Where breadth becomes depth

OK, who is this?

At the centre of his lifelong search was his dream of uncovering a small number of underlying principles and patterns that would explain all of nature. His notebooks are crammed with pictures and speculations about the nature of vortexes, heart valves, cloud shapes; the designs of leaves, human veins, bones and levers; about how character is expressed in the shape of faces. Everywhere, he is looking for correspondences. Are flowing human locks like rivulets of water? Are human arms like birds’ wings? Are there perfect proportions for the human body, and do they relate to the proportions of horses’ legs and muscles? What are the symmetries in plant forms, and what are the rules that guide them? In [his] world there is not yet a clear divide between ‘science’ and ‘art’. They are the same thing. The artist coldly analyses form, perspective and the effect of distance on colours, which will give his pictures their impact. The artist uses lenses, learns how to cast metals, and works on his equations so he knows how to support the dome of a new church.

Continue reading “Where breadth becomes depth”


TOK essay 2015: Is there any such thing as a neutral question?

Dr Roger Revelle
  1. There is no such thing as a neutral question. Evaluate this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.

The obvious interpretation of ‘a neutral question’ is one where the questioner has no vested interest in the answer. Ie, the questioner will accept the answer which emerges, eschew confirmation bias and refrain from seeking to weight the outcome of an inquiry in favour of preconceived ideas, prejudices or predictions. So, a neutral question is a detached, impersonal, open question, and yes, some people are capable of asking them. 

Or least, they would be if there was any such thing as a neutral question. The problem is judging whether a question is neutral or not.

Clearly, the scientific method is predicated on the existence of such questions, but the history of science is riddled with instances where the treatment of answers – ie experimental results – reveals rampant confirmation bias, and suppression of experimental data which threatens a cherished hypothesis, a career-building hypothesis, a triumphant, vindicating hypothesis, a hypothesis which would make sense of the universe and make somebody very famous.  Continue reading “TOK essay 2015: Is there any such thing as a neutral question?”

Remix/Regroup: Active Structure in TOK

Image borrowed from Physical Magic Spectacles theatre group.

Theory of Knowledge is a unique feature of the IB Diploma, and was always conceived as the element which makes it different from any other. So of course it poses unique challenges to the teachers tasked with delivering it, as well as unique opportunities.

The most obvious challenge for TOK teachers lies in the interdisciplinary nature of the course. We have to address the full range of academic fields – the arts, natural and human sciences, mathematics, history, ethics, and now, ‘indigenous knowledge systems’ and ‘religious knowledge systems’. And all of this in only one TOK class per week? Continue reading “Remix/Regroup: Active Structure in TOK”

A little unlearning

A colleague of mine outlined the theory of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Climate Change to a Grade 9 class, and at the end she explained (as she should) that while there was widespread support for the theory, there was a substantial group of scientists, some of them highly prestigious, who didn’t accept a word of it.

Al Gore up a crane.

 One boy, on his way out of the class, said to her in a weary tone – ‘Can’t someone just prove it, one way or the other?’

The feeling we call ‘cognitive dissonance’ arises when we cannot reconcile contradictory information. It is an uncomfortable feeling, a tension, a state of not knowing. In fiction, we enjoy this feeling, and look forward to its resolution – preferably in a surprising way. But in life, the vast majority of us resort to a range of self-deceiving strategies to make it go away.

We reach for ‘probably’. We choose a side. We do whatever is required not to have to think critically about it. ‘Oh,’ we think, ‘the scientists who disagree must be getting paid by the oil companies.’ Or, ‘Obviously they don’t care about the environment. Nice, caring people all agree about this.’ Continue reading “A little unlearning”

The Destructivist Classroom – 1

Photograph by Sam Sherratt. The Roaches, Cheshire, England.

OK, SO THERE’S Instructivism, which is the teacher-centered classroom. Soooo twentieth century, but it still has a place in a mixed economy of good practice. Once in a while, the students want and need to hear an authoritative exposition, a great story, an impassioned rant or two.

Then there’s Constructivism, and that’s the student-centered classroom, and the 21st century way. It promises to be more than a passing educational fad, because this really is how we learn. We teach for understanding: and unlike information, understanding cannot be simply transferred from one mind to another. It has to be constructed afresh by every learner.

I would argue that Instructivism and Constructivism are not a binary opposition but a complementary pair, and that we need a balance of both. The relationship between these two styles is no doubt complex and worthy of further thought. But here I want to focus on a third -ism which has to enter the picture in certain phases of the process. We could call it ‘Destructivism’, because at certain points on the learning curve, some deconstruction needs to take place before the learner can move on to the next level. Continue reading “The Destructivist Classroom – 1”

TOK Inside Out

images-19I’m told the Theory of Knowledge course was not originally intended to be delivered by a separate TOK department in an IB school. It was intended to be delivered by everyone. (And still is).

Of course, no TOK department is separate – it consists of teachers most of whose time is spent delivering other Diploma courses. There are no specialist TOK teachers, because TOK is not a specialism. It doesn’t exist without (or outside) the Areas of Knowledge. It has a framework, but no content of its own. The course guide emphasizes that no TOK course can be comprehensive or should try to be, and teachers are encouraged to be selective and build their own distinctive courses.

When I started teaching TOK, the approach to the course in that particular school was rather compartmentalized, though probably pretty standard. Each TOK teacher was expected to spend several weeks dwelling on each Way of Knowing and then each Area of Knowledge in turn. While there is nothing wrong with a science teacher leading discussion on the arts, or a literature teacher sharing a perspective on science, constructing a whole course like that is pretty challenging. Every TOK teacher is going to be more confident working with some Areas of Knowledge than others.

You become a TOK teacher and you get some insight into what elementary teaching must be like – suddenly you’re the fount of all knowledge?

Continue reading “TOK Inside Out”