AGAINST empathy? Really?

170213-hands(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) “In the moral domain…empathy leads us astray,” argues Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale University. “We are much better off if we give up on empathy and become rational deliberators motivated by compassion and care for others.”  Bloom adopts a provocative stance to focus attention on what we in IB Theory of Knowledge would call “ways of knowing”, and ties emotion, imagination, and reason to ethics as an area of knowledge. Continue reading

Media literacy for TOK?

170106-media(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) Professional development for Theory of Knowledge teachers? February 6 is the last day for signing up for the current iteration of the course Making Sense of the News: News Literacy Lessons for Digital Citizens. It’s an online course offered on It can be done fairly inexpensively for credit or audited for free (presumably without the February 6 sign-up). Me, I’ve cruised through its outline and preview materials, judged it good, and signed myself up to audit it for the next six weeks. Want to join me?

I’ve long been interested in media literacy and have dealt with aspects of it in Theory of Knowledge. However, the guidance I used to give students now seems to me to be woefully insufficient. How do we encourage students to evaluate sources and consider evidence when readily accessible channels of sharing knowledge have multiplied massively, when accurate information is often swamped by hasty misinformation, heavily biased accounts or deliberate lies, and when people following their own media streams tend to reject any contrary information offered by others? Continue reading

“Therapy wars” and the human sciences

170130-psychology(by Eileen Dombrowski from OUP blog) Thanks largely to the cognitive sciences, we’ve learned much in recent decades about how our own minds work. As knowledge flows from research journals to the popular media, recent findings in psychology have stimulated considerable commentary and advice on dealing with the problems that trouble our minds. Psychoanalysis and cognitive behavioural therapy, complex topics within a complex area of knowledge, have drawn lay readers and listeners not just out of interest in knowing how their minds or brains work but also out of hopes to relieve problems and improve their own health.

No doubt at least some of your students will have had exposure to psychoanalysis, even if only through sensationalistic movies. No doubt, too, they will have encountered the currently much promoted cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and its applications to everyday practices – there are even “apps” available for meditation and stress relief, for example. “Mindfulness”, a close adjunct to CBT, is, your students may observe, very much in the air. But how seriously should we take the different approaches of psychoanalysis and CBT as ways of achieving better mental and emotional health? Continue reading

“Comfort” and discomfort: history and the shadows of the past

comfort-woman(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) At first glance, it’s a most unlikely statue to ignite a diplomatic row: a barefoot girl sits on a chair, her hands passively in her lap. Nevertheless, the placement of this gentle statue by South Korean activists in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan has set off a storm of controversy and provoked Japan to withdraw its ambassador from South Korea. But why? In Theory of Knowledge, clashing perspectives on this statue take us straight through concepts of symbolic representation and smack into history as an area of knowledge with ethical resonance.

It seems to me that this incident could be immensely useful for a TOK class. There are plenty of images online of the controversial statue, so there’s something visual to anchor abstract discussion. Moreover, students are likely to have their interest (and probably compassion) caught by the story of women forced into sexual servitude – and to grasp quickly both the desire to remember historically, and the desire to forget! The current strong feelings about the issue and how its story is told also help to raise a potent TOK question: Is history really only about the past? Continue reading

Download TOK resource: 2016 TOK blog posts

Dear TOK teachers — I’ve gathered into a single document all the posts on Theory of Knowledge from this blog during 2016, with a Table of Contents at the beginning, so that you can cruise them easily, looking for ideas for your own teaching.  Please feel free to download this resource, and to use it and share it freely (with the usual conventions of acknowledgement). Our goal in this blog is to give support to teachers by supplementing your core resources with fresh ideas for teaching TOK,  suggested activities for the classroom,  and commentary relevant to TOK on current knowledge discoveries and events of the world as they pass.  I hope that, somewhere in this document, you may find something that stimulates your own ideas.

DOWNLOAD: dombrowski-tok-blog-2016

Theo and I wish all of you a good year ahead.

Eileen Dombrowski




Film sound and the beautiful lie

(by Eileen Dombrowski) “Our brains are conditioned to embrace the lies,” Tasos Franzolas declares of the sound engineering in films. This TED video (16:33 minutes) is a winner for any TOK treatment of sense perception and interpretation, and of the fusion of technology and creativity in the arts. Continue reading

Is mathematics a gateway to empathy?

(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) Is the study of mathematics really a gateway toward empathy? I’m not fully convinced by the argument presented by mathematician Roger Antonsen, but I like him for making it. We need all the empathy we can get in our world. Certainly, his mathematical visualizations  do demonstrate the importance of mental flexibility and imagination in mathematics, and do stand metaphorically for being able to see from different points of view. And his argument leads to some interesting knowledge questions about perspectives and empathy. Continue reading

Oh, that air of authority!

All the form without the content!  I leave it to you to formulate the appropriate knowledge questions — about persuasive devices in language and body language, about apparent expertise and authority in manner, and maybe…about the role of comedy in exposing conventions (in this case, in sharing knowledge)! I’m too busy laughing! Continue reading

Thinking beyond the knowledge bubbles

soap-bubbles-01(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) I’m taking a little holiday from watching the news. I do this sometimes. I turn off the volume to watch all those mouths move, then let all of the frustrated and angry people float away, sealed in their lovely bubbles. Escapism? Yes – and no. Sometimes it’s the only way to imagine myself outside my own bubble of news and views, to try to see how people get sealed off from each other in their internally coherent mini-worlds. If I quiet my own rage at the world and stop myself from yelling about “truth”, I think I can see that the people inside all the bubbles are a lot alike, and are using similar ways to create their different versions of the world. It’s those ways that grab my attention for Theory of Knowledge. The following story is likely to grab your attention as well. Continue reading

Is Palestine on the map?

(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) Is it surprising that in Theory of Knowledge we are drawn to an analogy between the MAPS different people have made of the world and the KNOWLEDGE they have constructed of it – with all the selection, interpretation, and representation both demand?  Is it surprising that critical reading of maps needs the same recognition of perspectives that we apply to language as a way of knowing? A recent article in the Science section of The Guardian gives us a striking contemporary example of maps being used to express and support a political perspective.  “The issue caught fire,” writes Petter Hellstrom, “after the Forum of Palestinian Journalists accused Google of removing Palestine from their maps.” Continue reading