TOK Tuesdays

TOK Title Tips, Part 1 – Getting Practical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.Make an argument

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

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

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

 2. Decide on your argument before you write

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

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

So don’t.  

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

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

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

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

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

TOK Tuesdays

Exploring PT 6 – A Wholly Necessary Discussion

This is the last in a series of TOK Tuesdays posts that briefly explore various nuances and concepts associated with each of the May 2020 TOK prescribed titles.  Everything discussed in these posts is fleshed out in considerably more detail in Ideas Roadshow’s six Titled Assistance videos, all of which are now available on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal. Subscribers may regard these posts as high-level summaries of those videos, illuminating large-scale structural motivations that can provide additional context to students both before and after watching the associated Titled Assistance video. 

Today we tackle PT 6 for May 2020.  Once again it’s worth emphasizing that these thoughts, together with those in the related Titled Assistance video, are strictly personal opinions and are designed to highlight key conceptual points associated with each title rather than provide any particular thesis or response to the title in question. 

PT 6 is unique in an intriguing way, as it is the only time that we find ourselves in a situation where we can safely come to an unequivocally clear conclusion on the claim as worded – indeed, in the associated Titled Assistance video I demonstrate that the title’s claim can be fairly easily refuted through a reductio ad absurdum argument. But since the title asks us to “discuss the claim” rather than merely express our level of agreement or disagreement with it, many thought-provoking conceptual vistas are consequently opened up.  

As many will have doubtless noticed, the most pivotal word in the title is “wholly”, which significantly alters its meaning. Saying a given notion depends on something is one thing, but saying it wholly depends on it is a different matter entirely. 

Exploring the difference between “depending” and “wholly depending” is, I believe, an integral aspect of the required discussion surrounding this claim, a discussion which, in turn, naturally directs us to the key notion of distinguishing between necessary and sufficient conditions.  

A small digression: unfortunately, there are still many people out there who look at TOK as some sort of quirky addendum to the DP curriculum, idiosyncratically tacked on to the scholastic rigours of the other bonafide academic subjects.  “Sure, it’s all very nice to take the time for some broad-ranging meta-discussions on how we know stuff,” goes the argument, “but at the end of the day, none of that is terribly relevant to our daily lives in the real world.”

So for all you sceptics out there, this one’s for you. Because I would unhesitatingly claim that, if you learn one thing in your entire high school years, nothing will be more useful to you for the rest of your lives, regardless of what you end up doing, than understanding the distinction between necessary and sufficient conditions.

Try understanding climate change, or a presidential impeachment process, or specific election claims, or an analysis of the effectiveness of social programs, or a comparison of different economic indicators, or a historical argument, or even a job offer, without a clear appreciation of the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions.  You simply can’t.  

Yet the truth is that a very great many people muddle the two with alarming regularity, with disturbing large-scale societal effects – indeed, if forced to describe what “critical thinking” means in a general way, one could do far worse than highlighting the ability to distinguish between necessary and sufficient conditions.        

Given its obvious importance, many would therefore conclude that one’s critical thinking ability wholly depends on being able to distinguish necessary conditions from sufficient ones.

They would be wrong, of course. But it’s vital to know why.      

The Titled Assistance – Supporting PT 6 video is now accessible on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal to all individual subscribers and subscribing schools.  It can be found in the general Theory of Knowledge section (under “TOK Compilations”), the Student TOK section and also in the Teacher Resources section.  It provides a detailed discussion of PT 6 with 4 specific examples from Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP resources to highlight the concepts under discussion.  It is slightly more than 30 minutes long.

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

 

TOK Tuesdays

Exploring PT 5 – Everything’s A-OK

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

Today we tackle PT 5 for May 2020.  Once again it’s worth emphasizing that these thoughts, together with those in the related Titled Assistance video, are strictly personal opinions and are designed to highlight key conceptual points associated with each title rather than provide any particular thesis or response to the title in question. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



TOK Tuesdays

Exploring PT 4 – Plunging In

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

Today we tackle prescribed title 4.  Once again it’s worth emphasizing that these thoughts, together with those in the related Titled Assistance video, are strictly personal opinions and are designed to highlight key conceptual points associated with each title rather than provide any particular thesis or response to the title in question. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Titled Assistance – Supporting PT 4 video is now available on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal to all individual subscribers and subscribing schools.  It can be found in the Student TOK section, TOK Teachers section and general Theory of Knowledge section (under “TOK Compilations”).  It provides a detailed discussion of PT 4 with 15 specific examples from Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP resources to highlight the concepts under discussion.

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

  

TOK Tuesdays

Exploring PT 2 – Sharpening Our Definition

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

Today we tackle PT 2 for May 2020.  Once again it’s worth emphasizing that these thoughts, together with those in the related Titled Assistance video, are strictly personal opinions and are designed to highlight key conceptual points associated with each title rather than provide any particular thesis or response to the title in question. 

While all TOK prescribed titles naturally contain a substantial amount of nuance for students to interpret through their understanding of TOK concepts, it is not always immediately obvious where, precisely, to begin. With PT 2, however, this is not so much the issue. The good news here is that the conceptual crux of the title is fairly easy to identify, with the notion of “a sharp line” standing out, as it were, quite strikingly. 

While some might first opt to delve into the details of what exactly is meant by “descriptions” and “explanations”, since at the end of the day we are asked to give our judgement on whether or not “a sharp line” exists between them, it seems quite reasonable, for me at least, to focus our attention on what that means in this context before turning our attention to the particulars. 

Well, it’s always good to have a sense of how to begin. But how can we go about, practically, the business of constructing such a definition?

Just as I discussed in last week’s PT 1 post, Establishing the Terrain, my approach here will be to start with some general statement that I can then probe and refine further as I increasingly delve into the associated subtleties. Recall that in Establishing the Terrain, we started with a rough-and-ready correspondence between each of the two approaches and particular AOKs, then moved on to consider specific exceptions to this rule before, eventually, investigating a range of specific assumptions buried within the prescription itself.  

Why do I opt to do things this way?  Well, part of it is surely a matter of taste. But the principal advantage, I believe, to the technique of starting off with a simplified picture that you know only tells a small part – if any – of the full story, is that you can actually start somewhere concrete.  Otherwise there’s a real risk that our investigatory efforts quickly get bogged down in shifting layers of “on the one hand” and “on the other hand” types of commentary and we feel that we have no sense of solid ground on which to build a coherent argument. 

When it comes to PT 2 I’m naturally provided with such a starting point because it so happens that many practicing experts in both the human sciences and the natural sciences do actually subscribe to a general, big-picture version of the claim in the title, or at least go about their day jobs as if they do, which is more or less the same thing. So that seems a natural place to begin in our quest to develop an appropriate definition for “a sharp line”.

Opinions naturally vary considerably on whether this is a good or bad thing, but the astute reader will note that such a value judgement takes us much further away from the title than we should probably go. The only thing we are asked to express is our level of agreement with the claim at hand.  Which, in turn, is a matter of definition.  

As you doubtless expect, a closer look reveals that things are hardly that simple, and this “sharp line” is significantly fuzzier than one might naively suppose: not only is it often the case that there is a clear relationship between the two things (so that the types of explanations developed often depend strongly on the descriptions), but it is not infrequently the case that both descriptions and explanations are constructed simultaneously.   

The Titled Assistance – Supporting PT 2 video is now available on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal to all individual subscribers and subscribing schools.  It can be found in the Student TOK section, TOK Teachers section and general Theory of Knowledge section (under “TOK Compilations”).  It provides a detailed discussion of PT 2 with four specific examples from our resources to highlight the concepts under discussion, with the accompanying PDF recommending a further 4 resources.  It is slightly less than 30 minutes long.

Your school has not subscribed yet? Visit our website – HERE – to learn more about Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal which offers an extensive database of authoritative video and print resources explicitly created to meet the needs of both teachers and students throughout the Diploma Programme.


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.

Why? 

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.

If your school does not have an institutional subscription to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal yet you can now sign up for an individual subscription. Annual individual teacher or student subscriptions cost only $75 and provide unlimited access to all resources.

School-wide subscriptions are affordably priced based on the number of DP students in your school.


 

TOK Tuesdays

Theory of Titles

Introduction

Welcome to the first of our “TOK Tuesdays” posts, where each week we’ll be focusing on highlighting how Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal’s comprehensive TOK resources can be explicitly harnessed to help TOK teachers and students.  

The idea of TOK Tuesdays has come directly from our TOK-oriented subscribers who have specifically requested that we offer concrete suggestions on TOK-related issues that are most relevant to them and that can be used directly in their classrooms. 

We’ve designed an exciting schedule of weekly posts for the coming months that we’re very keen to share with you.   For the rest of 2019 we’ll be gearing our TOK Tuesday posts to the May 2020 Prescribed Titles neatly divided into three separate sections:

Introductory:  In the first three posts we’ll offer some high-level overviews of the titles from various different perspectives. 

Analysis:  Then, for the next 6 posts we’ll go title by title to give our detailed take on possible approaches to each title, citing a spectrum of specific Ideas Roadshow’s TOK resources that we recommend as particularly well-suited to exploring different aspects together with brief explanations as to why we think so.

Conclusion: The last three posts will be devoted to some concluding thoughts, together with various recommendations for the construction of a strong essay. 

Those who haven’t yet subscribed to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal are recommended to register for one of our free webinars on demand (here).  All attendees receive a complimentary one-week pass to the full video and print content on our IBDP Portal.  

So let’s get started.  Today’s post, the first of our three introductory ones, is entitled:

Theory of Titles

The first point to make is that what you’re about to read are not official statements by the IBO or anyone who represents the IBO in any way.  I am not a TOK examiner and have never been one. Moreover, I have never taught TOK (or any other IB course for that matter).   

This might first seem to be disadvantageous, but a little reflection reveals a spectrum of distinct upsides to being something of an outsider: important fresh perspectives often come from beyond any established school of thought, while having a broad research background is particularly helpful to highlight TOK thinking in the real world, as the hundreds of video and print TOK resources on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal can well attest to.  

But the most significant feature here is simply the most obvious one: as someone who’s completely objective, I can simply say what I think, without prejudice or any fear of the slightest conflict of interest.   After all, if I were a representative of the IBO or a TOK examiner, it would clearly be impossible for me to share my views on this May’s TOK Prescribed Titles. 

Which brings me to the natural starting point of this post. 

The first thought I have when I look at the prescribed titles for the first time is, Why these titles?  This is a pretty obvious question when you start thinking about it, but my guess is that many teachers and students, feeling the pressure to adhere to an intense essay production schedule with the designated construction of outlines, key concepts and structural comparisons, might overlook it.   But I don’t think that they should. 

Given the TOK context of this discussion, let me put this thought slightly differently: let’s use imagination as a way of knowing.  

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a member of the group of people who make TOK titles.  Twice a year, you and your colleagues get together and come up with a list of titles for students to respond to in essay form to demonstrate their level of understanding of TOK.  

So why offer six each time?  Why not just one?  

A common reply might be, “To give the students a choice”.  Which is true, of course. But not really an answer. After all, why worry about giving students a choice in the first place?   If you want to know if people can solve quadratic equations, say, you typically don’t give them a choice.  

A better answer, I think, is that theory of knowledge is a very complex, multi-level course, with many distinct, equally essential, overlapping parts to it. Developing a genuine understanding of what theory of knowledge is and why it’s important involves appreciating the nature of evidence, appeals to authority, the limits of sense perception, our capability of reason, the nature of mathematics, the applicability of theoretical models to the real world, the impact of our biases and assumptions on our current beliefs, and many more things besides.   

It’s very, very messy – precisely because it impacts so many different areas.  

Which means that to do any sort of justice to an examination process, you shouldn’t really ask students respond to just one possible title.   Which, in turn, means that each of the different titles will likely highlight, and consequently be best suited to, particular features of TOK.  

Which is all to say that if I were a DP2 student right now needing to write a TOK essay for this coming spring, the first thing I would do is step back and ask myself which aspects of TOK are most naturally associated with each question.  Or, to put it another way, why did the guys who came up with these titles choose those particular titles? 

Of course, the conclusions I might draw might turn out to have nothing to do with what went through the heads of the actual title-setters.  But, interestingly enough, that actually doesn’t matter in the slightest: I don’t get any bonus points for my essay by guessing people’s motivations anyway.  

But the act of imagining what went through the minds of the title-makers will likely help to give me a clearer sense of which ones best fit my interests and inclinations while offering me a valuable conceptual guide to the construction of my essay once I have made my title choice. 

To give you a concrete sense of the sort of thing I’m talking about, let me share with you some of my thoughts (as I threatened I would earlier):  

I think that those who are keen to demonstrate how our beliefs are influenced by our culture and the people around us might naturally wish to gravitate towards titles 1 and 3; those that are drawn to the question of how we can distinguish between the validity of different theories might want to particularly consider titles 2 and 5, while those who are keen to examine aspects of the knowledge process per se and to what extent we can actually know anything with certainty might find titles 4 and 6 more up their street.    

As it happens, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if those actually involved in the creation of these titles would disagree partly, or even entirely, with these views.  But again, that doesn’t matter one bit: it’s my essay not theirs after all. I’m just looking to find the title that resonates the strongest with my particular TOK interests, while doing my best to ensure that, once I start writing my essay, I stay as much on topic as possible. 

It’s safe to say, too, that my personal conclusions likely won’t do much for anyone else.  Once again, in true TOK fashion, there’s no one, correct, objectively valid, “right answer”.   It’s the engagement in that knowledge process that’s key. But what a key it is.  

Use your imagination.

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