Red lines and “complex moral duality”: TOK and ethics of witnessing

(by Theo Dombrowski, from OUP blog) “Civilians Attacked by Chemical Weapons!” Few headlines spark as much outrage. If a TOK class engages students in the questions of knowledge connected with this kind of horrendous event, it can help them feel the importance of the intellectual tools that the course provides for probing into – and reacting to – such events.

A reflective piece in the current edition of Dispatches, a journal of Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) Canada, provides an articulate, subtle, and thoughtful focus for many such questions. (Stephen Cornish, “Red Lines”) Easily viewed online, the article is short enough to be used as the basis of a rich and far-reaching discussion. What makes the article particularly effective, too, is that it appeared shortly before the most recent use of chemical weapons in Syria, and thus concerns a whole array of questions perhaps not fully apparent in the most recent news flashes. Continue reading

The Statistics of an Emotion: 2017 World Happiness Report

(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) Can we define and measure happiness – put statistics to an emotion? Can we rank countries of the world quantitatively for the degree to which their people are happy? The fifth annual World Happiness Report,  released by the United Nations on March 20, 2017 has subject matter likely to appeal to students.  For Theory of Knowledge teachers, the report gives an excellent focusing example for discussing ways of knowing and methods of research, particularly for the human sciences. Continue reading

TOK and “fake news”: 3 tips, 2 downloads, and 3 resources

(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) Well, we’ve done it at last. We’ve hit the Big Time. Suddenly the topics that we chat about every day in class – such as concepts of truth and reliability, the nature of “facts”, methods of validating or rejecting knowledge claims, and the dynamic and formative role of perspectives – have come into the glaring public spotlight. Headlines blare out claims about “fake news” or “the war on truth” over British and American politics most specifically, but with fallout that rains down on us all. It’s time for us Theory of Knowledge teachers to take a bow – and then eagerly scoop up for future classes all the new and relevant resources that are being churned out so energetically in the media-sphere that surrounds us. Continue reading

A Bhangra smile: great way to open a TOK class

(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) How could students NOT love this 2-minute dance video? And how could you, as a TOK teacher, NOT seize the chance to ask (just a little!) about the role of the arts in knowledge? The Maritime Bhangra Group of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada gives a joyful lift to questions about ways of knowing and what is communicated in music and dance.

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Thank you, Hans Rosling: numbers, facts, and the world

(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) Hans Rosling, who passed away earlier this month, made numbers tell significant stories about the world.  A self-proclaimed “edutainer” — educator and entertainer — Professor Rosling championed a worldview based on facts. He had a genius for revealing large patterns in human development by making people see the data on population, inequality, and global education and health. He leaves to teachers resources on numbers, facts, and large patterns that can continue to help us in our classrooms — and also leaves us, in less practical terms, the inspiration of his love of knowledge. Continue reading

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