Friday, December 10, 2010


1. Go to K:\Staff_To_Students\IB Subjects\Core\TOK\Trolleyology and find the audio podcast entitled "Trolleyology 1". Listen to this podcast carefully, making some notes as you go along.
2. Go to the blog site and look for the thread corresponding to your particular TOK teacher. Read the contribution made by your teacher (and those made by other students who may have got there before you). Participate by adding your own contributions.
3. When your teacher gives you the go ahead, go back to to find the podcast "Trolleyology 2" and listen to that. Discussion will continue on the same threads on the blog - continue to make your contributions.
Although you may well wish to make contributions that add a new direction to the interaction, please remember that it is a "conversation" that we want - in other words, you should try to take what other people have written and move the discussion onward - by agreeing, disagreeing, developing, etc., always with justifications.
At the end of this event, you will be required to compose a blog tracker like the ones you made last year, and your quantity and quality of involvement will be assessed.
We are very excited by the possibilities of this event. Let's work hard to make them real. Good luck to us all.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Mr. Oduro

Is denying someone medicine that might save their life because the drugs are very expensive and the person is old the same as killing him or her? If not, what is the difference? 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Mrs. Hutchful

In which situations do our emotions assist/inhibit moral decisions?

Mr. Kamau

What position will you take, push the fat man, and save the five lives, or leave the fat man and let the trolley run over the five people?  What are some of the reasons for your choice?

Mr. Kidane

1.     In the program it says that during the WWII the British fooled the Germans into bombing suburban areas in order to spare Central London. In what ways can we say Churchill acted morally right?  

Mr. Kitching

Hi everyone,
What a fascinating programme! I was struck very particularly by one of the 8-year-old girls interviewed at just after 17 minutes on the first podcast. She said, in response to the “transplant problem”:
“I think that you should do it, but it’s not right, but… it’s right at the same time...”
Listen and think about the situation with which she was presented – I think actually she gave a rather a smart answer. What do you think she was trying to say?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

semester grades

Dear Students,

This message is to provide a little clarification about grading in our TOK course so that you fully understand what you have been awarded and can use that as a benchmark for the improvements you are going to make next academic year! Try to think of the assessment not as an end in itself but as a way of measuring the quality of your thinking about what you know. In the end, the really important thing about TOK is broadening of your intellectual horizons, not the letters in the boxes. But wouldn't you feel proud if your achievements were recognized in a public manner with a grade A?

As you know, TOK is graded on an A-E scale:

A = excellent work
B = good work
C = satisfactory work
D = mediocre work
E = elementary work

Now this semester (and next semester), this grade will be mainly determined by the scores you achieve in a presentation (out of 20) and in an essay (out of 40). This semester, it is the TOK Weekend presentation and the essay you are now receiving back that will count. Next semester it will be your final presentation and final essay. The most important thing is that you learn from your experiences this semester in both of these components so that what your work next semester is the very best quality you can produce.

Grade A is reserved for the very best work, and therefore a substantial achievement when awarded. You would need a total of 48 (out of 60) or more for this. For a B, it would be at least 38, and a C at least 29. Then we take into account your relationship to this blog and consider raising the grades of those students who who provide high quality contributions. In quite a number of cases, we have done so.

Let's keep the conversations going. The great advantage of this medium is that we don't need to start and stop according to any school timetable. I will try to put some things up during the vacation. When we return in August, we will find some new ways to use this blog for learning, so watch out for that!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

a conviction in malawi

We will shortly be turning our attention in this course to the field of ethics, and we will need to examine how people should and do employ reason to arrive at moral judgements. Here is a story that is "breaking news" today:

The judge convicted the couple on the grounds that what they were doing was "against the order of nature". Leaving aside for now what he might have meant by that, consider the following:

What OTHER moral claims could be made that would (a) support the conviction, or (b) help to overturn it? In more general terms, what grounds are there for condemning or accepting the actions of a couple such as this?

Each reply to this thread should include at least one example of each please! I don't want your personal judgement on the matter; I want you to identify the grounds that could be invoked on either side. We want to get beyond instant opinions in order to access the premises and assumptions that lie at their roots.

statistics and the world

Here is a thoughtful article about the relation between mathematics (statistics, really) and empirical data about the world:

What does this imply about mathematical knowledge?

Monday, May 17, 2010

learning history in texas

Here's the link:

What are the purposes of history and how might they affect its production and use? To what extent are historians themselves responsible for this, do you think?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

what do you believe is true even though you can't prove it?

Some of you might be interested in articles found at

At the end of each year, prominent academics are asked for their response to a question. That question in 2005 was:

What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?

Here are some of the responses offered:

1. that all human languages have a common origin
2. that extra-terrestrial life exists
3. that consciousness does not survive death
4. that Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthal Man) became extinct because Homo sapiens (our ancestors) ate them
5. that there is moral progress
6. that some works of art have eternal value
7. that most ideas taught in first-year undergraduate Economics courses are wrong
8. that neuroscience will never fully explain the nature of thought
9. that the Riemann hypothesis is true
10. that animals have feelings

Pick one or two of the items on this list and suggest (a) why it is difficult to establish that they are true, and (b) what methods we might nevertheless try in order to do so.

Monday, May 10, 2010

prescribed essay titles

Well, you will be getting back your semester essays immediately after the forthcoming examination period, and it is usual for us to turn our attention at that stage to the prescribed title list for the year. But, considering all the discussions going on at the moment, I think it might focus our minds a little if we had these titles at the back of our minds now. So here they are:

1. Consider the extent to which knowledge issues in ethics are similar to those in at least one other area of knowledge.
2. How important are the opinions of experts in the search for knowledge?
3. “Doubt is the key to knowledge” (Persian Proverb). To what extent is this true in two areas of knowledge?
4. To what extent do we need evidence to support our beliefs in different areas of knowledge?
5. To what extent are the various areas of knowledge defined by their methodologies rather than their content?
6. “There are no absolute distinctions between what is true and what is false”. Discuss this claim.
7. How can we recognise when we have made progress in the search for knowledge? Consider two contrasting areas of knowledge.
8. “Art is a lie that brings us nearer to the truth” (Pablo Picasso). Evaluate this claim in relation to a specific art form (for example, visual arts, literature, theatre).
9. Discuss the roles of language and reason in history.
10. A model is a simplified representation of some aspect of the world. In what ways may models help or hinder the search for knowledge?

general comment

Dear All,

It is great that this blog has become so active in recent days. Some of your comments are extremely interesting and worthy of further exploration.

I just wanted to make a general observation at this point. It is similar to something I wrote earlier but that is down at the foot of some thread and may not be read by everyone.

As some of us said last week in class, successful TOK is a marriage between students and teachers (yes, yes - I know, that doesn't sound too attractive!). Students bring real life experiences and opinions about knowledge issues, along with the youthful energy to think about and discuss them in a lively manner; teachers bring established ideas and approaches to these knowledge issues so that discussion is rooted in the intellectual activities of humanity as a whole.

We do not expect you to agree with all of the ideas that we contribute in class (indeed you couldn't because some are contradictory positions); what we do hope is that you will engage with them and not ignore them. This is because they are often well-thought-out positions adopted by eminent scholars and are therefore worthy of respect. That was the purpose of the little "test" we gave you in class last week - to see whether you have been keeping up to date with our side of the bargain.

So, for example, a question such as "what is language?" on the thread below is not a "bolt from the blue" requiring your thinking from first principles but a question to which we can relate previously introduced class material. You might disagree with some these respectable ideas, and that is fine (as long as you try to support what you think) because that is also a form of engagement. Engagement with the whole of TOK is the key.

Looking forward to many further interesting contributions.

Saturday, May 8, 2010


Many students who wrote their TOK essay on the title on language considered all sorts of communication as language. But is every mode of communication language? Can we say animals have language? A painting communicates ideas and expresses emotion; is a painting language? What should our definition of language be?

Thursday, May 6, 2010


Since we are talking about the arts at the moment, we might do well to think beyond the visual arts for interesting examples. Like music...

The composer John Cage produced a piece in 1952 called 4'33'', which consists of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of... well, the performer sitting at a piano and doing nothing except opening it at the beginning and closing it at the end (actually there are supposed to be three "movements").

As you can imagine, some people were outraged by such a piece of "music". They thought it was a "con", or a joke or a hoax. But let us not be totally dismissive at the start - what about some of the characteristics of art that you identified in your lessons last week? Would it be possible to comment on this example using any of them? Let's try and see if we can get anywhere.


Yesterday 5/5/10 a painting which Picasso made in a single day was sold for 106.5 million dollars at an auction. It is a new record for a work of art and the bid reached the selling price within barely 9 minutes.

Do you think the amount of money is an indication of its real worth or is it just because the thing is a Picasso? If everything Picasso created is worth Millions is the emphasis on the work or the man? And in general what should determine the value of an artistic work? Follow the link to see the painting in question and let’s hear what you have to say.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

don't talk to aliens

Stephen Hawking, a British physicist regarded by many as the most famous living scientist, recently was in the news for saying that we should stop trying to contact extraterrestrial intelligent life because it could be dangerous for us. In a documentary for the Discovery Channel he warned, "If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans." His argument is that if aliens could come to our planet travelling across light years they must have developed a superior civilization and can easily colonize or destroy us.

The question is should our quest for knowledge be thwarted by fear of unintended consequences? What if we could benefit from their advanced civilization? What if we stopped splitting the atom fearing that it may lead to nuclear weapons? Is there something as dangerous knowledge?

Monday, May 3, 2010

can you hurt a chimpanzee's feelings?

Reading the following article made me think about the origins of our ways of knowing and how this might affect our ethical stance with regard to other animals:

Here are some TOK-related questions to which you may want to respond:

1) How can we know if animals experience feelings that correspond to the emotions we as humans possess?

2) If certain animals (such as chimpanzees) are indeed receptive to the kinds of emotional experiences with which we are familiar, would that obligate us to treat those animals ethically?

3) Would such an ethical treatment extend to recognizing that animals have rights? Can anyone or anything have rights without responsibilities?

4) Why might we make the existence of feelings or emotions the deciding factor in our ethical attitudes to animals? Why not the ability to construct or use language, or to reason effectively? Or, for that matter, to perceive?

Monday, April 26, 2010

orlando figes's reviews

Hi Everyone,

Here are a couple of links to an academic scandal that has emerged in the last few days:

A hitherto well-respected and prominent historian admits to writing anonymous bad reviews of the work of other historians on the Amazon site, and nice ones about his own work! When suspicion is aroused, he first of all says it was his wife that wrote them, then eventually admits that he did.

What might this tell us about the world in which historians work? Before the WWW age, it would be very difficult to broadcast views so easily and so anonymously - do you think this raises any ethical issues and, if so, how should they be addressed?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

mathematician refuses $1m prize

You will remember our discussion (further down this blog) on the millenium challenges in Mathematics set by the Clay Foundation in 2000.

Read the following for an interesting update:

Any thoughts about this?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

milgram experiment updated

Hi everyone,

Take a look at:

Does this simply replicate the original psychology experiments on obedience by Stanley Milgram, or are there important differences?

In Milgram's work, authority was represented by a "scientist" figure. Who or what represents authority in this instance?

Does this "game show" tell us more about the power of individuals in positions of authority (Milgram's primary focus) or the power of institutions as a whole to mould our behaviour?

Do you think the reported "Nazi comparisons" could be justified? Is it OK for "lay people" to make such comparisons on the basis of this "game show" but not OK for a professional psychologist like Stanley Milgram to make similar comparisons?

If Milgram's findings on human behaviour are valid, what should be done in order to avoid the negative consequences that seem to stem from them? Are we drawn to the conclusion that society must somehow be "engineered" in ways that prevent certain circumstances from arising?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

weekend presentations

Dear TOK presenters,

You will get some further feedback on Friday concerning the presentations that you gave during the TOK weekend. This will include the scores awarded by the TOK teachers. You may notice some discrepancy between your self-evaluation and the judgements of the teachers. There may be a number of reasons for this.

First of all, this was your first “real” experience of giving a TOK presentation (the micro-presentations in November aside), and so it might well be a little difficult to know the standard expected for the highest levels of the criteria and grade descriptors. Thus the scores given by the teachers will be useful in providing a realistic benchmark in this regard.

Secondly, perhaps we don’t do enough student self-evaluation in the school, and therefore the task was not a particularly familiar one. The purpose is not to offer a high score in the hope of influencing the teacher!

Thirdly, we need to focus on the content of the presentations itself. We already gave you some important feedback at the end of the weekend, but I’ll summarize some of it here.

As an IB student, keep your eyes and ears open. You need to be observant and open to what is going on around you locally and in the wider world. If you do that, it becomes much easier to identify promising real-life situations for TOK presentations, not to mention examples for essays, articles for economics portfolios, research topics for extended essay and so on.

Use your real-life situation as the backdrop for your presentation. If you introduce it and then drop it like a stone, it suggests that it was just an excuse for your presentation and you haven’t thought it through, seen how it can support or illustrate the points you want to make at the “TOK level” in the diagram you were given.

Don’t replace your situation with an endless stream of unrelated examples. The result here is too much breadth and not enough depth – a “butterfly approach” that gives the impression that you hope that at least one of the examples will hit home. It is up to you to choose wisely your central real-life situation. You need to commit.

Remember that your presentation is supposed to analyze, not merely describe. Make sure you have thought through the implications of the points you raise. Consider alternatives, but make a stand for your own conclusion, even if you think it is partial or tentative or you might change your mind later. Show how we can make progress in our thinking even if we can't be totally sure about everything.

A real-life situation or a knowledge issue doesn’t need to be about something weird. TOK is not supposed to be about crazy things; it is a method of conducting enquiry into issues that matter in the world by trying to expose their roots. Often these roots are tough and knotted but we need to examine them if we are really to understand how knowledge works in the world. Review the “understanding knowledge issues” document for more on this.

Prepare well. Know the material. If you do, there will be no need to read to your audience. Reading from a script suggests that you haven’t done enough work to be confident about what you are presenting. Think about alternative ways of presenting your material.

Start your presentation slowly. Give your audience time to understand what is to come. Don’t rattle off your knowledge issue and real-life situation in about 7 seconds and leave everyone scratching their heads and trying to remember what you just said the whole point of the presentation was about.

I hope that these comments will help to explain some of the weaknesses that can be eliminated for next time. Your contributions to class, to follow-up discussion at the end of presentations – and particularly the very high quality of many contributions to this blog – indicate that you are capable of performing at the highest level in this course, so let’s continue on that journey up the mountain.

Monday, March 1, 2010

"the island"

Dear Everyone,

I hope you are settling back into the school routine after such a busy weekend. We all hope that you found a satisfactory combination of work and enjoyment (and the intersection between).

Let us turn to our Saturday afternoon activity (before the storm). In effect, we had 5 "worldviews" interacting - liberal, religious conservative, capitalist, xenophobe and eco-pantheist! These might have been caricatures of more nuanced positions, but I think the principle is valid and leads us to the following questions:

Despite our differences as humans, are there some core values that we can all accept? Many of you expressed your response to the activity as a set of rules, but those rules surely arise out of underlying values. What were some of those values on which you think we can all agree?

How difficult was it to identify these common values, and what are the implications of your answer to this question? If it was extremely difficult, does this mean that our efforts in the modern world to create functioning multicultural societies are doomed? Is all this "international-mindedness" a grave error, an impossible dream? Or is there some way of nudging people towards acceptable compromise - perhaps through legal or political means?

What would be the consequences of believing that our sense of morality arises from abstract principles such as fairness and the avoidance of harm, or from an external authority such as a god, or perhaps from our feelings and conscience? How did these alternatives affect your group's work?

Let's explore the issues here and see where they lead...

Sunday, February 14, 2010

coming of age in drongaland

Here is a new question of the week. It does not close down the last one - please continue to contribute there as well.

Consider the following research question:

"What is the nature of the rites of passage associated with adolescence among the people of Drongaland?"

In order to reach the truth about this topic, would it be better if the investigator came from Drongaland or from somewhere else? Why?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

the humans sciences: poor relations in the family of knowledge?

Dear All,

We are reviving the item on this blog called "question of the week". Here is this week's question:

"When comparing areas of knowledge, it is clear that the human sciences are the poor relations of the natural sciences. They struggle to apply the scientific method, and fail to produce reliable theories or laws." Do you agree with this?

We expect everyone to contribute to this discussion over the next 7 days. Remember that your contributions to this blog are factored into the semester assessment, and that these discussions are a rich source of material for your own thinking and other assignments.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


Hello everyone - wishing you a very prosperous digital new year!

It's been a while since we enjoyed the quite sophisticated blog exchanges that took place toward the end of last semester. I intend to draw on the combined wisdom to be found there and write some comments that I hope will generate some further discussion on those topics and beyond, but, for now, here is something else.

The following link will take you to a book review, of sorts:

Please read the piece and see if you can make some connections to our TOK discussions - both recent and older. Think about some of the concepts we have covered.

The most important question is - what can we learn about the nature of the natural sciences from this story?

Hope to see some discussion emerging...