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

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Ethics and Human Sciences (Politics and Media)

The follwing video outlines the current issue of Wikileaks and throws up so many knowledge issues regarding freedom of speech, information and, perhaps above all, notions of a just war.

As TOK students, it is imperative to engage with these issues and formulate them clearly for yourselves, especially if you decide to use them as part of an essay or as the basis for a presentation.

For example:
  • to what extent is the relationship between information and knowledge mutually exclusive?  In other words, we can base knowledge on information, but can information alone be considered to be knowledge?
  • how far does the documentary support or subvert the idea that Wikileaks is simply 'manufactured dissent'?  The suggestion is that instead of preventing websites like this from publishing top secret material, the authorities are using them to disseminate their own propaganda.
  • in what ways could the 'war on terrorism' be judged as being a 'war crime' against humanity?
The video provides ample material to think about these questions from a TOK perspective.

Saturday, December 18, 2010



The Death of democracy

This is a talk given by an American writer, Naomi Woolf author of The End of America: Letters of Warning to a Young Patriot, Chelsea Green Publishing Co, 2009, 192p. It’s interesting for TOK purposes for the way in which it analyses a common myth we have about history: we study history to learn from our mistakes.

Woolf argues that history actually enables those in positions of power (especially budding tyrants) to extract a template for the policies and laws they create to organize their people; a template, moreover, which is designed to reduce the democratic rights of people. She calls it a ‘blueprint’ for the death of democracy. Dramatic language, but she appears to have cause for using such a tone. The message appears to be: we surely do learn from our mistakes, but only to reinforce that other tenet of historical truth – history repeats itself.

Look out for the following phrases and examine how they relate to knowledge and its use and abuse:

‘the blueprint is predictive’

‘it was human nature to abuse power’

‘the fascist shift’

‘tipping points’

‘the patriots' task'

The full talk was given at Kane Hall, University of Washington, Seattle, October 11, 2007, but you can also watch it in small chunks with visual representations of the arguments and examples presented by Wolf:









Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Natural and Human Sciences (The problem of consciousness, Part 6)

Here's the original question: is consciousness something irreducibly subjective and private (like the dualists believe) or is it something outward – a physical manifestation of inward states linked to our brain functions and nervous system?

We propose two theories to explain the mystery without (hopefully) explaining it away:

1. Consciousness is an 'emergent property'
2. Consciousness is 'built into' our body functions

Consciousness is an emergent property
This idea runs counter to the scientific/materialist belief that consciousness, and for that matter all biological life, is reducible to its individual physical parts; and it appears to address the ‘explanatory gap’ pointed out by Jackson that science can’t explain everything in terms of physical facts/causes. 
The idea of ‘emergence’ is related to the development of the ‘science’ of ‘chaos’ and ‘complexity’ (click on the picture above for further information).  These theories depend on a specific understanding of causality that is not based on the traditional reductionist thinking.  You do not take apart a complex system such as a rat to see how the different components work in order to cause the rat to function.  Instead, you look at the system as a whole.  Applied to consciousness, there is a sequence of physical causes to take into account, but these do not follow the 'top-down' series of events whereby conscious behaviour originates from a prior set of physical causes.  Rather, we must look in a 'bottom-up' way at consciousness as a whole in order to come to grips with the nature of the mind.  This approach allows us to think that we are somehow more than the sum of our parts.
Chaos theory
In its simplest form, chaos theory presents the idea that simple systems or organisms display behaviours which are too complex to analyse in terms of their constituent parts and yet present underlying patterns or rules as part of their complex behaviour.  We have to study the interaction between the units to explain their complex behaviour. 
For example, take one ant.  On its own, it appears to behave randomly.  Add another ant and again they seem to behave in a similarly unpredictable fashion.  Add a group of ants and things start to happen: they begin to display organised behaviour, working towards the same end for the whole colony.  This complex behaviour of ants is an emergent property.  One ant on its own is not intelligent; intelligence somehow resides in the collective; it is based on the existence of a set of physical conditions or simple rules (chain of causes and effects?) that makes their communal behaviour possible.  The complex behaviour is somehow over and above the physical facts necessary for the ants’ communal behaviour, but wouldn’t exist independent of them.
Complexity theory
Complexity theory, on the other hand, suggests that complex systems and organisms often produce very simple outcomes; outcomes which can be explained in accordance with the capacity for their individual constituent parts for ‘self-organisation’.
For example, consider the millions of people that that make up a nation and interact to create a society.  Just by looking at one single person, you couldn’t tell that he would be able to operate with other people in this way to create this nation or this society.  Nationhood or society takes on a life and identity of its own by means of the interactions of the individuals who live within the nation.  Without the physical fact of individuals’ existing within a nation, there couldn’t be a national identity.  We can’t predict what a complex system like a society will evolve into, but this only serves to underline the mystery of life.
Perhaps, consciousness is neither a private realm of subjectivity, nor simply a public expression of internal brain states; it is an emergent property.  That is, it needs various physical facts like the features and functions of the brain, the nervous and muscular system and a set of simple rules, but cannot exist independently of them.  These individual parts interact, according to the rules and consciousness spontaneously emerges.
There are definite problems with these theories.  For example, where do these 'rules' come from?  Moreover, what sort of property is an 'emergent' property, if it isn't physical or mental?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Natural and Human Sciences (The problem of consciousness Part 5)

This time last year we started a thread of posts on the idea of consciousness. We got somewhat distracted, but here's a follow up... (see the tab on 'Consciousness' to view the previous posts.)

A deterministic argument against dualism

Scientists refute both forms of dualism by resorting to a deterministic argument to explain behaviours like choosing things.

Choosing anything can be explained by pointing to a chain of physical causes and effects which links the initial decision to a combination of brain activity, the nervous system, muscle movement and the environment. The series of physical causes comprising of these factors, it is argued, explain or determine why I chose to wear a blue shirt this morning instead of a white one.

Scientists would have us believe that if they were supplied in advance with a knowledge of all the laws of nature, as well as all of the physical facts relating to my body and environment just a few moments before I chose my blue shirt, they would, in principle, be able to predict the outcome of my decision. The choice of blue shirt, in other words, was fixed in advance by how things were physically.

What are the implications of this?

1. There is no place for a non-physical fact to play a part in the chain of cause and effect – a mental fact or property couldn’t affect the ways things turned out. I would have always chosen the blue shirt.

2. According to dualists, the mind or consciousness is at least partly non-physical and they are committed to the view that the mind or mental properties can affect the way things turn out in the physical world (they want their cake and they want to eat it).

3. But if the deterministic explanation is right, the dualist would be forced to accept that he could omit the mind altogether from his belief system, since it is irrelevant to what goes on in the body when we choose things.

4. However, he might point to the absurdity of the situation; that of course we couldn’t get rid of the mind or consciousness since it makes us what we are.

5. We would then have to point out to him that, according to the ‘chain of cause and effect’ argument, the mind can only affect the outcome of my physical actions if the mind is itself physical.

6. The dualist is left with two alternatives:

a. Holding on to an inconsistant belief in the duality of the mind.
b. Rejecting dualism altogether.

Science appears to win the argument that the world only consists of physical facts. But some people find it difficult to accept that human consciousness is so easily reducible and that our actions are physically pre-determined.

The Black and White room argument against materialism

In the 1980s, the philosopher, Frank Jackson, devised the following thought experiment in a defence of the dualistic position (click on the picture above.)

Imagine a girl, Mary, is born and raised in a room where she can only experience black and white. The scientists who study her have made sure that she has no other colour experiences. She only ever experiences black, white and shades of grey. Mary begins to study science and eventually becomes a world renowned expert in brain science. She discovers everything that goes on inside the brain of people when they have colour experiences – she learns, for example, all the physical facts possible in the chain of causes and effects that explain what happens when people have the experience of seeing red.

Now one day, one of the scientists who’s been studying her development, brings a red tomato into the room. In spite of everything she knows about the ‘experience of red’, Mary is shocked. She does not know that to experience red feels like this. How could she? She’d never experienced redness before. Evidently, Mary has learned a new fact – the fact that experiencing red feels ‘like this’. She thought she knew all the physical facts pertaining to colour experiences. This fact, she now thinks, can’t be a physical fact. She concludes that the ‘experience of red’ and what this experience ‘feels like’ are two different things. The former may be a physical fact, but the latter is not.

According to Jackson, there are two major implications of this thought experiment:

1. there must be something more than physical facts to explain the existence of consciousness.

2. there exists an ‘explanatory gap’ whereby science falls short: it cannot explain everything in terms of an appeal to physical facts alone.

So we are left with our original distinction: is consciousness something irreducibly subjective and private (like the dualists believe) or is it something outward – a physical manifestation of inward states linked to our brain functions and nervous system?

We appear to be nowhere near a definitive answer as to how this piece of flesh we call a human body comes to be full of thoughts and self-awareness...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Notes on Structure and Layout

The ToK Essay: A SEXCI essay – worked example
Imagine that Rose is pondering the 2010 essay title #6:

All knowledge claims should be open to rational criticism. On what grounds and to what extent would you agree with this assertion?

Suppose now that the following line of thought takes place in her mind (think of it as a debate between opposing voices – for ease of understanding, we’ve labeled these voices The Angel, The Daemon and The Other):

The Angel: I agree. If someone claims to know that there’s water on Mars, they better have a good reason to believe this. I read a BBC article which suggests that the scars on the surface are water tracks or valleys which once had flowing water running through them. Reason is a good way of measuring the reliability of knowledge claims. If we didn’t demand reasons for people’s beliefs, all kinds of dangerous beliefs could be passed around.

The Daemon: I disagree. It depends on the kind of knowledge claim, doesn’t it? Take religion, for example. Someone who believes in God may not exactly be able to provide any reasons for his belief that are acceptable to an atheist. It’s a matter of faith. They can point to various things like miracle healings or people’s near-death experiences where a guardian angel appears before them, but they can’t tell the atheist that they have given her any ‘reasons’ to justify their claim. There are some beliefs that cannot be rationally criticized because they have nothing to do with reason.

The Other: Hold your horses, if you have beliefs that are NOT open to rational criticism, then surely you’re holding irrational beliefs and that doesn’t seem right – clearly, it is not inconsistent for me to believe that torture is wrong and yet there are circumstances (reasons) under which it is justified: for example, to gain intelligence that could save many lives. Perhaps the belief in God is like this. You might say that this is ‘dangerous’, but first, I think we have to be clear about what we mean by ‘rational criticism’…

Let’s break down the dialogue into its constituent parts:

S = There is water on Mars

E = Scars on the surface are water tracks

eX = Reason is a good way of measuring the reliability of knowledge claims

C = Belief in God. - Miracle healings or people’s near death experiences. - It’s a matter of faith; some beliefs that cannot be rationally criticized because they have nothing to do with reason.

I = That doesn’t seem right. - if you have beliefs that are NOT open to rational criticism, then surely you’re holding irrational beliefs. - Surely we have to be clear about what we mean by ‘rational criticism’.

There’s no reason why your planning can’t take the form of this to and fro momentum of argumentation, building in any reading material that you've selected and even snippets of conversations that you've had with other students and teachers on the topic.

The internal dialogue might go on as follows:

The Angel: Ah! You mean whether we should follow Plato’s suggestion that knowledge is ‘justified true belief’ – rational criticism means that we must justify our beliefs in the light of reason? If I believe that smoking kills, then first, I must believe this; second, it must be true and third, I need some reasons to explain why I believe this.

The Daemon: Yes, we could do this, but you know the problems that this leads us to. For example, if you justify your belief that smoking kills by explaining that it causes lung cancer, you need to justify your belief in that cause itself by way of another reason and so on ad inifintum.

The Other: Indeed, the old ‘infinite regress problem’. We could dwell forever on possible solutions for this, but why don’t we focus instead on the idea that ‘rational criticism’ means more that we need a method to approach the issue of beliefs: a method which allows us to accept or reject beliefs on the basis of observable evidence.

The Angel (casting a sullen look at her feet): Oh dear! You’re getting much too scientific for my liking.

The Daemon (rubbing his hands together with glee): Now we’re getting somewhere – you’re talking about falsification aren’t you? Well…

Writing like this can be fun, creative and most of all, really opens your mind to alternative arguments.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

TOK Websites


This website is based in Patana school, Thailand. Mr. Hoye has constructed a fabulous site whose main interest lies in the suggestions of how to plan your essays and presentations. It also provides thought-provoking articles relating to the differrent aspects of the TOK course which will provide you with ample examples to support your arguments and counter-arguments, as well as a range of useful web links. Above all else, the website is really easy to navigate.


Triplealearning is a company that specialises in providing online IB training courses for IB teachers. Once a teacher has been on a course, he can engage in follow-up discussions on the triplealearning blog. They have a blog for every subject on the IB course. The TOK blog is interesting largely for the teaching resources that the teachers share with each other - a vast bank of examples that you could tap into for your essays and presentations!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Notes on Structure and Layout

The ToK Essay: Writing with a SEXCI style

Having recently glanced through our copy of The Oxford Union Society Guide to Schools’ Debating,* we came across a section entitled ‘Argumentation (SEXI)’ which explains a ‘technique for thinking about arguments’ – ‘[SEXI] stands for State, EXplain, Illustrate’:

‘State’ means simply to say what your team believes, ‘EXplain’ means providing the logic and reasoning for why that statement is true and ‘Illustrate’ means providing evidence to show that the ‘EXplanation’ is not just theoretical but that there are instances where it is so…”

It occurred to us that a TOK essay might be thought of as presenting an internal debate or dialogue which loosely follows this technique. Now this is nothing new to IB teachers who have taught Philosophy for a number of years. A few years ago, one of the assessment requirements was for students to write a Socratic dialogue on philosophical issue.

Now we’re not suggesting that TOK students write an essay in the form of a Socratic dialogue (although it’s been pointed out to us that there’s nothing in the marking criteria to prevent you from doing this). What we are suggesting is that the Oxford Union’s idea of a debating technique of argumentation might, with one or two adjustments, give you a framework to write the main body of your TOK essays.

Consider this:

S = statement or knowledge claim

E = example or evidence to support the claim

eX = explanation of how the example/evidence is relevant or supports the claim

C = counter-argument (which follows the ‘statement – example – explanation’ procedure above)

I = implication (So what? If we accept all this, what follows? What connections can we make with the other ideas about knowledge? What is the Knowledge Issue?)

The first four parts of the process would make one paragraph of an essay and other paragraphs would utilize the same format with the final point (I) being the opening statement or knowledge claim (S) to start the next paragraph…

It’s the C and the I parts that build in the TOK element to your essay.

A worked example will follow.

*BAILEY, J. & MOLYNEAUX, G., The Oxford Union Society Guide to Schools’ Debating, Oxford Union Society, Oxford, 2005.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


Human Sciences (Economics)

At the end of last month, stock market experts at pointed to a potential collapse in the stock market in the middle of October. The date 16th October is mentioned in the following clip:

It's all to do with 'Put Options' and if you can get through this and the rest of the stock market jargon, you'll see that the experts predict a crash in the US stock market that could have serious ramifications all over the world.

Historically, 'Red October' might very well have the same global impact as the fateful 'Black Monday' of 19th October 1987 or the panic of 2008 during 'Black Week' (beginning 6th October) which some argue sparked a global economic crisis, whose fallout we are experiencing at present.

How far does the knowledge of experts created insecurity and fear about the economy? To what extent are their predictions based on reliable evidence? In what ways does their language obfuscate or clarify the reality of the financial situation?

These are all KIs that emerge out of a very real life situation and could be useful to explore as the basis of a TOK presentation. Indeed, if you imagine that the above paragraphs are a set of preparation notes, you'd have a potential script for an introduction to a presentation...

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Polemic on independent thinking

Following on from the previous post...

Some initial thoughts

While we agree with some of the critic’s insights into students’ use of sources and examples, we still can’t find any coherent reasons as to why teachers should take an ‘aggressive approach’ to steer their students away from using ibtokspot.

Here is, however, the critic’s ‘argument’:

P1: The blog site provides ‘detailed discussion’ of essay titles.
P2: The writer of the blog intends to organise study weekends in order to discuss the 2011 titles ‘in depth.’
Therefore, use of this and other such sites is ‘unacceptable’.

If we put aside the logic (or lack of it) on which this argument is based, the assumption is, of course, that it is not good to ‘collude’ when preparing to do a TOK assessment, especially the essay. At least, not the kind of collusion that happens on ibtokspot.

And what type of collusion is that? Well, presumably the critic believes that the site ‘colludes’ by giving all you TOK students out there answers to the prescribed titles which have the same finality of absolute mathematical certainty as one of those banal examples that keep cropping up in TOK essays: 2 + 2 = 4.

Or does the critic have in mind the type of collusion which implies that students are incapable of thinking for themselves (see point one on ‘Precepts for everyday life’) and making their own judgments about what is right and wrong so they have to go to ‘worrisome’ websites to think for them?

Indeed, it could be the type of collusion that is founded on a belief that teachers themselves are somehow too lazy or incompetent to guide their students in the right direction so that students have to turn elsewhere for solutions – which begs the question of why some schools list ibtokspot as a useful resource...

What is the critic afraid of exactly? Well, we do not know exactly. Although, if we notice the critic’s urgency to police or blacklist the ‘unacceptable’ websites, this would imply that there exists in these sites some sort of insidious criminal intent to undermine the education of our youth; a disease, for which the report will be the ultimate antidote.

It is very clear that the perfidious ibtokspot must be giving the profoundly apathetic student an ‘easy way out’ for his essay preparation; providing some sort of unfair leverage in the market for top grades; presenting an unmerited ‘leg up’, as the English say, to the ‘Can’t be bothered with TOK’ Brigade.

Here, an imaginary dialogue

The critic cries: ‘Let’s make things as difficult as possible for everyone concerned. We do not think that students can think independently, so we must get them to jump through different sized hoops to test them. That’ll teach them nicely.’

Ibtokspot replies (a little understatedly): ‘That’s somewhat patronising don’t you think? Reducing students to the same common denominator (of mediocrity) whereby they need constant molly-coddling, hand-holding and monitoring. Big Brother is watching you!’

The critic adjoins (with a look of admonishment): ‘We don’t mind if our TOK students have help and tuition, but there’s a limit to everything, isn’t there? We can’t have them relying on dodgy websites with questionable authority and badly written articles – my, how un-intellectual and academically shoddy their work will turn out!’

Ibtokspot replies (with forced sympathy which is laced with a hint of irony): ‘Presumably the help and tuition must come solely from within the boundary of a school or some other educational institution which has the best interests of the student at heart; a place which will, moreover, instil in the students the best approach to writing and thinking and do so without clogging their minds with bad practice.’

What do we think?


Now, let us make an observation: the criticism of the website is at best fuzzy and at worst, it’s symptomatic of the kind of narrow-minded and short-sighted, oh yes, and technophobic, hysteria that appears to be plaguing education these days, especially in the UK (refer to the tab labelled ‘Education’) – though it’s by no means exclusive to this island as exemplified by the critic’s report.

Yes, ibtokspot promotes the sceptical approach of questioning everything – even oneself (precept 8) – which implies that everything written on the blog is questionable, so don’t take it as gospel truth (does this really need to be said!)

Yes, ibtokspot is a kind of ‘tutor’ outside of the school environment – in the French sense of the word ‘tuteur’ meaning literally, a stick to support the growth of a sapling (do we really need to go on!)

And yes, ibtokspot stimulates discussion because that is exactly what young people want both in and out of school, especially if no-one else is willing to listen (what else is there to say!)

No, using ibtokspot isn’t cheating, unless of course you lift sentences verbatim from the site and pass them off as your own (say ‘no’ to plagiarism!)

No, the existence of ibtokspot isn’t a threat to the brilliant work of schools and teachers and examiners (bravo!)

And quite categorically no, ibtokspot does not play on, or profit from, the insecurities of students who are struggling with what TOK is all about (even teachers struggle with this!)

To Conclude

Here’s a perfect agricultural analogy: in the field of education, the work of ibtokspot is the manure which helps to fertilise the earth in which the seedling young minds of students grow to think for themselves, be themselves, speak up, feel free to agree and disagree, be honest with themselves and others, be open-minded, avoid being judgemental and to question everything – even their own thinking.

Back to BS again. Just like knowledge, guiding people to think for themselves can either help or hinder us in our day to day relationships with each other and our environment.

But you already knew that didn’t you?


This is a website that might interest you.

According to one report (click here for a link to a pdf file), ibtokspot is under scrutiny, or at least it should be. The site has been identified as being ‘particularly worrisome’ because...

Well, that’s just it – there appear to be no real reasons to support this claim.

We’ll post something more on this when we’ve had time to ponder. Meanwhile, read the opening 50 or so lines of the report and make up your own minds...

Saturday, September 11, 2010


Ethics and Human Sciences

We've had a long break from posting over the summer holiday period, but are back with a vengeance with a post on this advert:

Recently aired on British television, this advert encapsulates the common assumptions about male and female relationships in the 21st Century, highlighting the kind of behaviour patterns people commonly display. Put aside the verbal commentary and consider for a moment the visual presentation of the scene:
  • the girl stays awake after sex worrying about the broken condom while the boy snores contentedly and without a care in the world.

  • the girl reflects on and worries about the consequences of the situation without the apparent presence of the boy - 'I'm not ready for that one.'

  • the girl takes responsibility for the consequences of the situation by going to the chemist without having the boy beside her.

  • even the person who gives a kind and reassuring look from behind the pharmacy counter is a woman - no man in the vicinity.

What does the advert project?

On the one hand, that boys are unconcerned, unthinking, irresponsible and absent when it comes to sexual relations with girls. They do not care as long as they can find sex and for goodness sake don't ask them for committment.

On the other hand, that a girl must be pretty stupid to think that only because she jumps into bed with a boy means that he will love her.

The advert is a great springboard for a potential presentation that explores these assumptions and gets to the reality of the issue.

Nevertheless, thank goodness that somebody somewhere is taking the initiative to make us aware of the possibility of using the day after pill to deal with accidents during sex. So the overall message is: girls and boys wake up! Girls know your bodies the intentions of the boys who you want to be with and boys know your responsibilties to yourself and your girls before and after sex.

Monday, April 19, 2010

TOK Event

TOK Event! Tok Event! TOK Event!

After the last TOK picnic during Easter weekend, which was washed out owing to the wet English weather, we hope to have another attempt!

Let's hope that the sunshine is out during the next Spring Bank Holiday weekend.

We hope to meet you this time in Birmingham's Victoria Square, just outside the Museum and Art Gallery, next to the statue (pictured above) called 'The River', at 12.00 pm. on Saturday 29th May 2010.

Around the rim of the pool is a quotation from 'Burnt Norton' one of the Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot:

And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.

We'll be sitting by the words 'the lotose rose' - you can just about see the words on the bottom left corner of the picture.

Just a reminder:

Everyone is welcome - please bring a dish of something special to share; bring yourself and anyone else you care about to join in the day's revelry...oh yes, and a little bit of TOK discussion about the things that really matter.

There's no entrance fee and it's a great way of meeting up with people from different backgrounds who have one thing in common - a love for TOK!

Click the picture above to get a link to a map describing how to get there.

As a mark of recognition, either tie a white handkerchief to your rucksack or bag or put a comment on this post to let us know if you're coming, just so that we know who to greet ...

Sunday, April 18, 2010


BBC 1, 'The Big Questions'

We appeared at the last minute on 'The Big Questions' this morning at King Edward VI School, Handworth, Birmingham, which you can catch on the BBC i-player if you click the picture above - it should be available for a week, until the next program.

The three questions debated were:

1. Should mothers get special treatment at work?

2. Does England deserve its own Parliament?

3. Does the law undervalue Christian values?

Our contribution is on the second debate and can be summarised in the following statments (they might seem extremely general, but you don't get much time to express a point of view!)

As far as politics is concerned, we're battling against an extreme scepticism. Our position can be expressed as follows:

It is by no means self-evident that politicians - or Governments - have our best interests at heart (so whether we have an English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish or joint British Parliament is beside the point.)

There is a general tendency in the populace towards unthinking, unquestioning behaviour (people are so brainwashed bythe Media that voting becomes a matter of choosing personalities on superficial grounds much like in well-known reality TV shows.)

Putting these two things together leaves room for a very sceptical conclusion: the people will get the politicians they deserve and thereby the rulers they deserve.

Example: if we look here, here, here and here, we see that since the Labour Party took the reins of Government, they have instituted over 4000 new laws which criminalise certain behaviours.

What does this tell us about ourselves?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Theory of Knowledge

Knowledge, belief and opinion

On the one hand, people will say everybody is allowed to have opinions on anything they want and all opinions are right or true...for you. You can’t argue with anyone’s opinion can you? What’s the point? Well, perhaps to try to change the opinion? To persuade someone to think like you do? Now there could be various reasons why you’d want to do this.

On the other hand, you can argue about what people know, can’t you? How so? The common denominator is belief – the ideas in our heads that shape our thoughts and feelings about everything and, ultimately, have an impact on our actions. Some of these beliefs are acquired actively by sifting through evidence and by rational decision-making, others might be acquired passively through our parents, our culture or the media and remain with us without having the support of any evidence, though quite why that should be the case is often difficult to comprehend.

The key points to make are:
  1. That unsupported beliefs remain subjectively true and have no value outside an individual’s or group’s perspective or system of beliefs – eg. humans have immortal souls – people might actually agree to believe this, but it still remains in the realm of subjectivity in spite of the consensus (this is why sometimes they appear as absolute truth).
  2. Beliefs substantiated by evidence and acquired through tried and tested means take us into the realm of objectivity – eg. John Smith carried out the burglary on the bank – eye-witnesses might have different perspectives on this, but detectives piece together the evidence and come to an agreement about the event giving rational grounds for doing so. The important thing to remember is that even objective truths can be susceptible to revision and change – we might always find evidence to disprove our beliefs and reject our theories or change our theories and adjust them to describe the facts more accurately. Thus, objective truths are provisional and never 100% certain...
So let’s just list our assumptions:
  • There’s no ‘absolute truth’ if by this we mean beliefs that are unchanging and ever-present.
  • There is no ‘absolute truth’ if by this we mean truths that have 100% proof.
  • Truths are subjective, if they are not supported by factual evidence, even if many people believe in them and agree on the truth.
  • Truths are objective, if they are supported by factual evidence and rational argument and testing through a process which provides a framework for general agreement.
  • The kind of evidence we require is not from any authority figure, but through an inter-subjectively testable process.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Theory of Knowledge

The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth...

Having read so many TOK essays over the years, one common thread becomes apparent in students’ approaches to the issue of truth: confusion.

The word ‘truth’ often appears as part of a Prescribed Title or is implicit in a discussion of knowledge. Here, we’ll attempt to address the idea of truth and clarify how you could approach it in your TOK Essays and Presentations. The key concept you’ll have to get to grips with in this discussion is ‘evidence’ and how this can be used and abused in knowing truth.

Students tend to distinguish between two kinds of truth:

1. Absolute truth – aka. ‘universal truth’ which is somehow unchanging and always true regardless of what individuals might think or feel about it. An example often given is 2 + 2 = 4. Please avoid this clich├ęd example in your work; it is much too simplistic and doesn’t help to support an argument proposing the absolute nature of truth. Other examples provided are the so-called ‘truths’ of religion, such as the resurrection of Christ. If you ask a believer how he knows this truth, he might point to the evidence of the Bible. Now there are a few counter-claims you can make. We’ll consider two:

a. How can we trust the words of the Bible since they were written by so many different hands and often seem to contradict each other?

b. What about ‘truths’ believers are supposed to hold as absolute which do not appear in the Bible, such as the Assumption of Mary?

The first counter can be dealt with by arguing that we just have to have faith – that is, the evidence of the Bible is not ‘factual’ evidence that provides rational grounds for the belief, but that we must simply trust in the Word of God which was dictated to the writers of the Bible. The second counter follows a similar move: truths not based on Biblical ‘evidence’ are declared truths by an authority figure whose great wisdom in such matters guarantees or underwrites the nature of the truth and makes it absolute. This actually happened in the case of the Assumption of Mary.

Now these defences of Absolute truth are not entirely satisfying are they? They beg the question of how God actually goes about dictating truths to people? Moreover, why some people and not others? And what exactly goes on during this process of divine inspiration? These are not simply rhetorical questions. Theologians have attempted to answer them in a defence of religious belief, but we won't go into those answers here.

2. Relative truth – aka. ‘personal truth’ which depends on individual perspectives and is based largely on opinion. The usual move students make follows this routine:

a. We are all individual and experience the world in different ways so we only have a personal conception of truth.

b. Our sense of truth is limited by personal bias, our upbringing, our cultural or religious beliefs, our fundamental sexual and gender differences and so on.

c. We can never go beyond this personal sense of truth; it drives everything we think about, perceive, feel and do.

Again, the idea that we can all believe whatever we want to believe because it’s all just a matter of opinion isn’t very satisfactory. How can we possibly counter this relative view of truth? Surely, your opinion about oxtail soup is your truth and my opinion about it is my truth and we should just get on with life. This might work in the case of oxtail soup, but what about more important situations like your opinion about abortion. Now we could counter the relativist position by pointing out that some of the things we believe to be true might, like belief in religious ‘truths’, have no supporting evidence: for example, the belief that a red sky at night means the weather’s going to be nice tomorrow. This isn’t quite a faith position like the religious believer but it could be argued that it’s a superstitious position. We could also point out that there are so many truths that we actually agree upon because they have a rational and evidential basis: for example, it takes roughly 24 hours for the earth to spin on its axis.

Now this kind of factual truth leads onto a discussion of how to think about truth in a TOK context...

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

TOK Event


You may not know it but this is the one hundredth post of ibtokspot since we started posting in 2008 and to celebrate this century of blogs (and the fact that the Spring is finally making a breakthrough here in the UK), we're organising a grand Easter TOK Picnic.

Everyone is welcome and even though many of you who visit our site are based in the farthest reaches of the planet, I'm sure you'll be at the picnic in spirit!

So please bring a dish of something special to share; bring yourself and anyone else you care about to join in the day's revelry...oh yes, and a little bit of TOK discussion about the things that really matter.

We'll meet up with you in the Bandstand at the Pump Rooom Gardens in Leamington Spa at 12.00pm on Saturday 3rd April 2010.

There's no entrance fee and it's a great way of meeting up with people from different backgrounds who have one thing in common - a love for TOK!

Click the picture above to get a link to a map describing how to get there.

Look forward to seeing you there and please remember to bring something warm and perhaps even an umbrella - we're not going to allow a little bit of rain to stop us from tokking away!

PS. Put a comment on this post to let us know if you're coming, just so that we know who to greet...

Saturday, February 27, 2010


Human Sciences and Education (Part 3)

In this trio of articles by Harriet Sergeant, written over a period of about a year, we are presented with some key arguments for why the education system in England is failing our students. It makes grim reading, but enlightens us as to how we can move forward and re-think our educational values:

1. 'Sorry, kids, you’re all going to Smoke-and-Mirrors High' (Timesonline, Feb 8 2009)

2. 'I've seen how our education system betrays children - it's enough to make you weep' (Mailonline, April 22 2009)

3. 'Schools are churning out the unemployable' (Timesonline, Feb 21 2010)

It's really the most recent of these articles that might hit home to you - esecially if you have aspirations of going to University and enhancing your unique qualities and skills for the world out there. Here are some real-life knowledge issues you might like to reflect on:

To what extent does your work ethic make you employable? How efficiently can you think for yourself and work to your own initiative? In what ways can you overcome your limitations as a learner and challenge yourself to excel? What do you value most in your learning experience? To what extent is your education fulfilling? How far should the goal of education be to create happiness?

That the answers to these questions are firmly in the negative, especially amongst young people from poorer backgrounds, is clear to see in the articles above. So why is this happening? What are the arguments to suggest that schools are not fulfilling their special purpose in our society?

There are three key arguments:

1. The 'political correctness' argument

According to this argument, schools must promote the values of liberalism and equality so that 'every child matters', as the Government initaitive would have it. No one child, nor any group of children, is discrimminated against in the delivery of education. A grand objective, but in practise, the urge for such equality means that there is a tendency that learning (and teaching) gravitates towards the lower end of the achievement scale. In short, there is what some people often refer to as a 'dumbing down' of standards; a suspicion and sometimes downright dismissal of anything that appears too academic, intellectual or abstract and 'difficult'. It leads to an attitude whereby students are infantilised and teaching becomes merely a duty of babysitting and patronising youngsters.

2. The 'Government ideology' argument

This is also known as the 'politicisation of education' argument, whereby Governments use their education policies to win votes and thereby stay in power. In fact, it is in their interests to promote actively, and not to interfere with the movement for, political correctness. Why? If standards are reduced, the Government, either existing or waiting in the wings, will be in a better positin to control the minds of the young - in words which a student of ours put it extremely succintly, 'if we're kept stupid, we're more likely to vote for them'. Government ploughs money into education so as to build an edifice that will make them look good. This means, more often than not, that the needs of students become secondary to political point-scoring.

3. The 'target culture' argument

Over the last two decades, we have been steeped in a state of mind that is unquestioning in its belief that the only way to guage success or failure is by measuring performance against targets. It has infiltrated nearly all forms of life from business, to hospitals and now into our schools. The argument goes something like this: we need a method of measuring students' progress, of judging whether a school and its teachers are fulfilling the educational needs of our young students, so that we can build up a series of data that tells us which are the best performing schools and which schools require help to raise standards. Like in business and the health service, it is argued that setting students targets and measuring their (and hence their teachers') performance against these is the best way forward. At present, the measuring scale is something called 'Current Value Added' (careful, it's a 74 page document!), the complexities (and vagaries) of which even the most logical of mathematicians will have troube in decoding. The problems of this approach are nicely traced in Harriet Seargeant's article. What we are interested in is that making targets the singlemost important purpose of a child's education means that teachers often lose sight of what teaching is all about.

What is teaching and learning really all about...?

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Human Sciences and Education (Part 2)

'Shut up and put up!' - is this our Brave New World?

Following on from the recent post on educational values, here's an extremely interesting article in the timesonline about about another of our important public domains: health.

It's called, 'Use your initiative? Far too dangerous' and appeared on Thursday 11th February 2010.

The article focuses on the same issue as our post: what happens when Government shapes the values according to which public institutions such as State Education and the NHS should be run?

We argued that the resulting impact is mediocrity in the standards of education; the blind, unswerving adherence to rules and the letter of the law which eschews all creativity and imagination and finally, the promotion into power of people who have no sense of vocation and who simply push through the educational legislation of the Government without questioning what they're doing.

The above article presents a tragic case-study of the consequences when Government values and the target and rule-based systems which are designed to promote them are allowed to function without common sense and some element of questioning and sceptical scrutiny.

It begs a really big question: to what extent should education and health be organised in the same way Government agencies are organised?

And a related big question is this: how far should Government be allowed to dictate the way in which health and education is organised and run?

This is not to advocate the wholesale (or even minimal) privatisation of education and health services. It is to suggest that alleviating these institutions from Government interference might help to promote values that have a less tragic impact on young lives and are longer lasting. But is this a strong enough argument? What further evidence is there that Government-led institutions are really NOT organised with the interests of the public in mind? What significant reasons can we find to argue that these institutions would function better WITHOUT the stamp of Government.


Human Sciences (Economics)

Money as Debt 1

Money as Debt 2

Money as Debt 3

Money as Debt 4

Money as Debt 5

Some time ago, we posted an entry on the nature of money and how money is created. Here’s a follow up entry with some clips from youtube entitled ‘Money as Debt’. The film is extremely illuminating, especially in the context of the present economic crisis, since it explains the practises of the so-called ‘Banksters’ which, it has been alleged, helped to cause the crisis in the first place.

If you can see the connection between the debt problems around the world and the risks which banks take in creating money through the fiat system, perhaps you’ll also see how the working people suffer most when Governments bail out failing banks: it’s public money, our hard-earned tax revenue, that is used to pay off the debt which banks have incurred in the process of creating money.

Think about how this economic state of affairs has an impact on those principles on which we base our dearly loved democracy: liberty and equality.

What do you think is the moral imperative that drives the behaviour of banks, of governments and of the people (us) who allow this situation to continue? Why does education actively promote this practise of money creation and remain silent on its disastrous impact?

Monday, February 1, 2010


If you're approaching your TOK Essay deadline for this year (May 2010), here's a website that might be of help. We'll let it speak for itself:

"Are you struggling with your TOK studies? Just can't make head or tail of what TOK is all about? Worried sick about ever being able to write that essay or stand up in front of the whole group and do a presentation?

We are here to help all you IB students out there with your TOK essays and presentations and other related issues regarding your IB studies.

We don't know of any other help site like this - click 'Our Services' to see the full range of help we offer..."

It's a paysite, so you'll have to be ready to invest in your education. From the look of the sample marking, however, it appears as though the one-to-one on-line essay tuition on offer is excellent value for money. Let us know.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Human Sciences and Education (Part 1)

Is the present secondary state education system letting down our young?

According to this article, 'The Reader Gets Angry', the answer is un unhesitating and unequivocal 'yes'.

Before moving onto the arguments and the objections to them, let's clarify some assumptions. Common sense tells us that education should be free to all and everyone should have equal access to it regardless of race, creed, colour. These oft-repeated principles of equality and freedom are very powerful almost to the point of banality. Now we know, don't we, that nothing is really free - someone, somwhere pays for what others may regard as being free. Based on this idea, let's add to this another assumption: education is a political tool that can be used (or misused) to shape the minds of a generation of youth. It is a tool, moreover, whose power is usually centralised in the hands of the existing Government. This can have its advantages, but it can also be dangerous as the article suggests.

Government shapes its education policy based on certain key values associated with those principles of equality and freedom mentioned earlier. As is often the case with the realm of Ethics, this often leads to a clash of values and raises the question: who decides on which values should determine the delivery of education? Government? So here's another key question which leads to our final assumption: if education is centralised in Government and Government makes policy based on its perception of what is and is not educationally valuable, who actually makes sure that these values get promoted in schools? Answer: Government civil-servants provide the educational framework which embodies its core values and pass it on to the school managers who enforce (if you permit this extremely emotive word) it upon the teachers. And teachers either disagree with this approach to education (which is relatively rare these days) or, as the article suggests, become 'fatalistic'. There are two main consequences: first, the advent of mediocrity in school managers and teachers alike, inherited from the bureaucracy of Government institutions. Second, the students always suffer in the end.

Let's look more closely at the article itself and the comments posted on the website on which the article was originally published, in order to unfold some of the values embedded in our thinking about the purpose of education. What we find are two sets of educational values: those promoted by so-called 'educationalists' (usually Government civil servants or other pawns of Governement agencies) and those that are closest to our own sense of being teachers with a vocation.

The core values of education (according to 'educationalists')

1. Anti-intellectualism : This is what happens when the educational system is structured in the same way as Government organises itself - every aspect of thinking and working is micromanaged until it becomes mechanical, deadened.
  • inaccessible ('intellectual') literature or even teachers should be avoided in the classroom
  • language structures not needed in the day to day communication of the work place should not be taught in the classroom
  • 'learning by doing' is the best approach in the classroom and linguistic learning should be sacrificed - the 'manual labour' or 'apprenticeship' approach
  • instructions play a more important part than explanations
  • knowledge is irrelevant to teaching
  • grammar is obsolete and has no place in teaching

2. Inclusion : This is the guise in which the principle of egalitarianism parades itself in education - it means, in short, that everyone has the right to be treated equally, even if (and especially if) this means dragging down educational standards to the lowest common denominator (are we getting close to communism?)

  • all kinds of difference must be negated in the classroom - it must be an 'inclusive' environment
  • treat students as infants or invalids and make them rely on teacher like a child relies on a nursemaid or babysitter (effectively, this is what the teaching role becomes - ask anyone who has covered a lesson for an absent teacher)
  • the pursuit of topicality is paramount - cultural references should be limited to popular and celebrity culture and idolised as such an not questioned in any way
  • Avoid class discussion or note-taking since it can exclude those who can't or don't want to take part in exchanging ideas and interpretations

3. Classism : This manisfests itself in the divergent expectations we must have of students as inherent in the various 'initiatives' through which teachers are to support them.

  • avoid expecting too much of students - do not expose them to abstract ideas
  • illiteracy is something precious that ought to be preserved - it keeps the masses unthinking and unquestioning so they cannot or never want to change things
  • minimise the ability gap between the highest and lowest achievers (even though this conflicts with the setting of students in some schools)
  • 'gifted and talented' students set them apart from low-achievers who can never raise themselves to this level
  • students' minds cannot (and therefore should not) be changed
  • students' backgrounds are their fate and these cannot be overcome

The core values of education (according to the 'vocationalists')

1. Growth : students must be encouraged to be the best that they can be and to create the best possible society in which to grow and adapt.

  • education ought to expand one’s horizons
  • students should be introduced consistently to new ideas
  • study involves internalising knowledge, making a body of knowledge one's own
  • students must be encouraged to work hard
  • open-mindedness
  • students must be shown how to raise themselves to equality not to sink down towards it

2. Creativity : students must be encouraged to experiment, to make mistakes and to fail in the classroom before they go into the world.

  • words, grammatical structures, are a way of modelling our world - students should be allowed to play with language
  • students should be trained to think for themselves, to question everything
  • inspiration through sharing, decent discussion
  • building a 'community of enquiry' ('Philosophy for Children')

3. Eloquence : students must be given strategies to make a unique mark on the world in a way that is at once expressive, elegant and graceful.

  • encourage reading for its own sake and the use of dictionaries to empower students to speak and write well
  • prioritise self-expression as a means of giving students a way of standing up for themselves, sometimes against the world
  • promote honesty and integrity, care and confidence

There is a world of difference in these two sets of values. In simple terms, the former leads onto the path of misery, for students and teachers alike; the latter leads onto the path of happiness.

Moreover, while the former enables Government to control the minds of the masses; to create a ready-made indolent and bovine workforce and to perpetuate their own power (why else would anyone desire to promote unthinking, unquestioning behaviour in youngsters?), the latter goes some way towards enabling our youth to free themselves from any attempts to possess and pack their minds into little boxes; to navigate the world on their own terms and, above all, to have the strength to be themselves in spite of being judged by everyone around them.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Human Sciences and The Arts

'How you are controlled, Part 1'

We cannot find Part 2 - but it's out there somewhere.

These videos appear to be a perfect illustration of our recent 'TOK Manifesto'. In case you hadn't already figured it out for yourselves, TOK is all about questioning things and exploring ideas that make you question everything.

The clips have been posted on youtube in two parts under the heading 'How you are controlled'. They are a part of of larger film called Phase 3 made by a group of individuals who run a website called The group defines its approach as being part of a movement called 'The New World Order' which itself, it is suspected, is driven by a passion for creating conspiracy theories.

But we'll let the videos speak for themselves. If you you want more, then go to the website to see the rest of the film so you can make up your minds...

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

TOK Websites

From a brief scan through this blog, it appears that the writer is a former teacher of TOK and as such has prepared some helpful notes as to how to answer the prescribed questions relating to the ToK Prescribed titles of 2011. Unlike us, this website covers each of the ten questions! There are also some hints as to how to write a TOK essay which you might find useful (click here.) Remember, the notes for answering the questions, as well as our own helps, are only one possible suggestion and should only be used as a springboard to your own thoughts and arguments.

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year's Resolutions

It's about time, isn't it, that we came up with some resolutions about what we're trying to do with this blog and these could, couldn't they, become a kind of mission statement or manifesto of our main values in education.

So here we go - this is what we hope we have achieved for you so far and hope to achieve for you in the year(s) to come:

1. Think for yourself and not the thoughts pre-programmed into you by others - whoever they may be.

2. Be yourself and not someone formatted into those little boxes that people like to put you into - whatever they may be.

3. Speak up about the things that matter to you, but do so eloquently, confidently and courteously - however that may be.

4. Feel free to agree and disagree with others' viewpoints, but do so in the spirit of decent discussion (see point 3).

5. Be honest - first of all to yourself - to others about what's on your mind - there's nothing to be afraid of.

6. Be open-minded - put aside your bises, prejudices and preconceptions so that so can engage with others on an equal and creative basis.

7. Avoid being constantly judgmental - it takes so much energy and only projects bad energy, so save it for more creative and constructive projects.

8. Question everything - so that you never take for granted what anybody says or does - everyone has a hidden agenda.

You'll start to see these listed at the head of the blog home page from now on - lest we forget!