A TOK class for exam month: mathematics, nature, art, technology…and peaceful contemplation of beauty

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May in the northern hemisphere.  The return of long daylight.  But also IB exams. Tired students. Tired teachers. Time to take a class into the calm and beauty of pattern, with gentle TOK reflection on the deep intersections of mathematics, nature, art and technology. This year, my favourite vehicle is the animated sculpture of John Edmark, especially with the video “Creating the Never-Ending Bloom” in which the designer is commenting on his work.

Edmark, who lectures in engineering at Stanford, stresses the intersection of mathematics and the world:

“If change is the only constant in nature, it is written in the language of geometry.

“Much of my work celebrates the patterns underlying space and growth. Through kinetic sculptures and transformable objects, I strive to give viewers access to the surprising structures hidden within apparently amorphous space.

“While art is often a vehicle for fantasy, my work is an invitation to plunge deeper into our own world and discover just how astonishing it can be. In experiencing a surprising behavior, one’s sense of wonder and delight is increased by the recognition that it is occurring within the context of actual physical constraints. The works can be thought of as instruments that amplify our awareness of the sometimes tenuous relationship between facts and perception.”

At this point in the year, such a video serves to bring together many of the threads probably already discussed in Theory of Knowledge – for instance, mathematics and the world, mathematical proportions and beauty, or the role of technology in knowledge. Looking back on the year, it could also stir reflection on TOK areas of knowledge and the merits and drawbacks of compartmentalizing knowledge.

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve argued for a class of peaceful contemplation during exams. The videos I suggested in 2016 are still available and, to my mind, still as effective for what we can achieve with northern hemisphere students mid-May: “Beasts, whirligigs, and raindrops: engineering, art, and the play of the imagination”.

You’ll see that I’ve roughly made this argument before – that TOK need not stress articulate analysis every minute, much as we value it. There are moments when a point is better made by not talking.  A connection may not be teased apart or debriefed without such commentary, but its application to the world may sink more gently and pleasantly into a weary mind.

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