Tag Archives: TOK

On Trump: TOK and his ban…

A short activity for ToK students.  We do not offer full ToK at school – we are not an IB school- but I teach an additional studies session of ToK on a Monday. I like to mix my more hypothetical discussions with the sort of ‘real life’material which would form the basis for a presentation.

Trump’s recent ban on immigration from some Muslim countries is such an opportunity.



A lively debate ensued.


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ToK A brief introduction…

I am very pleased to be teaching ToK (Theory of Knowledge) again next term, albeit as part of a 6th form enrichment programme rather than as a fully fledged IBDP ToK course…  Here is an idea for the 5 lesson introduction…

tok intro lessons

Much of my older material can be found here and I will be delivering a 6 lesson follow-up focused on ToK of the Arts later in the year.

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Paris : Friday 13th November 2015. How can we know what to feel? A ToK stimulus by any other name…

A couple of hours ago I read a tweet from a twitter-colleague Emma Kell (@thosethatcan).  It read “When there was unprecedented horror in France in January, I was full of energised response for my students. This time, I’m all out of words.”  All Morning I had been trying to mark Year 10 essays about Much Ado and found myself staring out at the rain and thinking about Paris and the terrible events unfolding there last night.  Again and again my mind wandered and I found myself close to tears on numerous occasions.

If we return to school and cannot discuss such atrocities with the students, we let them down.  This is not about British Values, or some other such nonsense peddled by the Thought Police at the DofE, this is about being human and interpreting our emotions when faced by the unimaginable,

I suppose this is the assembly I shall never deliver, or the TOK lesson I wish I was due to teach.

Please:  if you do not want to explore the atrocities carried out in the name of religion last night, do not read this piece.  It is personal and does not in any way reflect opinions of any organisation I represent.  However, I needed to write it, to help me to clarify my own thoughts.

At the time of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January and in 2012, I wrote this piece for my ToK students: Charlie Hebdo   I felt able to articulate comment  at the time in a way that leaves me now.  I believe it comes down to what the IBDP ToK programme might refer to as the Ways of Knowing.  In short, knowledge is transmitted and assimilated in four ways:  Language, Perception, Reason and Emotion.  Has Language ceased to be a useful medium for knowledge in these cases?

If we look at today’s papers, the language is all rather predictable.  Not just cliche ridden, but lacking in any ability to convey the real horror of events.  “Carnage”, “Chaos”, “Tragedy”, “Massacre” are simply not enough.  Nor can we deal with the perpetrators.  To some they are “scum” – a catch-all term used so widely these days it has no meaning at all, apart from to those left-wing twitter trolls who cannot refer to anyone of the Right without the label Tory-Scum attached.  This easy familiarity has robbed the word of any power.  To others: “terrorists”.  But, to call these people “terrorists”, though accurate, lacks emotion and the idea that a terrorist is to some a “freedom fighter” simply muddies the water when this word is deployed.  What they are is “murderers”.  A simple word, but again one that does not convey the enormity of the crimes committed against innocent souls last night.  We seem to have run out of Language, as Emma was suggesting in her Tweet.

Our perception of events last night is coloured by all sorts of things:  what were we doing when we heard and what was our frame of mind at the time? Which news channels do we watch, and with what language did we gain our knowledge of events?  What sort of response was our social media timeline providing? How old are we and what other events can we recall with which to interpret the events in Paris?  I am 52.  I was a student in London in the early 80s and recall IRA atrocities aplenty, both in London and in in Warrington and Omagh.  I recall vividly the events of 9/11 and 7/7, so have a strong field of reference.  Beyond this I am stuck, however.  My perception of the perpetrators and their warped sense of moral rectitude is one of utter evil, but beyond that, I can perceive no detail to help me to come to a clearer understanding of events.  I suppose that like many, I have a vague notion of a bearded warrior somehow sweeping along the Champs Elysee much as he had done in Iran or Syria.  This is clearly wrong, and one of the troubling niggles here is that witnesses have described men dressed in a quasi-paramilitary manner carrying guns.  Let’s face it, we see that in London regularly.  No one looks twice, we lower our heads and move swiftly on – it simply does not attract notice.

But I am clearly troubled emotionally, and so are many of my colleagues and friends if Twitter and Facebook are anything to go by.  We are left with Plato’s chariots of reason and emotion being pulled in opposite directions by the respective teams of horses.  What we cannot obtain is a cathartic response to rebalance the system.

The emotional response is staggering.  If emotion is to be the only route to knowledge, it is certainly readily implanted.  This morning’s social media posts were dominated by pictures of Paris with cursive script encouraging us to “pray for Paris”.  Curiously we were asked to pray for a city, not the families and loved ones of the victims, nor for the innocents touched by such scenes that their sleep will be troubled for days and weeks, nor for perpetrators in a sense of granting Christian forgiveness.  No.  This was a convenient application of emotional thinking – utterly well intentioned but ultimately a sloughing off of any responsibility to actually engage with the issue.  We pray, and then go about our daily business, the emotional crutch has done its job. It is so glib and so convenient.  It is also somewhat ironic that we were being asked to pray, since one of the many Gods to whom the average social network might pray must actually have been in some way responsible for the atrocity, if only by a failure of duty of care for his followers.  No, this does not wash with me.  I am sorry and I apologise if I offend, but the emotional fall-back of God, simply is not enough.  We are the ones on the planet who can change behaviours and who have to work out our route to salvation on a personal level in the light of such events.

My emotional level, curiously, improved when I listened to a recording of Beethoven 9.  The marking was long forgotten.  There is something tragic and uplifting about the Ninth symphony.  During the 3rd movement I began to feel emotion which was actually beneficial – to recognise the beauty of the little string filigree which accompanies the slow melody began to me me smile and stop living in a state of semi-fret all morning.  In the last movement in the setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy, the Bass soloist interrupts and angry and grumbling orchestra with these words:

O Freunde, nicht diese Toene!
Sondern lasst uns angenehmere anstimmen und freundenvollere!
O friends! Not these sounds!
But let us strike up more pleasant sounds and more joyful!

Before launching into the well known tune – the European anthem no less!  With the message that “alle Menschen werden brueder” we are begged to remember that we are all human, regardless of divisions artificially imposed by governments or religious doctrine and this must be our foremost emotional response  – to seek to join  and not to segregate.  Funny how it can take an external stimulus to do this  –  to speak to our emotions and possibly carry the truth of an emotional response.  In my career as a singer, I sang these words many times, but they never had the resonance they carried today as I listened.  Cometh the hour…  (if you are interested in my thoughts on music by the way, try this post: on music ToK ).

So, having begun to channel my emotions, we come to the rational approach.  Far too cold for social media, but much needed all the same.  Voltaire’s Pangloss would have rationalised an explanation for such an act in his “best of all possible worlds” and in today’s world we can all begin to piece together a rational response.  Ideas begin to form and then float away, to return later and coalesce in order to allow us to leave our houses without irrational fear: 120 deaths (it may be more) in a city of 2.244 million (2010) is a pinprick; such events do not occur  with regularity and there is more chance of being struck by lightning or even wining the lottery than of being caught up in such  an event (thank you Adam Hills at @thelastleg); in the USA in 2014 there were 51.753 shooting incidents, resulting in 12.568 deaths (http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/tolls/2014 ).

All in all, the reasoning approach which emerges eventually allows us to respond in such a way that we can continue to live our lives and interract fully with our friends and colleagues.  It takes much longer to emerge, the more closely you are caught up in the event, of course.  And we should not discard emotion at all, because we must respond on that level – that is our humanity.  It is also what scares us about the murderers we see in the you tube clips and on the news – gunmen, suicide bombers and cowardly, black hooded executioners beheading innocents – why do they not have emotion?  This is the terrifying question and the one which should bring us up short.  Of course (?) it is better if a terrorist is brought to face justice in a court of law rather than being vapourised in a drone attack, but then again if the man in question has so lost touch with his innate humanity how can we expect any remorse or recognition of “wrongdoing”?

Uncertainty is part of the Human Condition, and we must cope with it on our own ways.  That’s what makes life worth living in so many ways.  The trouble is that when the ways of knowledge begin to fail us, the uncertainty can be unbearable,  We should always try to step back and allow room for our thought processes to coalesce.  Life is not perfect and it never will be.  At times, it is simply too painful and complicated for our brains to process.  That’s Life.


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TOK stimulus for presentation: The language of Government.

The TOK of the Government proclamation:

• Ofsted chief: ‘teachers don’t know what stress is’

• “The examination system that we have has got to be ruthless and stretching all pupils,”
• has said he intends to ditch the term “satisfactory” to describe schools and replace it with “requires improvement”.
• Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, told The Times that inspectors would mark down schools that gave pay increases to teachers who were “out the gate at 3 o’clock”. He said he expected teachers to stay beyond the end of the school day to “go the extra mile” for children, especially when working in poor communities.
• He also said that teachers unwilling to act as surrogate parents in poor areas to pupils who lacked support at home did not deserve a salary increase.
• He said: “We just have to accept the reality of that. If you are going to go and work in these areas, there has to be a commitment to working beyond the end of the school day. That’s why I asked those questions about performance management. It’s about recognising those people who do go the extra mile.”
• And Mr Cameron said there would be “no more excuses for failure in schools, no more soft exams and soft discipline”.
The quotations that open this document are taken from national press coverage of issues concerning Education over the last six months. They are, naturally, taken out of context and are not intended to be another teacher-rant at the unfairness of criticism aimed at our profession. This is intended as a TOK presentation stimulus.
It should be stressed that the intentions of OFSTED and the Government are in many ways laudable. It is obvious that all industries perform better when staff are “going the extra mile” or are staffed by employees who want the best for their “stakeholders” and are prepared to fight to achieve this. I have no intention of gainsaying the idea that exams should be rigorous, standards of behaviour should be high and commitment to the job should be strong.
So, what is the effect of the language used in communication here?
Some years ago, the finest TOK presentation I have known looked at the language of mark schemes and made much of the somewhat fluid meaning of “satisfactory”. It is interesting that this word has once again been singled out for attention by Mr Wilshaw. Consider his comment. It is generally known that “satisfactory” implies a sense of being good enough, but his comment seems to demand a change of perspective. Satisfactory is the third grade of rating under OFSTED – Outstanding, Good, and Satisfactory. Here there is no doubt that Mr. Wilshaw is ridding the word of any sense of being good enough, and seeking to attain improvement. Laudable in the extreme, but possibly disconcerting in a world where a perceived negative can end a career. Still, this one seems sensible and begins to remove the potential for misunderstanding so inherent in the idea of satisfactory.
Possibly more concerning is the idea of a “ruthless” examination system, especially when linked to the Prime Minister’s pronouncement about “soft” exams. What message is this sending to those of lower abilities? Are we really striving to ensure that they have no chance of attaining examination success? Obviously not, one hopes, but the wording suggests otherwise and here begins a litany of similarly Draconian pronouncements.
The language used of the education system in this country is relentlessly negative at present. What does this do to the perception of the industry? What do parents and teachers –with slightly different emotional positions – perceive to be the state of teaching in this country?
Mr Wilshaw has said that his 3 O’clock comment was taken out of context, but it is hard to see how the idea of “going the extra mile” or “pulling one’s weight” might be misconstrued. How are teachers meant to respond? The vast majority arrive an hour or so before the school day and leave some time after the bell, to continue to work later in the evening. Despite this they are being attacked () so they think) and labelled as not working hard enough – no discussion and no room for debate. Many parents may well have a view of teachers based on a perception of long summer holidays which seems attuned to that of Mr Wilshaw, but surely the problem is that the same point could be made about any industry in the county – form Council Office Workers to Merchant Bankers. What is the effect of singling out teachers in this fashion and why is it being done?
Not only that, but consider this: you are a parent of a thirteen year old just entering KS4. The much vaunted new exams will not arrive in time to save your son. Instead he is faced with a system that the government are fond of saying is unfit for purpose and driven by a “race to the bottom” in terms of exams. What faith have you got left in the system to support your son? In this case, what is the effect, with regards perception, of the rhetoric around examinations this summer? Even if you agree that GCSEs leave a lot to be desired, is the constant negativity helpful?
All of the quotations above can be explored and considered in the light of Perception and Emotion of the response to the language used. There is scope for an interesting presentation here. Are teachers too open to emotional responses? Is OFSTED so rational in approach that it has no concept of the perception of its language?
Go on, go the extra mile!


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Is there TOK in the torch?

A friend of mine is quite exercised by the fact that the original idea for a torch relay belonged to Adolf Hitler. He is tweeting about this and, as I watched it arrive in my home town this morning, I wondered if there was TOK mileage here.
It certainly seems to be a real life event and has been happening for weeks.
When you think about it, it’s odd. People are pouring onto the streets in their thousands and cheering, in our case, a balding, middle-aged bloke jogging past with a heavy cigarette lighter in his outstretched arm. I held one recently, these things are heavy and a much better piece of kit than they look at first glance.
There is a strange power at work. Until one appeared in the staff room at school (the bearer needed a pee after showing it to students), I had not entertained the idea of watching the relay in any form. This morning I dragged no2 son from bed and cycled into town. Olympic frenzy?
Certainly there is emotion at work. In the crowd I heard people ticking off colleagues or friends on the wrong end of the phone for lacking patriotism. Presumably being unwilling to turn out to watch the flame will lead swiftly to selling secrets and passing messages to the enemy. But why this patriotic fervour? Are we so excited to be hosting the Olympics that everything that comes into contact with the event causes us to stand and cheer or wave flags (£2.00) at a complete unknown as he jogs past?
The perception of the event is coloured by language and the arts and the torchbearer was preceded by several buses with pumping music and loud messages in excited tones telling us what a good time we were having. The music carried no hidden messages warning us to guard against hubris or minor key moments to enable us to reflect on the fact that once the games are gone we will be left with a Eurozone in carnage and a country locked in recession. No, this was fun all the way and people left their cares behind and smiled at their neighbours. Surely a good thing.
So Hitler lit a flame of nationalist zeal that ended in invasion of Europe and millions of dead. In 2012 I experienced a very English event (people were having their photos taken with Morris dancers…) and my frenzy was assuaged by buying two GBR kagoules in Blacks.

Run with this TOKKISTS and make of it what you will.

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This video has intrigued me and it will turn up in next term’s TOK teaching somewhere. Recently students were variously intrigued and bemused by Creed’s Turner Prize winning light installation, and now I will give them this to chew on. TOK asks what art is for and how we might judge art in general. Leaving Kantian aesthetics aside and putting the Daily Mail stereotype of “no paintbrushes” firmly back in the box, they need to look at this and consider whether it is art and if so, how they know this.
All I will say is that many I hade shown the video too are amused once the initial shock is past. They laugh and emotional response is produced. They smile and then, hopefully, respond in someway to the uninhibited pleasure that the dancers convey. Possibly this is, indeed, life affirming even if surprising.
I tweeted the link and the reply from Richard van de Lagemaat was this couplet from Burnt Norton: “Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind/ Cannot bear very much reality.”
I think this where the lesson should begin. Is there a limit to the mimetic quality of art?

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TOK lesson resources

These are some of my TOK lesson PowerPoints – others are on the site already. The poetry creation comes from material used in my training by the IBO in Bratislava in 2005
poetry composition
TOK arts intro
tok intro
theories of art

– I wonder if anyone reading this was there?


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TOK presentation ideas: The Voice vs X Factor

I thought I’d repost this as an homage to the WJEC English language exam sat yesterday by my Y11s…

Students might be surprised to read that my focus here would not be art or judging art, but rather the power of language to raise the tone of the programme. In fact, I am interested in the power of language, and specifically in the term “coaches” rather than the term “judges” so favoured by the Cowell models.

This might seem to be small beer, but it isn’t. Consider the emotional response to the title “judge”. we see an elderly, be-wigged, authority figure dispensing impartial justice with a mind closed to emotional response and focused clearly on reason. Such a title was presumably chosen to confer an air of omniscience and authority on the motley crew who sit in front of the aspiring superstars and dispense “justice” in the form of banal platitudes to magnify performances that rarely step beyond the ordinary when judged against the music profession as a whole – yes, they are a step above the karaoke club circuit, but the programme demands that they be judged against artists of long experience and undoubted talent. Our “judges” dispense justice with an emotional fog – imagine the Old Bailey being full of the ” this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do…” responses which belies the point of the title in the first place.

Of course, the reason is that they aren’t judges at all. They are, as the BBC has discovered, “coaches”. At one twist of the lexicon, the BBC has produced a group of stars who seem to be acting out of altruistic motives – who want little more than to provide assistance and guidance, before regretfully dispensing of the team member who seemed least engaging to an emotion driven and highly partisan audience vote. The illusion was wonderfully maintained throughout the “blind auditions” – if it’s good enough for top orchestras like the VPO, why not here?- before they were given the chance to jettison the least photogenic or least obviously engaging members of their team. Now they have five team members to “coach”. I have no idea how much actual “coaching” they do – two invisible vocal coaches are listed in the credits – but they seem such wonderfully “nice” people, and so committed to their charges. They even praise each others’ team members. Suddenly this is not a competition where judgement is passed on the weakest links, but has become a sort of postgraduate performing arts college where students are encouraged to deliver of their best.

Such positivity in a single word!

Enjoy your ToK!

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Clarkson as real life situation: TOK presentation

What is your perception of Jeremy Clarkson? Is he an anarchic TV personality who should be applauded for his outspoken honesty or is he a tool of the privately educated capitalist bigots who should themselves be locked up for fomenting hatred? Or is he a man who on TV made a joke which due to its hyperbolic nature and his inability to shut up when ahead has led to his vilification in the press and a sharp rise in book sales?
Certainly his humour was not well considered and I suggest you look at my Charlie Hebdo post for more in this context. But, legal action? It seems the lawyers has a similar response judging from the inability of the unionista I heard on PM, who was not going to answer the question about precise legal advice,no matter how often it was asked.
But: TOK. The language was designed to irritate and it succeeded. One complainant to the Guardian is certain that he was serious. How? Is ad hominem so accurate that it can detect nuance of delivery? Satire is a tricky thing. Would 2100 souls complain over a similar outburst by a left wing
Comedian poking fun at the aristocracy? Probably not. The huge majority of complaints have arrived after a day of largely hostile and context-free news coverage. Is Clarkson really this offensive?
Consider the use of comedy in puncturing the grandeur and hypocrisy of governments and politicos of all parties. I comment elsewhere that dictators fear music because the emotional response can not be predicted or controlled. It seems that the commissars are equally affected of comedy. Thanks to the intemperate response to a feeble and possibly offensive joke, the result is a huge wave of publicity which is unlikely to work against Clarkson. Was it all orchestrated by his publicists?

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Charlie Hebdo, fear and fundamentalism- a TOK Presentation in waiting.

Some time ago, I wrote a piece discussing the irrational fear of music felt by totalitarian leaders and suggested a TOK approach. https://jwpblog.wordpress.com/2010/08/26/why-are-we-afraid-of-music-tok-thoughts/  On the train this morning I read that the offices of the satirical magazine CHARLIE HEBDO have been firebombed and destroyed by a group responding to the promise that the edition was to be edited by the Prophet. As usual, there were to be cartoons and writing that sought to satirise one particular religion – Islam. Not in good taste and not particularly funny either.
So why the response? Humour has always sought to puncture hypocrisy and draw attention to idiocy, from the time of Aristophanes. In this country Private Eye is regularly involved in exposing and debunking and is often in court as a result. Private citizens will often seek to repair damage to their public image in this way.
Why should religious belief allow the imposition of one will on another? No individual is under attack here yet the response seems as disproportionate as that of the medieval inquisition when faced by a scurrilous heretic.
As TOKKISTS you need to consider the basis of knowledge working here. Much is based on perception and much on an emotional response. Reason is absent on both sides and the magazine will no doubt gather strength as a result. Many will read it who did not even know of its existence prior to the attack.
Consider other recent cases from the Danish cartoons to Monty Python and all the way back through the satirists such as Swift or the truth tellers such as Solzhenitsin or Grossman.
Why do totalitarian regimes so fear words? You tell me!

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