Precepts to use in everyday life

1. Think for yourself, 2. Be yourself, 3. Speak up, 4. Feel free to agree and disagree, 5. Be honest with yourself and others, 6. Be open-minded, 7. Avoid being judgmental and 8. Question everything - even your own thinking.

TOK Essay Titles Nov 2020

Monday, June 29, 2009



Perhaps the most difficult subject on the course. Everyone tries to avoid it and everyone finds it almost impossible to do at IB level. What a difficult job for the Maths teacher (almost as tough as being a TOK teacher!).

There are two things you can do to enthuse yourself about the Mathematics element of TOK and the IB course:

1. Visit the Lancaster School TOK Blog where you can find some very useful examples of how Mathematical problems can be a fascinating area to explore.

2. Click onto the following links to view a series of BBC4 programmes about Mathematics. Read the summary of the programme to the left of the display screen before you watch. This will give you a clear idea of the content of the show. Here's the corresponding website if your mind is suddenly fired by the programmes, as it should be...

The Story of Maths Part 1

The Story of Maths Part 2

The Story of Maths Part 3

The Story of Maths Part 4

Enjoy the shows!

Sunday, June 28, 2009


Human Sciences - Education

Dear Student,

Is the present system of secondary education letting you down?

According to this article in the Mail-Online, the answer is a categorical 'YES'.

In what way exactly?

The central argument of the article is that the imposition of business 'performance management' criteria in schools is undermining our children's education. This raises three important issues:

First, that the government is attempting to legislate for the education of children by pushing through a system for measuring student learning that is fundamentally flawed because it distracts everyone from the essential goals of education. These goals are, as the writer neatly articulates, to enable students 'to take responsibility for themselves, treat others with respect and care for the environment...[to] promote justice and respect...[and to] foster intellectual virtues, encouraging children to be open to evidence, argument and criticism.'

Second, that this fallible system is being driven through by mediocre school managers, often incompetent teachers themselves, on sheep-like teachers without being questioned. These teachers are in turn creating sheep-like students - a little bit like European Union regulations about fruit and veg that have to be a certain size before they can be sold in a shop. Remember, there are stories about apples that have to be passed through a template with a specific sized hole cut into it before they are acceptable for sale! Do you believe that education should make you jump through hoops and over obstacles like performing monkeys at a circus?

And thirdly, that the language which is used to get students to talk about their learning is brainwashing them into becoming commodities for the market place - they stop questioning the process at the very heart of their mental and physical development. This commercialisation of education is an insidious process because it addresses students not as human beings, but as abstract objects which enter into the system with a particular level and leave it with another level and a 'value added' score that measures progress or regress.

The Nuffield Review, a research-based group in Oxford, states that in many schools in the UK which are driven by the target setting culture, and the corresponding linguistic jargon that goes with it, 'the consumer or client' has replaced 'the learner'. The impact of this on our education system has so reduced confidence, the article claims, that '45 [UK Universities] are setting their own admissions tests to help them distinguish between the most able candidates' as an alternative to accepting 'A' Level and IB grades at face value.

So next time you go to a 'Target Review' meeting, you might like to reflect on this execrable state of affairs more seriously...

We propose two principles that an educationalist might like to ponder before he attempts to overhaul the education system. Both knowledge claims, we think, are based on sound empirical evidence and would lead to the creation of the best possible human beings and the best possible society - feel free to add to the list:

1. If a teacher can connect with a student on different levels, then there is no need to legislate for learning: the student will do anything to learn by himself for himself and not just for his parents or to get a Diploma or for the prospect of being merely a commodity in the job market.

2. If a teacher is happy and fulfilled in his job, then the students will be correspondingly happy and fulfilled in their learning - target setting and measuring 'value added' scores and testing makes neither feel happy or fulfilled.

So lots of COURAGE to all of you students out there - be awake to your work and get on with it quietly, efficiently and creatively.

Yours caringly,



Ethics and Human Sciences (World Politics)

In a recent visit to an St. Clare's International College, students took part in a conference entitled 'Human Rights and Human Wrongs.' The specific focus of the conference was on the political turmoil involving the Palestinian and Israeli conflict over national boundaries. Students were asked to reflect on the 'UN Declaration of Human Rights' and to question the efficacy of applying its principles in the resolution of the conflict - a good idea for a TOK presentation.

The central argument was that the notion of 'rights' is like fashion - it changes and evolves according to the existing zeitgeist or climate of ideas that pervades the political arena of the time. During one era, we are more concerned with group rights (eg. early 20th Century Women's Movement), whereas during another era, we're more interested in individual rights (eg. the so-called 'sexual revolution' in the 1960s).

Various knowledge issues were raised concerning the meaning of the document and you can explore some of these in your own presentations:

1. To what extent does the UN document cater for individual rights?

2. How far does the UN document uphold the rights of particular groups?

3. In what way does the UN document lay down proscriptive or prohibitive rights?

4. Under which circumstances does the UN document put forward prescriptive or regulatory rights?

Check through the UN document to find articles that pertain to these rights and see if you can discover real life examples that either fulfil the articles or are in direct contravention of them.

Some further questions you might reflect on:
  • Is there such a thing as 'Universal Rights'?
  • If you were producing a Bill of Rights, what would be in your top 10?
  • Should rights be enforced at an international level? If so, how?
  • What happens when ethical principles become a matter of obligation?

Here are also some topics that students had to research and for which they had to prepare a short case study in advance of the conference. They would make ideal TOK presentations:

  • Sweat (not the sugary things we like to eat!) shops
  • Child labour
  • Torture
  • Detention without trial
  • The arms trade
  • Drug production and trafficking
  • Sex trafficking
  • Pollution
  • Blood diamonds
  • Child soldiers
  • Global poverty
  • Corruption at the highest level in government and other public institutions
  • Freedom of the press
  • Women's rights
  • Genital mutilation of females
  • Child trafficking
  • Identity cards
  • Racism/sexism/ageism
  • Homophobia

Whatever topic you choose, aim to get a GLOBAL perspective on it; that is, find an example from another part of the world that relates to your topic.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Ethics - The right to free speech #5

Let's round off this whole discussion with an anecdote - one which sums up for us the moral of our quest to understand Ethics.

We've been showing our students (some of whom are as young as eleven) the debates from 'The Big Questions' show from Sunday 14th June on the BBC i-player.

When we asked if they realised why we were doing this, after the usual accusations of being a show off (never!), they came up with answers we could only hope for: one student said 'to show us what's going on in the world outside our school'; another said, 'if you don't listen to someone for a long time, then they bottle things up and eventually start to hit out' and another student said 'you wanted to show us that we should stand up for what we believe.' Profound statements from ones so young.

We thought we could go home having done a suitable job that day, but then another Year 7 student, who never usually speaks and remains invisible, stayed behind and started telling us a story about herself.

She had been minding her own business walking to a lesson when an older person (she thought it was a teacher, but couldn't be sure) pushed into her and then screamed: 'Out of the way - can't you watch where you're going!' Our little mouse was so shocked by the incident that when she went home, she started to write a letter of complaint. When her mother found her writing it, she told her daughter to 'drop the subject', firstly, because this wasn't the first time she'd written such a letter and secondly, because she was afraid her daughter might get a bad reputation. Well, the quiet mouse said that she had dropped the subject, but now, although the event had happened some time ago, she would definitely go back to writing the letter!

So, our contribution in the show has empowered at least one little mouse in the country and who knows, she may even go on to enrich the lives of other people...

Since then, a few students have come up to discuss the show and now understand more about the need for decent discussion.

We can round off by saying that the study of Ethics can and should be a way of strengthening our sense of right and wrong; it can and should empower us to be true to ourselves and to stand firm in favour of what is right, even if this sometimes involves giving an ear and listening to some outrageous and often cruel human beings. Knowing ourselves better and having a strong sense of where our beliefs come from can only help us to withstand the extreme beliefs of others and their need to impose aggressive and violent ideas on the world. And this in turn can only help to sharpen our own minds and give us a better chance of decency and peace in how we communicate and live with each other.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Ethics - The right to free speech #4

What are the main criticisms of our defence of free speech for the BNP?

1. The persecution complex criticism

According to this view (which was expressed by one of the panellists on the show quite early on, as well as the show's presenter in response to our statement), by giving the BNP or any extremist group a platform to speak allows them to present themselves as being given unfair and resentful treatment and thus claim not only extra kudos for their policies, but also the sympathy vote from the electorate.

To counter this: doesn't this criticism assume that the vast majority of the voting masses are complete imbeciles? That they cannot distinguish between a good policy that benefits human beings from a racist policy that incites violence and hatred? The majority of people, it would appear, have the presence of mind to think for themselves and not be influenced by the BNP's policies. Of course, it is worrying that some apparently intelligent people appear to be proclaiming and supporting extreme views, but these views can only be discredited if we allow them to be expressed openly and democratically.

2. The 'what if?' criticism

According to this criticism, it is worrying that nearly a million people voted for the BNP. If we allow this trend to continue, some argue, and history has shown this, what if a mass wave of opinion swings in favour of the BNP's policies? Won't they soon start to gain seats in Parliament?

There are two possible counters to this: first, aren't we getting close to a slippery slope fallacy here - you know, 'give them an inch, they'll take a mile' ? A million people amongst a population of over 60 million isn't much. And second, as some students have neatly pointed out, there's a vast difference between the proportional representation system of democratic election in which someone like Hitler can gain representation in Government and our own system of party political election. This system is not only founded on the principle that the voting masses make informed decisions, but also safeguards against extremist individuals and parties getting elected into power.

Nevertheless, the 'what if?' scenario never really goes away. Perhaps because it plays on our emotions too strongly in the light of historical events...

3. The 'earning of rights' criticism

According to this argument, no extreme political party should be given a platform, if their policies infringe basic human rights. Before they can even come into the democratic process, they must prove that they've earned the right. And if this proof is lacking, they should be banned from that process.

To counter this: here's a real chicken and egg scenario! Surely, we can only judge the nature of the BNP's policies if and when we allow them a platform to air their beliefs. We have to know what their policies are and we have to give them a platform to justify those policies before we judge what to do with those policies and their party.

4. The political naivety criticism

This criticism neatly arrives from the last counter: to think that democracy works in this way is at best idealistic and at worst naive. To give extremists a platform to voice their beliefs in the first place is to acknowledge that they are important and this is a wrong-headed approach.

Counter: Perhaps this just underlines the frailty of the democratic process. Yes, we're never going to lose the 'what if?' feeling and we cannot always account for the unpredictable and often crazy behaviour of human beings, but we have to trust that the process will work for the betterment of humankind. Do we all have that trust in democracy? What evidence exists to support that trust?

5. The appeasement criticism

According to this criticism, we are adopting a policy of appeasement to deal with extremists. Standing back passively while they incite racial hatred and violence is abhorrent and, as history has shown, leads to further devastating conflict. The best policy is to be active and assert oneself on the propitiators of racist and exclusionist beliefs and stamp them out before they can gain support.

There are various counters to this: constantly undermining the personalities of the BNP and their similarities to Nazis implies two things: first, are we not in danger of engaging in the ad hominem fallacy? You can't prove that someone's knowledge claim is false by attacking the personality of the one who makes the claim. And second, in attacking the BNP we are creating a diversion away from looking at some of the worst actions of other politicians both from the past and right here today. For example, our readiness to focus on the BNP's Nazi affiliations makes it easy to forget the atrocities the British have committed in the name of Empire. Can you think of modern day equivalents of such actions? The Falklands War comes to mind...

6. The extension of rights criticism

If you give the right to free speech to the BNP, you have to extend free speech to all extremists of all factions.

Correct. The qualifying adjective 'universal' in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights implies this from the very beginning; it is a first principle, so to speak. We don't have to like it and it might be extremely hard to accept it, but it is a first step to the decent discussion every moral problem requires for there to be a peaceful solution.

7. The self-excluded criticism

What about those nations that haven't signed up to the UN document? Surely they've excluded themselves from any sort of process of ethical dialogue.

To counter: perhaps more of an effort should be made to bring them to an understanding of the need to sign up.

8. The false distinction criticism

Your whole position is based on the false distinction between 'morals' and 'ethics'. You cannot be morally against the BNP and at the same time allow them the right to be heard.

In counter to this: please come up with a better, more rational, distinction...

Monday, June 15, 2009


Ethics - The right to free speech #3

So why did we defend the BNP's right to be heard? Consider the difference between morals and ethics.


Morals are the ideas that you value in life like 'honesty', 'truth' and 'freedom'. Your moral sense is something rooted in your emotional life: the way in which you are brought up, the cultural and religious influences throughout your life which shape how you think and feel about things. Your moral sensitivity depends on the richness of your emotional lives, not only your capacity to acknowledge and express your feelings, but also to understand the feelings of others; in short, your capacity for sympathy and empathy.

Your morals are deeply affected by proximity - the distance and nearness of your relationships - and this defines your sense of moral limits: you're more likely to involve yourselves in someone's problems if you're close to them, whereas you may step back when confronted by a stranger's problems. The classic moral dilemma is: what would you do if you saw person X being attacked in the street? Consider the similarities and differences of your answer when you replace 'person X' by a) your best friend and b) Anonymous Stranger.

With all this in mind, your morals drive you to an emotive response to moral problems. You express your personal, subjective, often biased, opinions which are usually shaped by your parents' views and those emerging from your particular cultural background. So when I said the words 'asylum seekers' in a class today, there were howls from students and someone cried out: 'My mum said that they take all the good jobs so there's nothing left for us - I think they should all be made to give them up...' Much too often, your moral sense reflects passively received beliefs; ideas that you have not thought through and regurgitate with a good layer of emotion but without much effort.

Having said this, the emotions attached to your moral sense have an important role to play - another TOK Team teacher has called it 'the residual survival value' of emotion - remember? Emotion allows us to by-pass the reasoning stage in the decision-making process in critical moments. When a hungry lion appears in front of you, you don't have time to stop and think and reason: should I really climb up the tree or should I wait to see if I look tasty? We just scarper up that trunk and get safe. Emotion often involves the element of self-preservation and this also shapes our moral limits, so in a moral situation, like what to do about asylum seekers, our need to protect ourselves (our livelihoods) takes over and drives us to push asylum seekers out. Compare: when the referee makes an offside decision against your team, you scream a number of choice expletives at him in anger, because the decision could cost your team a win and losing is as bad as dying a death: this emotive barracking of the ref represents your way both of defending your team's very existence and of delivering your moral judgment.

So - morals = personal = emotive = subjective opinion.


Ethics are a code of principles created to guide us how to behave in the right way, such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the Olympic Code of Ethics and the World Anti-Doping Code. These days, it seems that every field of work has its own related ethical code of practice. These codes are usually embodied in a framework agreed upon by human beings in a moment of - it is hoped - lucid, rational detachment. There is no emotion involved, but emotion might have driven these people to the discussion table so as to work out what really matters when it comes to social behaviour. The question that is at the heart of this process of debate and discussion is: can we all agree what counts as an ethical principle that everyone could refer to in situations of moral crisis? Of course, the criteria required to decide what makes a good ethical principle is fraught with difficulty in itself and many great minds have faltered over the problem.

We may end up disagreeing frantically about the nature of Human Rights, for example, and whether those who abuse human rights should have access to them in the first place. Here's a classic argument:

P1: The BNP do not allow ethnic minorities to join their party.

P2: (Usually the hidden premise) Democracy entails that all people of eligible age and status can belong to a political party of their own choice.

Conclusion 1: Therefore, the BNP are not truly democratic.

Conclusion 2: Therefore, the BNP have no right to be heard.

We can change P1 with various other propositions and reach the same two conclusions - some might argue, however, that we need to look more closely at P2 and perhaps re-define our definition and vision of democracy.

But who decides which people are to have rights and which are to be denied them? Surely there are certain inalienable rights to which we all have access irrespective of what we think, believe and do or do we need to earn the right to human rights? Lots of unanswered questions (like many of your TOK essays!)

The point is this: ethics are objective, the result of intense rational thought and discussion. They are an external reference point for us to turn to when we find ourselves in moral difficulties. This doesn't mean that any code of ethics is fixed and absolute. NO - we can be wrong and may need to re-discuss and re-think our ethical principles and make future amendments. Our ethics evolve as our minds and experiences develop.

A code of ethics may not always help, but it may reassure us, give us a direction, guide us to make an informed decision without being sheep-like and repeating the beliefs of others. Ethical integrity is your capacity to speak for yourself and to voice your beliefs, however awkward and controversial they may be, even if you are the only person in the world proclaiming those beliefs. Remember: ethical integrity is also based on your ability to inform your moral sense with rational thought and discussion and to put those beliefs up to be challenged and tested.

Ethical risk works both ways: you take the risk to voice your beliefs and others take the risk to hear you, but you both work with the mutual goal of subjecting those beliefs to rational scrutiny.

You might argue, however, historically speaking, too many people took the risk to hear Mussolini and look what happened. One counter to this is: many more people stood by and watched without speaking up against him...

So: ethics = impersonal = rational = objective.

Moral and ethical perspectives

Now it's the easiest thing in the world to take the moral high ground on an issue: we are quick to judge and often pre-judge situations and people without really looking more closely at them. Why? Perhaps because we get a real sense of superiority and power. We feel like we are in control of our lives and thoughts and feelings and can extend this control over others (usually more vulnerable people). However, emotion works like that; it's very capricious, but then that's what makes us human.

In order for them to work, ethical dicsussions must take place on a level ground: no-one is trying to be better than someone else or to assert his beliefs and claims as being superior. Each party brings his views equally to be subject to rigorous rational scrutiny. Knowledge claims, however absurd or reprehensible, are tested against rationally determined principles and then accepted or rejected accordingly. This process can be intensely serious and frightening; it can be playful and light-hearted or even ironic; it can make for great entertainment. The process involves, ultimately, a common need for decent discussion and a will to resolve moral dilemmas.

Let's ask the question again: why did we defend the BNP's right to be heard.

Answer: there is no contradiction in feeling morally outraged at the BNP's politics and wanting them removed from the face of this earth and at the same time in knowing that they have as true a claim to free speech as anyone else living on this planet.

We are, perhaps, expressing the paradox of democracy without giving in completely to moral relativism.

You can work out yourselves the costs and benefits of our perspective as well as other perspectives, but remember, democracy is frail and vulnerable and not without fundamental flaws...


Ethics - The right to free speech #2

You would not have seen on live T.V. the almost reproachful look of the presenter as our contribution was made - or was this just our perception?

Nevertheless, the real point of interest lies in what happened after the show: your brown-skinned defender of free speech (yes, even on behalf of the BNP) was approached by three independent people and thanked for his contribution.

First, the Reverend West came to say a few words of thanks (spiced with some choice platitudes by John Stuart Mill on the importance of freedom) while the presenter of the show passed by and smiled sardonically. The Reverend duly blessed him and proffered a salutary handshake as we departed with a few words. The hand was shaken - as equally, we should add, as the hand of the poet, Benjamin Zephaniah, some minutes later. Both handshakes would have made great photographic moments - a symbol of the different colours and races and beliefs that make our world (or are we being too naive?)

Second, the specialist invited to represent the Monarchist view, Dr. Barry Twig, acknowledged that our contribution embodied the fairness that we sometimes forget is at the very heart of our political system.

And lastly, and for us, most importantly, since herein lies the lesson for us all, one of the producers of the show was grateful for the contribution and kindly apologised for its being dismissed. The reason given was that common sense does not always make good TV, certainly when 'you are the one moral voice in the audience'.

So here we are again, in life and in our studies, back to the distinction between 'morals' and 'ethics'. She should have qualified us as voicing the 'one ethical voice'.

It may appear over fussy to insist on the distinction, but your essay and presentation grades might depend on it - and you may begin to see how the distinction could be crucial in helping to clarify the direction of any ethical discussion, in your work or in life...

Sunday, June 14, 2009


Ethics - The right to free speech #1

The TOK Team's recent participation in the BBC 1 program, 'The Big Questions' yielded some interesting lessons on ethics - both on and off the television screen! You can watch the debate on the BBC i-player (it lasts for a week or so) and judge for yourself - our contribution is (if you want to skip the main debate) for a mere 56 seconds starting at 23 mins and 45 secs:

Of the three main debates, the first is of main interest to us here: 'Does the British National Party (BNP) have the right to be heard?'

A recently elected MEP for the BNP, Andrew Brons and his colleague, Reverend Robert West, came to defend their right to freedom of expression and had to put up with numerous attacks on their party line and their personalities (and why not? many of you will be asking). And as you'll no doubt observe, one of the TOK Team (who happens to be brown-skinned, at least when he last checked) had the nerve to agree with the Reverend and bring the discussion back from the emotive digressions of the panellists and audience to the Big Question at hand. Of course, the manner in which he told off the presenter, Nicky Campbell, and the audience for 'picking on' the poor Reverend and his colleague will not have passed you by - he's the same, is he not, with students who are not fully awake during TOK classes? Consistency is of the essence, we might reflect!

Just to focus you on the issue: if democracy is important to us, then at least two things follow in the context of the BNP's claim to the right of freedom of speech.

1. The election of the two MEPs from the BNP reflect the beliefs of a great number of people (check the statistics), however unpalatable and racist these might be; their election surely proves that the democratic process is working well - so let's celebrate that process. If we don't, then we have to admit that the process is somehow flawed and this would imply the need for a radical overhaul, which might not be a bad thing anyway.

2. Of course the BNP should have the right to freedom of speech, how absurd not to give them the right, if this means that their beliefs and policies and behaviour are kept in the open for scrutiny. To stifle their voice and to deny them the right to free speech would only force their ideas underground and we know from bitter experience what secrecy and deceit in politics can lead to.

Once the BNP's right to free speech is acknowledged, then we can begin to unpick their policies and see the flaws and absurdities in their arguments and beliefs by means of rational discourse instead of emotional outbursts, even though these emotions have their place - but if we pre-judge the BNP's beliefs, as the Anti Fascist League have done (they refused to attend the BBC show on the grounds that they would not 'share a platform with racists' - were they right?), then aren't we in danger of being exclusionist - the very thing of which people are accusing the BNP?

While discussing this in a Year 7 class, an eleven year old student of mine said (she had to say it three times, because some of her classmates weren't listening!!), 'If you don't allow people to speak, they just bottle things up and then it builds and builds until there's an explosion.' Almost prophetic words on the global political situation.

Returning to the issue: by pre-judging the BNP, there can never be discussion, and without discussion, surely their can never be peace. Just look at how things were in Northern Ireland and are now in the Middle East.

So: can we be morally outraged at the BNP's approach to politics and yet simultaneously grant them the right to freely express their beliefs? Is this a rational position to take?

We'd like to suggest, yes...

A week to remember!

A memorable week for TOK students and the TOK Team alike came to a joyful end this morning with our second appearance of the year (third in all) on BBC 1's live television program, 'The Big Questions'. A heartfelt thank you to all the students who participated both in the BBC show and the visit to St. Clare's International School on Wednesday 10th June:

Charlotte Clare, Charlotte Philpotts, Jessica Parmar, Anna-Maria Constantinou, Fedia Chiha, Joshua Lee, Shayley Mann, Aisha Rehman, Emma Brown, Amelia Sutherland and Ben Baker.

All the students were great ambassadors for the subject and showed great motivation and determination throughout the week!

Keep in touch with some of the lessons we learned from the two events in future entries...

Here we all are bathing in the glory of our grand efforts:

Above: St. Clare's visit - Below: BBC 1's 'The Big Questions'