TOK Tuesdays

TOK: Learning How To Learn

If your school does not have an institutional subscription to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal yet or if you’re interested in getting an individual teacher or student subscription, you can purchase a subscription on this website Annual individual subscriptions cost only $99 and provide unlimited access to all resources that are part Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.

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.

Read more: TOK: Learning 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. 

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 $99 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!

TOK Tuesdays

Investigating PT5 – Meta-Investigations

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 $99 and provide unlimited access to all resources that are part Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.

This is the fifth 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 PT5: “Areas of knowledge are most useful in combination with each other.”  Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.

Key Concepts and Analysis:  

One of the first thoughts that occurs to me as I glance at this title is that it is, in some ways, a sort of “flip side” to PT3, as both deal with the notion of interdisciplinarity.   While PT3 maintains that the very act of grouping our knowledge into different categories necessarily inhibits our full powers of understanding, this title maintains that the most useful aspect of the categorization scheme of developing distinct “areas of knowledge” lies in its potential of combining them.

More specifically, the two words that immediately jump out at me in this title are “most” and “useful” (both independently, and as part of a compound expression), leading to the following two thoughts:

  1. What is meant by “useful” in this context?
  2. Under what circumstances can I rigorously assess to what extent something is clearly “most useful”?—that is, demonstrably more useful than anything else. 

Personally, the first part doesn’t seem all that problematic. Presumably what I mean by “useful” here is something like “leads to increased understanding”, by setting the stage for future knowledge generation and/or better appreciating and recognizing what I already know.  In other words, it’s clear that the creation and application of a scheme of “areas of knowledge” is an artificial construct we have developed—the world wasn’t made with little “AOK” labels affixed to things—and the reason we have decided to invoke such a structure is because we believe that by doing so we can both better organize our knowledge (i.e. understand the world around us) and provide a good framework for developing new knowledge/understanding.   

It’s when considering the second aspect—how can I know when something is most useful in this context?— that the situation becomes decidedly murkier.  In particular, I might believe that the AOK structure is useful in many ways, including the associated opportunity to specifically investigate combinations of different AOKs, but I might disagree that the notion of combining AOKs is the most useful aspect of this organizational structure. Perhaps I think that, in some overall sense, “more” knowledge (or, even more contentiously, “more valuable” knowledge) is generated within AOKs than “across” them. 

Or maybe I think that the key (i.e. in this context “most useful”) factor of the entire AOK schema is not so much knowledge generation per se but rather appreciating what I already know through a comprehensive organizational structure, and the most important aspect of such a structure is the comprehensiveness, or flexibility, or something else entirely, of each of my AOKs.   Or maybe I believe that the effectiveness of my entire AOK knowledge structure depends on my choice of AOKs themselves, and in some possible schemes the principal utility of my framework lies in the power of the AOKs themselves while in others it rests with how they might be combined.   

In other words, and somewhat more abstractly, this title involves a dip into a form of “meta-meta-thinking”.   If TOK is a form of meta-thinking—thinking about knowledge rather than simply acquiring knowledge—, then asking questions about how, exactly, we should think about knowledge—such as which AOKs we should use in our organizational framework and what their principal utility towards our understanding is—involves a form of meta-TOK thinking, or meta-meta-thinking.   

It is likely not a coincidence that three of this year’s 6 prescribed titles (I’ve already mentioned PT3 above, but note that PT2 also alludes to how the distinction between “change” and “progress” might well be “AOK-dependent”) are of the meta-TOK variety at precisely the time when the IBO powers that be have been thinking deeply about how best to restructure the TOK curriculum. 

At any rate, a successful exploration of this title will most definitely require you to plunge into an explicit analysis of the benefits of the “AOK organizational framework”.   And remember: it’s not enough to show that, however you define “useful” (and you must), combining AOKs is a useful thing to be doing.   A TOK student’s job is to demonstrate that the act of combining AOKs can be demonstrated to be—or not to be—or in some instances yes and in others no—the most useful aspect of the entire TOK knowledge framework. 

As always, a vital way to go forwards is to be working with some specific examples both to clarify what you believe and to best present your arguments, the details of which are naturally up to you. In what follows, I’ll highlight a number of related TOK resources that are part of Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal grouped in two sections: those that demonstrate the merits of interdisciplinarity and the “potential porousness” of AOK boundaries, and others that support the notion of the productive knowledge-generation capacity of separate self-contained AOKs. 

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

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

I. The Merits of Interdisciplinarity

In A Historian’s Toolbox, UC Berkeley historian Martin Jay describes how paying close attention to evolutions of particular social and linguistic developments (Human Sciences) is an essential aspect of the development of historical knowledge (History). 

In Testing Reality and Applied Philosophy, National University of Singapore and Oxford University physicist Artur Ekert relates how philosophical probing (Human Sciences), mathematical formalism (Mathematics) and carefully-designed experiments (Natural Sciences) combined to lead to ground-breaking changes in our understanding of nature.

In Enlarging the Conversation, Princeton University historian David Cannadine argues that historians would significantly benefit from detailed discussions with neuroscientists and geneticists (Natural Sciences) in order to further their understanding of the human condition that lies at the heart of the historical enterprise (History).

In Testing Morality, Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal describes how the application of economists’ “ultimatum game” (Human Sciences) to the broader biological world (Natural Sciences) can provide a wealth of tangible insights into notions of morality (Ethics), while in Individuals and Community and Evolving Moral Understanding he relates his findings on the profound structural similarity between human and animal morality that not only bridge the Human Sciences, Natural Sciences and Ethics, but also propose insights on the development of ethical systems that are relevant to religious knowledge systems.

In Predicting Our World, Northeastern University psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett illustrates how a detailed understanding of the creative process of visual artists (The Arts) can better help us understand and appreciate how the brain interprets and imposes its structures on the world (Human Sciences, Natural Sciences).

II. Knowledge Generation Within Individual AOKs

In Retooling Our Brains and Constantly Testing, Duke University neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis demonstrates how a keen biological understanding twinned with rigorous experiment can drive our knowledge of how the brain works.   Meanwhile, in Necessary but not Sufficient he illustrates how interdisciplinary approaches can still exist within a given AOK, contrasting reductionistic tendencies in physics with the need for a more holistic approach in neurobiology. 

A similar demonstration of how illuminating interdisciplinary thinking can occur within the same AOK—once again using the example of physics and biology in the Natural Sciences—occurs in Scott Tremaine’s penetrating analysis in Darwin and the Butterfly, where he distinguishes the knowledge process in astrophysics and evolutionary biology with other areas of both physics and biology.

In Off Base, Cambridge University historian Stefan Collini describes how, by diligently returning to a careful examination of the historical record we can eliminate common misconceptions and develop a clearer understanding of past events. 

In History, Evolving and Seeking the Bigger Picture UCLA’s historian Margaret Jacob reveals how careful and experienced historians can make knowledgeable judgements about not only what has happened and why, but also what constitutes responsible and productive approaches to the historical enterprise. 

In Thinking It Through, University of Cambridge political scientist John Dunn describes how a rigorous analysis of the concepts of democracy, civil liberties and capitalism—all in the Human Sciences domain—enable us to reveal common inconsistencies and contradictions that might otherwise have laid hidden.

In Mathematics and the Real World, University of Warwick mathematician and bestselling author Ian Stewart describes how, within the domain of mathematics, pure and applied streams can combine to dramatically increase our mathematical understanding. 

Students and teachers who already have access to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal are also referred to each of the 5 Ideas Roadshow TOK Samplers dedicated to a specific AOK—Mathematics, Human Sciences, Natural Sciences, History and The Arts—for added perspectives on the breadth, depth, degree of self-containment and potential interdisciplinarity of these AOKs.

TOK Tuesdays

Investigating PT4 – All Lies?

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 $99 and provide unlimited access to all resources that are part Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.

This is the fourth 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 PT4: “Statistics conceal as much as they reveal.”  Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge. 

Key Concepts:  

The claim in this title is a pretty strong one, and unlike some of those in other titles, represents a summary judgement that in my view is a lot harder to justify. But regardless of whether your knee-jerk impulse is to agree or disagree with it, clearly a key to successfully grappling with its implications involves coming to terms with the subjective aspects of the acts of “concealment” and “revelation” that lie at the heart of the claim. Statistics in themselves, of course, are merely objective mathematical expressions, but the very act of interpreting and presenting these expressions to others—expressed here by the words “conceal” and “reveal”— clearly has the potential to veer decidedly towards the subjective side of things in a way that could well involve an array of both inadvertent and deliberate errors.   

The idea that fundamentally specious conclusions could be “dressed up” and somehow rendered more authoritative using deliberately skewed statistical arguments is hardly a new thought, and lies at the heart of Mark Twain’s oft-quoted remark that he attributed to Benjamin Disraeli:

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. 

So the first thing to recognize is simply that any statistical argument necessarily involves an interpretation of the mathematics, which will often bring in an array of subjective factors and judgements that we need to make explicit and question, ranging from which conclusions are valid to larger structural issues such as how the statistical study was initially designed.  

That seems clear enough. But a quick glance at the title reveals that that is not, in fact, what it says. The claim is not that “interpreting statistical arguments invariably involve a certain degree of subjectivity” or even “there are times when statistics can be used to support a number of distinct, and even contradictory, conclusions”, but rather “statistics conceal as much as they reveal”.   

To be able to justify such a claim, you not only have to explicitly tackle the thorny issues of what it means to “conceal” and “reveal” concepts related to statistics (which you have to do anyway if you decide to take on this title, and among other things, will likely involve an explicit mention of the concept of beginning an investigation without any initial convictions as to the outcome), but—even more problematically—you are forced to demonstrate that in all instances of statistics, and presumably for any conclusion that is based upon them, there is an equal amount of concealed or hidden information to somehow “counterbalance” what is alleged to be demonstrated by the statistics. 

Once again, that seems a pretty hard position to maintain, and certainly not one I subscribe to. But that’s not the point of a TOK title, of course. I can’t just write: I disagree. I have to demonstrate exactly why I disagree in terms of what, specifically, I find objectionable about the claim. 

In this case, there appear to be two separate issues to tackle no matter what your final position is:

  1. Discuss what exactly could be meant by the words “conceal” and “reveal” in terms of related concepts we’ve discussed above (interpretation, subjectivity, objectivity).
  1. Evaluate to what extent you agree, or disagree, with the claim that the amount of “concealment” and “revelation” is always equivalent in statistical arguments, which I would argue is tantamount to declaring that statistical arguments can never give rise to objectively true statements. 

In my view the best way to go about making your case is to invoke specific examples of statistical reasoning, highlighting associated interpretative (subjective) aspects together with more objective ones. In what follows, I’ll present several helpful resources from Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal that involve explicit mention of statistical arguments and can be used to build an excellent essay.

Below we highlight a number of specific TOK resource examples from Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal to build a world-class TOK Essay. All TOK Clips come with a detailed print component and TOK Essay Practice Videos.

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

In Divining the Date, University of Michigan classicist Richard Janko reveals how he used statistical arguments to date an ancient manuscript by looking at the frequency of certain linguistic expressions, giving additional support to the notion that objectively verifiable conclusions can be deduced from careful, independent-minded statistical studies. 

In Circular Reasoning, University of Oxford physicist Roger Penrose gives an explicit example of how a statistical argument that purports to give an account of “a random sky” wrongly incorporates pre-existing informations, although it’s worth emphasizing that he believes this to be a misinterpretation rather than an active attempt to promote an alternative scientific agenda.

In Defining What You’re Looking For and Subjective Distortions, award-winning violinmaker and acoustician Joseph Curtin relates his pioneering “double-blind” experiments to determine whether or not expert musicians can identify the sound of a Stradivari violin, presenting a compelling argument for how a rigorous statistical analysis could filter out many subjective biases commonly held throughout the world of professional musicians.

 In fMRI and Assessing Consciousness, neuroscientists Kalanit Grill-Spector and Martin Monti demonstrate how contemporary brain-scanning experiments that involve explicit statistical algorithms can give rise to an array of well-grounded insights. 

In Autism and Vaccines, UCL psychologist Uta Frith describes the various statistical arguments that went into establishing the conclusion that the development of autism was not causally connected to being vaccinated with the childhood vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella. I suggest that students investigate to what extent potentially “concealed” conclusions could be reduced by increasing the number of such studies and how, in general, the volume of studies impacts the statistics themselves. 

In Scientific Credibility, business professor and environmentalist Andy Hoffman describes how, notwithstanding significant amounts of scepticism from those who are convinced that climate scientists are “concealing contradictory data”, he believes that at the end of the day most people will recognize the objective validity of their many statistical models.

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 $99 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. 

Mathematics:

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”.

History:

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.

Ethics:

While it’s conceivable that some measure of knowledge progress should be considered in Ethics (e.g. to what extent do advances in neuroscience or evolutionary biology reinforce the objective validity of ethical principles?) for the most part this is an AOK where notions of “progress” will primarily be of a domain-related orientation (e.g. how do recent changes in the prevailing societal attitudes gender and sexual identities impact broader notions of what it means to make “ethical progress”?).   Specific Ideas Roadshow resources that address issues of ethical progress include: Behaviour and Values and Fostering Social Change, where University of Michigan Business Professor Andy Hoffman considers both how changes in community behaviour can impact our ethical development and how a deeper ethical awareness can be deliberately fostered by modifying our collective behaviour.

In Leading by Example, UC San Diego Chinese studies specialist Karl Gerth describes the ethical implications associated with prospective changes in behaviour of Western countries towards China and in Making Progress? Cambridge University historian and literary critic Stefan Collini reminds us that The Two Cultures’ exchange between C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis pivoted around a debate about to what extent technological change has resulted in societal progress—and, by association—what is actually meant by that rather loaded phrase. 

Religious Knowledge Systems:

Given the nature of religious knowledge systems and the large role that interpretation plays in its development, most invocations of “progress” in this context will also be associated with domain progress: to what extent can changes in our approach to religious knowledge be somehow be recognized as a form of “objective improvement”? 

Ideas Roadshow TOK resources explicitly related to this issue include Nile Green’s deliberate application of a new economics-modelled vocabulary to yield better religious and historical understanding (Religion as a Marketplace), David Goldberg’s personal recommendation to redefine Jewish identity in a way contrary to standard contemporary practice (Know Thyself) and an examination of very aspects of how the missionary movement impacted religious understanding both at home and abroad (The Impact of Missionaries). 

Indigenous Knowledge Systems:

Lastly, the topic of Indigenous Knowledge Systems brings up an additional aspect of domain progress: how direct contact between two distinct AOKs can directly lead to a change (and possible progress, depending on one’s definition) in one or more AOKs. 

Specific examples include how sign-language linguist Carol Padden’s experience of how interaction with a remote Bedouin community helped modify her views on the evolution of languages (The Roots of Sign Language, Losing the Sharp Edges), and psychologist Carol Dweck’s discovery, in Cultural Mindsets, of how research carried out in an American aboriginal community led her to modify her appreciation of the pivotal role that cultural factors play in the application of her groundbreaking mindset work, leading both Padden and Dweck (it could be argued) to make substantial progress in their respective fields of knowledge.

Additional, AOK-interdisciplinary resources that students might find helpful for this title include the TOK Samplers Knowledge and Technology and Testing Theories

 

TOK Tuesdays

Investigating PT1 – An Element of Trust

If your school does not have an institutional subscription to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal you can now sign up for an individual teacher or student subscription. Annual individual subscriptions cost only $99 and provide unlimited access to all resources that are part Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.

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

We begin with PT1: “Accepting knowledge claims always involves an element of trust.”  Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.

Key Concepts:  Upon first reading this title, my eye immediately falls upon three key words: “always”, “trust” and “accepting”.  It might seem strange to present them in this order, since “accepting” is the first word I encounter, but this is deliberate, as you’ll shortly see. 

When someone tells me that something always happens in conjunction with something else, I’m immediately suspicious.  Always?  On every possible occasion?  How do we know that that’s necessarily the case?  That would seem to imply a necessary, structural link between the two things in question, but how certain am I that such a link necessarily exists?

Then there’s the expression “an element of trust”, which is one of those everyday figures of speech that we’re all very familiar with, but all too often such routine phrases actually hide a substantial amount of ambiguity lurking behind them: Who is trusting whom, exactly?  Do all people mean the same thing when they talk about trust?  And how big, precisely, is “an element of trust” anyway, and to what extent does it naturally vary from person to person?  

At this point, directly after musing over “an element of trust”, I’m led back to the notion of “accepting”.   After all, what am I talking about here?  What is this thing that allegedly, “always involves an element of trust”?   Well, accepting knowledge claims, of course.   But then, I think to myself, different people naturally have different criteria for acceptance than others.  How might that be addressed?

Some Concrete Approaches:

So now I’m ready to sketch out a few ways of how I might concretely tackle this title.  Can I imagine situations where the acceptance of knowledge claims don’t involve “an element of trust”, or at least strikingly different degrees of trust?

To what extent is trusting the opinions of authority figures the same sort of thing as trusting my sense perception or powers of reason?  Are there some types of knowledge claims that I somehow feel more compelled to accept than others?  In what ways does our knowledge of a subject impact our ability to accept subsequent knowledge claims?   If I’m a molecular biologist, say, how would that influence my acceptance of a newspaper reporting a proposed cure for the current pandemic?

A reasonable way forward would be to explicitly gear such examinations towards the particular two areas of knowledge that I want to invoke. Do “acceptance of knowledge claims” differ between the mathematical sciences and the human sciences?  Under what circumstances can the role of “scientific authorities” be compared to “religious authorities”?  To what extent do intrinsically subjective factors make “knowledge claims” in the arts similar to, and different from, those in history?

Lastly, it’s worth explicitly examining the specific impact that different ways of knowing have on the claim, a notion that was already alluded to when we mentioned sense perception and reason earlier: how can language or faith influence our willingness to accept or reject a given claim?  Under what circumstances can we trust our memory or our intuition?

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

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

In Proof by Picture, philosopher of science Jim Brown investigates how we come to accept mathematical claims, while in Cultural Mindsets, psychologist Carol Dweck reveals the key role that cultural factors play in interpreting the applicability of certain knowledge claims. In Evolutionary Evidence, neuroscientist Matthew Walker describes how knowledge claims in the natural sciences naturally depend on our faith in the validity of underlying theoretical frameworks, while in Know Thyself, rabbi David Goldberg highlights instances of when subjective knowledge claims about our own identity are not accepted by others. 

In Testing Reality and Measuring Brain Activity, physicist Artur Ekert and cognitive scientist Ellen Bialystok emphasize the role that experiment plays in the acceptance of knowledge claims in the natural sciences.  In Political Games? political theorist John Dunn illustrates how all too often knowledge claims in political science are more of a reflection of internal sociological factors than objective knowledge of the political world, and in History’s Pendulum, historian Maria Mavroudi relates how trusted “traditional narratives” impact our willingness to believe associated historical knowledge claims.

Further insights related to the process of the acceptance of knowledge claims are covered in detail in the comprehensive TOK Essay Practice Video for May 2020 PT 3 (Does it matter that your personal circumstances influence how seriously your knowledge is taken?), while the TOK Samplers Navigating the World and Assessing Spin explicitly highlight how the media and popular opinion influence our inclination to accept knowledge claims across a wide range of different AOKs.

TOK Tuesdays

Musical Illusions

To what extent is the popularity of a procedure related to its validity?

In the TOK Clip Applying Illusions, UC San Diego psychologist of music Diana Deutsch describes how the celebrated Octave Illusion she discovered has the potential to be directly applied to the world of clinical medicine by giving an accurate, non-invasive indicator of cerebral dominance as opposed to, for instance, the so-called Wada test.

The Wada test is sometimes given to patients who have epilepsy and need to undergo surgery to cope with this condition. Ahead of surgery it is necessary to figure out which is the dominant hemisphere of this patient’s brain to make sure that no permanent damage to the speech of the patient is caused by this surgery.

Prof. Diana Deutsch is a pioneer of harnessing computer-generated tones to carry out detailed aural experiments on music, memory, language and cognition. She uncovered a vast spectrum of musical illusions that are now standard in the scientific literature, including the Octave Illusion, the Scale Illusion, the Chromatic Illusion, the Glissando Illusion and many more.

Below is a screen shot of what the resource page for this Ideas Roadshow TOK clip looks like. The new PDF that comes with this clip highlights how this resource has been updated to be fully aligned with the new TOK curriculum: the related AOK and Optional Theme (Knowledge & Technology in this case), how it directly connects to the new Knowledge Framework – Scope, Perspectives, Methods and Tools and Ethics – in the form of a Knowledge Question, three additional sample Knowledge Questions, related IA prompts for the TOK exhibition and citing suggestions for the TOK exhibition and essay.

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 $99 and provide unlimited access to all resources that are part Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.

All Ideas Roadshow’s TOK resources are digital – they can be seamlessly used for online or in-class teaching without the need to change your lesson plans! 

TOK Tuesdays

A Supreme Example

Under what circumstances can modifying our assumptions of the social world result in more valid models of human behaviour?

In Ideas Roadshow’s TOK clip called A Supreme Example, Tufts University philosopher Brian Epstein describes how many people’s perspectives on the social world are prejudiced by a hidden assumption that he takes issue with and uses the example of The Supreme Court to illustrate his point.

“…. So if you look at the example of the nine people on the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court is a lot more than those nine people. There’s a way of doing a kind of thought experiment in philosophy where you try to understand, ‘Does this object just consist of these parts?‘. What you do is, you take those parts and you move them to a remote environment and you see if that object still exists or still behaves in the same way. It’s obvious – if you take those nine people and you move them somewhere where there’s not this enormous United States infrastructure, then they’re powerless. The power of the Supreme Court: the fact that they’re making decisions, even the actions of the Supreme Court, for instance striking down a law, voting in a certain way, that consists of a lot more than just those nine people.”

Below is what the resource page for A Supreme Example looks like on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal. As you can see, this video resource comes with a detailed PDF which highlights the related AOK, connections with the new Knowledge Framework – scope, perspectives, methods and tools, ethics – related IA prompts, three Knowledge Questions that are directly relevant to this clip, citing references, TOK overlaps with other DP subjects, and more:

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 $99 and provide unlimited access to all resources that are part Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.

All Ideas Roadshow’s TOK resources are digital – they can be seamlessly used for online or in-class teaching without the need to change your lesson plans! 

TOK Tuesdays

Knowledge and Religion

To what extent can we be certain that we understand a foreign religious tradition if we haven’t directly experienced it?

Today’s TOK Tuesdays topic comes from our new TOK Sampler, Knowledge and Religion, to give teachers a tangible sense of how our 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.  The full TOK Sampler which is part of Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal includes relevant details for both the ‘old’ and new TOK curriculum.

In the following excerpt from this TOK Sampler, historian of religion Nile Green, UCLA, describes the profound disconnect he experienced between what he had read about Sufism and what he personally encountered when he began to visit Sufi shrines.  

Below is a screenshot of what the resource page for this TOK Sampler looks like on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal. All TOK Samplers feature short clips featuring a range of experts across different disciplines. At the start of each clip the relevant AOK/WOKs (“old” curriculum) and the related AOKs/Optional Themes for the new TOK curriculum are highlighted. At an opportune moment during the clip a Knowledge Question is shown to provide material for discussion and reflection.

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 $99 and provide unlimited access to all resources that are part Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.

All Ideas Roadshow’s TOK resources are digital – they can be seamlessly used for online or in-class teaching without the need to change your lesson plans! 

Connecting Thursdays

A Body of Information

How does our understanding of information impact our knowledge about the world?

In today’s clip from Ideas Roadshow’s TOK Connections Overview Video for Computer Science, University of Oxford and National University of Singapore quantum computer pioneer Prof. Artur Ekert highlights how our new-found appreciation of the inherent physical nature of information has profoundly changed our understanding of what computers are and what they are actually doing.

(Excerpt from TOK Connections Overview Video for Computer Science)

This clip called The Physics of Information is a real-world example of TOK-related thinking in Computer Science which you can use to explicitly integrate TOK into your Computer Science lessons.  Prof. Ekert highlights how appreciating the physical essence of information has influenced our concepts of algorithms, computation and even reality. If your school has access to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal, make sure to also view the TOK clip called Applied Philosophy and chapters 6-9 of long-format video and enhanced eBook called Cryptoreality, Part. 1.

Interested in learning more about Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP resources to explicitly integrate TOK across the DP curriculum?

Make sure to watch this informational video on our website – here – which will show you how Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal offers subject teachers a wide range of unique TOK integration materials across 21 DP subjects to incorporate TOK explicitly and easily into their lesson planning.

In addition, you can find details about how Ideas Roadshow’s extensive TOK resources have been adjusted to be fully in line with the new TOK Curriculum, enabling teachers to quickly and easily invoke a wide range of concrete teaching strategies for the core theme, the five optional themes and the five newly streamlined AOKs, while providing a wealth of additional student support for both the TOK essay and the new TOK exhibition.