TOK Tuesdays

Exploring PT 5 – Everything’s A-OK

This is the fifth of six TOK Tuesdays posts that briefly explore various nuances and concepts associated with each of the May 2020 TOK prescribed titles. In each 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 Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP 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 PT 5 for May 2020.  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 the video, as always, I explore many aspects and nuances associated with this title, trying to flesh out the various subtleties related to issues such as, What does it mean for a theory to ‘have its limitations? and, What, precisely, does it mean to ‘understand the worldin this context?  These are, of course, very important features of the title that must coherently be addressed by any student in her essay, as are the provocative words “given” and “every”. But that’s not what I’m going to talk about in this post.  

Instead, I’m going to make a lateral move to another aspect of the title before slipping into a higher-level view of things.   

First, the other aspect.  After the claim in quotations comes the obligatory “to-do” message to the student: Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge. The student, and teacher, might be forgiven for simply glossing this last sentence over, unthinkingly chalking it up to standard TOK title format. After all, every title asks the student to do something, and while “discuss this claim” is clearly more general than “to what extent do you agree with this claim” or even “explore this distinction”, it seems very much of a piece with the general spirit of things.   

But that’s not the part I want to focus on here. For me, a genuine key to this title is the emphasis on “with reference to two areas of knowledge”. At first glance this, too, seems incredibly benign. After all, half of the titles specifically request the student to discuss matters with respect to two AOKs.  So why, on earth, should this stand out here?

The answer, I think, harkens back to the first TOK Tuesdays blog post I wrote at the beginning of October (Theory of Titles) when I stressed the value of trying to understand why the IBO TOK powers that be came up with these particular titles. What were they thinking? What did they have in mind? Why these titles and not similar options?  

My guess is that the titles that specifically ask students to invoke two areas of knowledge indicate those where, by and large, experts pursuing different AOKs will have strikingly different responses to the title in question.   That’s not to say, of course, that the other three titles don’t also present a divergence of views – of course they do – it’s just that, for the most part, that very divergence won’t be so strongly correlated with AOKs. 

And I would further claim that, of the three titles that specifically mandate comparisons across two AOKs, none reveals this correlation as strongly as PT 5. Which leads directly, I think, to an important “way in” to begin addressing the title.  

In other words, I would urge anyone thinking about PT 5 to step back for a moment before plunging into the details, and ask yourself to compare the reactions a typical physicist or biologist would have to the statement “Given that every theory has its limitations, we need to retain a multiplicity of theories to understand the world” with those of a typical historian or social scientist.   

My sense is that, while exceptions definitely abound, most physicists and biologists would strongly disagree with the statement. Some theories, they would admit, have their limitations, but that is more a statement of our current level of ignorance than anything else, and the hope and expectation is that, over time, those limitations will disappear as we better refine our theoretical framework. It is certainly not the case, they would say, that every theory has its limitations.  Most natural scientists would begrudgingly admit that “a multiplicity of theories” is logically necessary during our current period of uncertainty until we sort things out appropriately, but it is hardly desirable, let alone necessary – simply a consequence of not having everything figured out yet

On the other hand, your average historian would likely strongly concur with the claim that every historical theory has its limitations, recognizing two important points:

  • No matter how carefully we sift through the available evidence, there is still the overwhelming likelihood that we don’t have access to all the information necessary to make the best possible judgement.
  • Even those theories that we do develop based upon our available evidence are naturally subjected to our own biases and assumptions that resonate with our own sociocultural values and that historians of both the past and future will naturally come to strikingly different conclusions based upon different interpretations of the same evidence.   

Meanwhile, social scientists tend to come down on various different sides of this question, depending on a combination of their personal attitudes and what sort of research they conduct.  

One of the advantages of having a database filled with hundreds of specific insights of leading experts across different fields is that it’s pretty easy to move beyond one’s gut feelings and check to see if one’s expectations measure up with reality.  Which is why, in our recently released Titled Assistance – Supporting PT 5 video we chose examples from six different experts across the natural sciences, history and human sciences in a deliberate effort to further explore this AOK-related distinction.

Those unfortunate few who have yet to subscribe to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal will sadly not have the luxury of such concrete examples from expert researchers to support their arguments, but I would nonetheless urge them to trawl through books and YouTube videos to see if they could verify this AOK-related correlation for themselves.  

Because once you spot the roles that different AOKs play in this title, it’s almost like the essay writes itself. 

The Titled Assistance – Supporting PT 5 video is now available on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal to all individual subscribers and subscribing schools.  It can be found in the general Theory of Knowledge section (under “TOK Compilations”), Student TOK section and TOK Teachers section.  It provides a detailed discussion of PT 5 with 6 specific examples from Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP video and print resources to highlight the concepts under discussion.  It is roughly 40 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.



TOK Tuesdays

Exploring PT 4 – Plunging In

This is the fourth of six TOK Tuesdays posts that briefly explore various nuances and concepts associated with each of the May 2020 TOK prescribed titles.  In each 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 Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP 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 4.  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. 

Generally speaking, I’m a big fan of analysis: when faced with a complex problem I like to take things apart and reduce them to their simplest building blocks. This might be my physics training, or (to invoke a typical TOK-type of inversion), it might well be that my particular orientation and outlook made me more susceptible to those sorts of activities, like physics, which explicitly invoke the sorts of investigatory approaches that I felt most comfortable with. 

Well, whatever. The point worth stressing here, I think, is that the analytical approach, like all others, has its natural limits: there are many times when it succeeds, but many others when it does not, or at least doesn’t fit the problem at hand as well as other avenues.

Which brings me, in a roundabout sort of way, to PT 4, which is all about the issue of giving one’s take on the role of analogy. What does it do? What are its limits?  What does it not do?  What does it depend on?  

A strictly analytic approach would involve a detailed examination of the relevant words in the title, such as “understanding”, “justification”, “role” and so forth in an attempt to develop appropriate definitions and frameworks that one could then “apply” somehow to the notion of an analogy, and see what happens.  

There are several major hurdles to this approach however, certainly including the slipperiness of defining the key terms in question and their variability due to context.  But by far the biggest problem in my view is that, to weigh in on the role of analogy, you really have to wade into considering actual analogies themselves. In other words, this is not a title that particularly lends itself to a detailed abstract analysis of key terms, but rather one that clearly requires plunging in to the world of analogies and carefully assessing what they are doing, and not doing, in various circumstances.

To use an analogy here (who could resist?): investigating the role of analogies without explicitly invoking specific analogies is like learning how to swim from a textbook.

 Which makes it all the more ironic that the detailed PT 4 Titled Assistance Video I’ve just completed does actually present things in a rather analytical fashion: outlying a framework, highlighting key terms and issues and so forth. Why on earth would I do such a thing? Well, because as any teacher knows, there’s often a real difference between getting a handle on something and deciding how to most coherently and concisely describe it to others. The way I went about exploring the issue for myself, unsurprisingly, was by considering lots and lots of different specific analogies and trying to sort out what each of them were doing. Once you’ve done that enough times, you start getting a hang of how to group things in a reasonably coherent way: these sorts of things do that, those sorts of things do this, and so forth. 

But going through such an exercise in a video would likely make for a pretty boring and incoherent experience, bombarding people with example after example and then waiting for a pattern to somehow emerge. Of course, one could always simulate such an approach (deliberately choosing a string of examples that highlight different aspects and characteristics), but I think that runs a serious risk of making things look a bit too ad hoc.   

So when you watch our PT 4 video you will notice two things:

  • There are more than three times as many examples in this Titled Assistance video than any of the others.
  • It is, correspondingly, significantly longer than any of the others, coming in at just over 40 minutes.  

While this title has its challenges like any other, that’s not because it’s so obviously the most complicated.  It’s because if you want to learn to swim, at some point you simply have to get wet.  

The Titled Assistance – Supporting PT 4 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 4 with 15 specific examples from Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP resources to highlight the concepts under discussion.

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.