Beasts, whirligigs, and raindrops: engineering, art, and the play of the imagination

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On this fine day in May, most Theory of Knowledge students in the northern hemisphere are surely preoccupied with only a certain aspect of knowledge: how well to demonstrate it, in relevant forms, on examinations. So today let me suggest that tired students deserve to be invited away from exam stress through their senses and imaginations, and through a gentle form of TOK reflection.

I’d give them no taxing questions, but instead the chance simply to watch and respond to Theo Jansen’s Sandbeasts:

There are some easy follow-up questions as students respond to what they’ve seen:

  • What ways of knowing are involved in a response to the “sandbeasts”?
  • What areas of knowledge come together to create these splendid “beasts” that move with the wind?

After a bit of conversation, I’d show them more images, some kinetic sculptures by Anthony Howe:

And then I’d move on to “Kinetic Rain” in Changi airport in Singapore:

Follow-up questions? You’ll probably want to ask something along the line of these:

  • In these kinetic sculptures, how would you describe the roles of the applied sciences and the arts, and their interaction?  What does each contribute?
  • How does the imagination act as a way of knowing in both the creation and the response to Jansen’s Sandbeasts, Anthony Howe’s wind sculptures or the airport’s intricate play of raindrops.
  • Which works do you like? Why?

At this point in the year you can probably drop the questions casually, allow students to take pleasure in the refreshment that these art forms bring, and sit back for some easy conversation. The examination hall has been treating knowledge as something students must articulate and demonstrate, under pressure of time. But perhaps knowledge does not always need an analytical focus and careful wording, much as we prize these characteristics.  Today, exam-stressed students might enjoy a TOK class that emphasizes just relaxed response and gentle reflection.