TOK Tuesdays

Investigating PT5 – Meta-Investigations

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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 PT3 – Systemic Constraints?

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 third 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 prescribed 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 PT3: “Labels are a necessity in the organization of knowledge, but they also constrain our understanding.”  Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge. 

Key Concepts:  

My approach to this title would be somewhat different from the first two discussed in earlier posts. Rather than embarking on a detailed search for a meaningful definition associated with a given concept highlighted in the title, in this case I feel fairly certain that I get the overall gist of what the issue is, and the associated subtlety to be explored is not so much a matter of definition per se, but more of interpretation and personal belief.   

In other words, I don’t believe that it would be terribly fruitful for me to spend my time investigating, What do I mean by a label here? or Under what circumstances can we be said to have our understanding constrained? The claim under consideration here seems to be that if we want to coherently structure our knowledge about the world around us it is necessary to group what we know into specific categories or areas; and that by carrying out this necessary grouping or labelling we will also, unfortunately, inevitably miss the development of some further insight that would have increased our knowledge.  

Personally, I find this the most interesting title of the six because I’m not actually sure what I believe. It might well be true; moreover, it might actually be quite a deep insight. For years educational theorists have trumpeted the importance of “interdisciplinarity”—that we need to move beyond the so-called “fixed silos” of our knowledge framework and instead “make connections across them”.   But the statement in this title is not, it is worth emphasizing, asking us to weigh in on  whether or not we believe in the merits of an interdisciplinary approach to knowledge creation, but rather whether the need for such interdisciplinarity will necessarily always be with us as a direct consequence of the inevitable act of structuring what we know.  

Further Analysis:

So first a bit of formal structure. 

For me to agree with the statement, I need to believe that:

  1. In order to organize knowledge one needs to put labels on things
  2. An inevitable consequence of labelling our knowledge is to constrain one’s understanding

Now, while I freely admit that it’s logically possible to believe that knowledge (or anything else, for that matter) can be “organized” without developing a schema of specific categories (i.e. “labels”) of some sort or another, personally I simply can’t imagine such a thing—indeed, for me, having some sort of categorization structure is precisely what I mean by being “organized”.  

Which means that the degree to which I will agree or disagree with the statement in the claim is directly related to #2 above. More specifically, can I imagine a situation where categorizing my knowledge doesn’t constrain my understanding (in which case I have a counterexample to the claim at hand)?   Maybe if I use sufficiently flexible labels, my understanding would be constrained after all, so the question is more about how I label my knowledge than whether or not I do.  Or perhaps those constraints only arise in some instances, like for particular AOKs in particular circumstances. 

After all, who’s to say that “constraining our understanding” is an established universally-agreed-upon concept anyway?  Perhaps one person’s “constraint” is someone else’s “insight”?

Whatever your final position, you’re going to need some specific examples to help illustrate your views.  They might also be highly useful to help you converge on what you actually believe in the first place. In what follows, I’ll offer some concrete examples that can naturally be interpreted in various different ways. 

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 comes 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 Beyond the Textbooks, Princeton University physicist Paul Steinhardt relates how, by deliberately ignoring standard textbook views of how atoms of materials could be possibly arranged, he extended our understanding of a new state of matter known as “quasicrystals”  This example could be used to demonstrate the inherently constraining aspects of specific knowledge categories in the physical sciences in the form of “rigid laws”.  Alternatively, it could be used to illustrate the claim that constraints in understanding are much more a function of the training and personal orientation of a researcher than in a label per se. 

In Rethinking the Fifth, Duke University philosopher and law professor Nita Farahany reexamines the Fifth Amendment to the American Constitution in light of our enhanced understanding from modern neuroscience. This example could be used as evidence that any present categorization structure inevitably constrains our understanding and thus needs to be continually reassessed, or as a demonstration of how, by ascribing multiple “labels” to the same knowledge, we can potentially avoid constraints that might otherwise occur. 

In Modelling Politics, Tufts University philosopher Brian Epstein describes how a successful political model must fundamentally incorporate many things that go beyond most standard characterizations of the political realm. As per other examples in this section, this clip simultaneously demonstrates the constraints inherent in a given knowledge categorization framework as well as our potential ability to transcend them.

In Frank Drake’s Agenda, astronomer and former SETI director Jill Tarter illustrates how, by grouping what we know and don’t know into a transparent framework, Frank Drake set the stage for us to better address the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligence. This example concretely highlights the benefits—and potential liabilities—inherent in a given organizational framework of knowledge.

In Rethinking History and Towards Better Explanations, Princeton University historian David Cannadine details how he believes that deep historical understanding can be extracted by moving beyond the standard categorization scheme of religion, nation, class, gender, race and civilization. This example simultaneously illustrates the power of “labelling constraints to our understanding” and our ability to transcend them. 

A wealth of additional TOK videos directly relevant to this topic can be found in the TOK Samplers Developing Understanding and Personal Perspectives, as well as the TOK Essay Practice Videos which can all be accessed on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.

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 $75 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

Exploring PT 1 – Establishing the Terrain

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

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

Establishing the Terrain

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

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

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

I. Establishing the Terrain

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

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

II. Investigate exceptions 

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

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

III. Question the initial assumptions 

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

What were those assumptions?  

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

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

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

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

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

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TOK Tuesdays

Searching for Nuance

While different people believe in widely varying approaches to preparing students for their TOK essay, one point all experts share is that it is a very bad idea for students to attempt to rewrite the title in their own words in an effort to increase their comprehension of what is being asked.


To answer that, it’s worth returning to the core theme of the first post in this series called Theory of Titles where I encouraged both teachers and students to use their imagination to consider what those who made the titles might have had in mind.   

Without trying to get too cute or self-referential about language as a way of knowing, the point to stress here is simply that words matter.   Those who created the titles didn’t just choose their words randomly or haphazardly, but rather as part of an explicit attempt to open the door to a wide range of subtlety and nuance deliberately crafted for the student to rigorously explore in her essay.   All of which implies that if students “reword” the titles, they will inevitably find themselves missing many of those vital nuances that a good essay needs to highlight and examine.

Sometimes people talk about “unpacking” the titles. Perhaps I’m being a stickler here, but it’s not the sort of metaphor that I like, because the very notion of “unpacking” implies to me that there’s one clear and obvious way to do things to get at the underlying essence of things. After all, when I unpack my suitcase after settling into a hotel, I certainly don’t expect to find anything more than what I put in there a few hours earlier, and I’m naturally confident that several minutes of careful effort will result in my re-establishing the same sort of order that I had at home before I left. 

But TOK isn’t like that at all.  Indeed, the whole point of the TOK essay is to demonstrate a capacity to meaningfully explore subtle and complicated issues from a variety of different perspectives.   That hardly means that one can’t have strong, well-constructed opinions or that all positions are equally appropriate or relevant: if that were the case, there would be no point in the TOK essay at all, as all grades would necessarily be the same.   

No, what it means is that a strong essay is one that successfully tackles the title in a way that focuses on the nuances of the related TOK concepts for which the specific wording of the title provides distinct clues. 

So what are those clues?  Where’s the nuance?  

Well, once again, the point of the exercise is for each student to carefully examine things so as to come up with his own conclusion.   But as usual, I’ll give you my personal take on things as a clear way to get the ball rolling and demonstrate more concretely what I’m talking about.

A general comment to make before I begin is that I tend to have a particularly strong reaction to blanket statements made in a supremely confident manner.   Whenever I’m presented with some smug fellow who stands up and unhesitatingly declares, “Obviously it follows that…” or “The only conclusion that can conceivably be reached is…” I feel a distinct urge welling up inside of me to smack him in the face, or at the very least find a compelling counterexample.  

If not properly harnessed, such sentiments can certainly get one into trouble.   But when it comes to TOK, these feelings are actually very helpful, serving as a personal warning system against invariably dubious claims – emotion as a way of knowing, if you will. 

Many TOK titles provoke precisely this sort of visceral response in me.  But of course, as I mentioned earlier, they were doubtless explicitly designed to do so, because a classic way of showcasing the need for nuance is to present people with concrete, jarring examples of where it is so obviously withheld.

Four of the May 2020 prescribed titles make me feel immediately uncomfortable in precisely this way: 2, 4, 5 and 6.  Let me take each in turn, highlighting the specific wording that makes me feel queasy.

For the second title, my focus is immediately drawn to the notion of “a sharp line”.  How can we be certain that there is, in fact, a difference between a description and an explanation? To what extent are some “explanations” little more than mere descriptions?  And if there is a difference between the two, what is it exactly?  

In the fourth title, the word primarily responsible for my anxiety is simply “is”.   To what extent can we be certain of the role of anything? How do we know that the divide between justifying and understanding is as clear and distinct as is implied?  And what does it mean to “aid understanding” anyway? Is that the sort of thing that can be precisely measured?  

The two words that trigger my discomfort in the fifth title are “every” and “need”.  How can I be certain that every theory is “limited”, and what do I really mean by that anyway?  And then there’s “need”, a word which inserted here seems little less than the acme of hubris.   To what extent is it always necessary to have more than one theory in play?  I can certainly think of lots of examples where this is not the operating philosophy, so clearly there are many people out there who believe something quite different. 

The last title in this gut-wrenching series is the sixth one.  Here the obvious culprit is “wholly”, with honorable mention going to the twin notions of “present knowledge” and “past knowledge”, confidently asserted matter-of-factly as if I, and everyone else, would unhesitatingly be able to distinguish between them at any given moment.   Which, as it happens, we can’t. 

Then there are the two other titles that are a little less obviously disturbing, and therefore might require a bit more linguistic reflection to pinpoint the corresponding nuance. 

In the first title, I’d focus on exploring the difference between “what is” and “what could be”.   To what extent can we be certain that such a difference objectively exists? Under what circumstances is it even possible to have seen “what is”, and what are the constraints on “what could be”?  

Meanwhile, for the third title, the words that particularly spring out to me are “matter”, “influence” and “seriously”.   Why should we even care about “how seriously” others take our knowledge? Is a theory any less true or valid in the days when it is considered “fringe” than after it has become generally accepted?  What do we mean, here, exactly by “influence”? What are the factors at work that are responsible for changes in community attitudes and beliefs.  

Such are my thoughts.   As usual, opinions will vary as to whether my personal hunt for nuance has been successful.   

But all that really matters is that everyone embarks on her own.

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TOK Tuesdays

Try a Little Selfishness

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

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

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

This post is about doing precisely that. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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