pain. If you appreciate that the brain has an internal model of the body, which it has developed over the years, now what happens when you lose part of it? Suddenly, the brain has an internal model that is mismatched to the body and it is this mismatch that generates the illusion that you still have a part of yourself that has disappeared.”

Possible areas of investigation for an Extended Essay include an analysis of the history of phantom limb pain, competing scientific explanations, current and future experiments and implications for our general understanding of brain structure. 

Related Ideas Roadshow content includes the clips Suddenly Painful, Constantly Testing, the compilation video Examining the Brain and the enhanced eBooks and hour-long videos Knowing One’s Place: Spatial Processing and the Brain and Minds and Machines.

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.