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 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 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 $99 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 $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

Autism and Scientific Beliefs

In what ways does the media we consume influence our scientific beliefs?

In the Ideas Roadshow TOK Clip called Autism and Vaccines, UCL developmental psychologist Uta Frith describes how the hypothesis that childhood vaccines are linked to autism, while initially plausible, was subjected to rigorous scientific testing and found to be false.

We’ve developed seven Knowledge Questions directly related to this clip, below are three of those:

  1. How do emotions influence our belief in the validity of scientific explanations?
  2. Under what circumstances can we distinguish between environmental or genetic causes of a particular phenomenon?
  3. At what point can we justifiably conclude that a hypothesis accounting for the development of a specific psychological condition is invalid?

Below is a screen shot of what the resource page for this TOK clip looks like on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal. 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 AOKs, 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

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

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! 

TOK Tuesdays

Back To The Future

Reculer pour mieux sauter

Change is difficult. Few of us relish the prospect of moving out of our comfort zone and finding ourselves forced to grapple with new circumstances and uncertain directions. But despite the practical challenges that change often brings, the prospect of change also presents opportunities – not just in terms of future possibilities to do things better (although that’s certainly true), but even more significantly, in providing a concrete occasion to re-examine why we are doing what we’re doing in the first place.  

It is with this firmly in mind, then, that I’d like to turn my attention to the upcoming changes in the TOK curriculum, the subject of a series of online events we’ll be holding starting next week that are open to all. Many TOK teachers are understandably worried about what the concrete impact that such changes will have on them and their students: How will this affect my teaching? To what extent will this impact my students’ essays? In what ways will the new TOK exhibition differ from the current TOK presentation?  

All good questions; and our upcoming online event series is explicitly designed to openly discuss these issues, and a good many more besides, with a wide variety of TOK practitioners.   

But in my upcoming presentation on January 23 that will kick off the series, I will instead switch gears somewhat to focus on the origins of TOK, reflecting on what the IB founders had in mind when they began developing the DP curriculum before then turning my attention to considering how the upcoming changes might be considered with respect to this pioneering philosophy.  In (current) TOK language, in other words, my approach will thus be to combine the WOKs of imagination, memory and reason with the AOKs of history and human sciences.  

Why take this approach?  Well, there are a few reasons:

First, there is the general principle, as alluded to above, that in order to best appreciate where one is going it is often necessary to deeply understand where one has been. 

Secondly, trying to understand why something has been done (whether or not one happens to agree with it), is frequently an important aspect of the process of coming to terms with how, exactly, to deal with it.  

Lastly, my unique background of having a wide range of TOK-related research experiences and perspectives while not being a practicing TOK teacher, places me in an ideal position to frame this issue in a more general  historical and ideological context. 

First, there is the general principle, as alluded to above, that in order to best appreciate where one is going it is often necessary to deeply understand where one has been. 

Once I have set the stage with next Thursday’s presentation, the following events will involve discussions with a variety of different TOK practitioners to get their perspectives on a wide range of issues both directly, and indirectly, linked to the changes to the new TOK curriculum.  Based on the enthusiastic feedback we have received throughout the global TOK community to the mere mention of the possibility of holding such events, we are very much looking forward to the opportunity to constructively interact and engage with a wide cross-section of TOK teachers.  


TOK Tuesdays

TOK Title Tips, Part 2 – The Power of Persuasion

In last week’s post, TOK Title Tips, Part 1 – Getting Practical, I highlighted two of five key points (“Make an argument” and “Decide on your argument before you write”) that students should bear in mind as they turn to the concrete task of constructing their TOK essay.  Today, in this last TOK Tuesdays post of 2019, I will tackle the remaining three.  

3) Tackle the soft spots in your argument

This one might seem particularly strange.   After all, why should an essay writer point out the inherent weaknesses in her argument?  Won’t that run a serious risk of damaging one’s case and result in a poorer mark?  

No.  Not if it’s done right. 

It’s important to emphasize that any sophisticated argument is going to have strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes TOK advocates like to highlight that, “In TOK, unlike other courses, there is no one right answer.”  Which is true enough. But the important point to stress is that this is hardly simply an idiosyncrasy of TOK. There is “no one right answer” to how to go about addressing climate change, or which social programmes to fund over others, or how to conduct an effective international trade strategy, or how to shape an investment portfolio, or which historical “lessons” provide the most insight to our current situation or which work of music is a masterpiece. Indeed, it is safe to say that virtually all the really interesting questions one can encounter in life do not have “one right answer”. Which is, of course, why exposure to TOK thinking is so important to everyone, as there is no other course which better prepares people for critical engagement with the world around them.

But precisely because TOK forces one to grapple with the real, complex, messy world with a wealth of different perspectives and many shades of grey – that is to say, because a response to a knowledge question is necessarily open-ended and a matter of opinion, it is important to recognize that other people will have different views and different arguments, and that a truly persuasive essay will be one that explicitly considers those before later rejecting or minimizing them. By doing this, you will make it clear to examiners that you have considered a wealth of different arguments and counter-arguments before settling on your own, rather than merely opting for a particular view simply because it seemed immediately plausible.

4) Choose your examples (and AOKs) wisely

This point is really a natural consequence of the first three: your first job is to formulate an argument, which needs to be sketched out in general terms before you start to write.  Then you have to become aware of what a critic of your position would say. Now, finally, it’s time to make your case.  

One of the best ways to do this is by selecting concrete examples that reinforce your position while tangibly demonstrating why an opposite view is much less convincing.  

Clearly, if you haven’t gone through the first three steps carefully, you will have no good way of assessing which examples will be “good ones” for you and which ones will be worse. 

The same is true for your choice of AOKs.  As you are doubtless keenly aware, half of the prescribed titles specifically ask you to discuss matters with respect to two AOKs. Some students rush to choose their AOKs ahead of time, often based on which ones they “like better” or “feel more comfortable with”.  But this makes no sense. The two AOKs you select for such titles should be those that best help you make your argument as described above. Which means that you first need to have the clearest possible sense of what that is, together with which general issues need to be addressed.    

Maybe you will choose two different AOKs to demonstrate that the same sort of applies to two entirely different domains.  Or perhaps you will deliberately opt for invoking an AOK “naturally associated” with an opposing view to illustrate why it doesn’t hold water.  Or maybe you will become convinced that the most appropriate response to the title actually depends, somehow, on the AOK that is chosen. But whatever your direction, your choice of AOKs needs to be an inherent part of your argument and not simply some random choice or one made out of habit. 

5) Get a range of different views

Finally, let’s imagine that the first draft of your essay is finished. What should you do now? Well, most people simply submit their draft to their teacher as part of the standard TOK essay timeline procedure.

Of course that’s an important thing to do: bouncing your work off an experienced pair of eyes to get good, concrete advice is always a good idea.  But the point worth stressing here is that nothing stops you from getting the broadest possible feedback you can. What do your friends think of it?  What do your parents have to say? Remember, you’re making an argument here. Can others understand it? Are they convinced by it? Are there parts of it that don’t make sense to them?  

Of course different people will say and think different things, and it’s your essay: you have every right to ignore whatever anyone else says and simply do what you want. But chances are if nobody follows your argument you are not making it very convincingly, or at least not convincingly enough.  

Because of their combined experience in TOK and essay-writing, your teacher’s criticisms will likely be the most valuable and should therefore be recognized as such. But teachers are human too. Maybe you’ve discussed your essay so many times with your teacher that she “knows what you mean to say” even if you don’t actually say it properly. Perhaps she unthinkingly “fills in the blanks” of an argument which isn’t, in fact, made. Or maybe your teacher is naturally disposed to your argument, or is somewhat preoccupied with working with other students who are struggling more significantly with how to build their essay. At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that the point of the venture is not simply to make your teacher happy, but to have the strongest possible essay – and the best way to ensure that that is the case is to prove to yourself that your argument can convince the broadest cross-section of people.

Six comprehensive Titled Assistance videos – one for each of the six May 2020 Prescribed Titles – are now available on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal to all individual subscribers and subscribing schools. They can be found in the Theory of Knowledge section (under “TOK Compilations”), Student TOK section and Teacher Resources section.  All videos contain a wealth of revealing examples associated with each PT drawn from Ideas Roadshow’s extensive video resources.

Visit our informational website, here, if you’d like to learn more about the innovative TOK resources Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal offers to support students and teachers.