TOK double vision: lofty overview but critical engagement in the world

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Remote or engaged? Can Theory of Knowledge have it both ways? In taking a meta-cognitive overview of knowledge, the course may appear to be cerebral and remote. But in teaching skills of thinking critically and evaluating perspectives, it is clearly engaged in life on the ground. How do we manage in TOK to maintain this double vision?

As an experienced teacher and blogger soon to retire, I’m writing today primarily to new TOK teachers, to offer some central ideas on our course before I go. Other experienced teachers who are also committed to applying the thinking skills of TOK to the world may have ideas of their own to add.

A false distinction?

Does TOK really develop a “double vision”? It’s possible to argue that I’m just creating a false distinction in this question. After all, even an aerial survey of knowledge has implications for life on the ground in the form of issues of local and global significance.

Indeed, our very classification of knowledge, which in TOK we can treat as an issue for debate, can take on a social and political edge. If I ask whether religious knowledge, one of our TOK areas of knowledge, is properly categorized as “knowledge”, I can be considering concepts and definitions of “belief” and “knowledge”. Yet in some contexts, even asking such a question could provoke outrage and anger. Similarly, our TOK background assumption that pursuing knowledge is valuable could be treated as subversive.

Moreover, when the knowledge sought has evident implications for politics or power, it would be hard to separate the intellectual pursuit from the real world impacts: this month we’ve seen two economists lauded with a Nobel prize for designing “methods for addressing some of our time’s most basic and pressing questions about how we create long-term sustained and sustainable economic growth”, while a journalist was found murdered in the EU, the third this year killed while investigating corruption.

All things considered, I have to acknowledge that even issues of lofty overview, such knowledge classifications and the value of gaining knowledge, have resonance on the ground! I don’t want to exaggerate or over-simplify the difference between detached overview and real world grounding or suggest that they’re separable. Indeed, it seems to me that it’s the tension between them, and their interaction, that gives TOK much of its thrust.

TOK Double Vision

Certainly, we teachers benefit from holding this double vision of both aerial overview and grounded reality as we prepare our classes. In fact, the central inquiry of our course – the knowledge questions that we pose – prompt an interaction between the generalized view (How do we know?) and the somewhat more particularized view (How do we know that particular thing?). Our challenge is to aim for the large concepts and transferable skills even while we’re focusing in closer detail on the methods of specific areas of knowledge or the everyday flow of knowledge claims through life in the world.

TOK’s own course aims fit nicely in this regard into the general aims of the International Baccalaureate. The IB learner profile’s explanation of being “knowledgeable” conveys much of that blend of large understanding, but at the same time, the critical application: “We develop and use conceptual understanding, exploring knowledge across a range of disciplines. We engage with issues and ideas that have local and global significance.” It adds that, as “thinkers”, “We use critical and creative thinking skills to analyse and take responsible action on complex problems.”

Before I leave TOK, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on holding the balance between the lofty overview and the grounded reality. I offer four main suggestions on teaching a version of Theory of Knowledge which is engaged with the world, while always maintaining the double vision:

  1. Choose examples from real life situations with close attention to the tactic of “exemplifying”.
  2. Deal significantly with perspectives.
  3. Stress awareness and skills of critical thinking as the connection between ways of knowing and the methodologies of areas of knowledge.
  4. If you deal directly with current public debates, stress the transferable skills.

If you have other ways of thinking of this “double vision” or other ways of achieving it, I welcome your comments on the ideas I share here.

1.Choose examples from real life situations with close attention to the tactic of “exemplifying”.

We want to emphasize concepts in TOK – to consider what flows from adopting particular definitions, for instance, and to consider conceptual complexities, implications, and applications. One of the best ways to clarify a concept, of course, is to illustrate it with an example or two, and in the process maintain that TOK balance between the general overview and the particular application.

Ultimately, the example doesn’t matter in itself, but the tactic of exemplifying does give us plenty of opportunity to select examples that contribute further to student education in accordance with IB values. Here, I’ll draw on a ready source, this blog – with some delight in playing meta-reference – to give examples of giving such examples.

a. Choose examples that challenge prejudices in ways human beings are often categorized

Almost all the TOK ways of knowing converge in examining the way we categorize the world, with the pre-rational intuitions of confirmation bias influencing sense perception, memory, emotion, language and other TOK ways of knowing. How we classify is central to our course – central to the relationship between concepts and language, the interaction between the general and the particular, and the whole issue of bias. We have a world of examples from which to draw!

Every subject has its classifications that illustrate the interplay of the general and the particular – such as classifications of bacteria, atoms, stars, literary forms, periods of history, components of the human mind, or (in TOK) ways of knowing and areas of knowledge.

It seems to me that we’d waste an educational opportunity, though, if we didn’t also tackle socially relevant categorizations of race, gender, (dis)ability, class, or nationality, to name just a few – even though in TOK we’re not discussing these topics for their own sake but for the concepts they illustrate. I’ll pick out a few here:

Race/ethnic group


Neurodiversity and (dis)ability


b. Choose examples from different parts of the world.

Although there is a lot of value in choosing local examples instantly relevant to our students’ lives, there are parts of the course where we can readily expand their often-limited horizons. I’ll pick out a couple of posts on history which, I think, catch the controversies of the discipline better by doing some country-hopping. I’ll also pick out one on the arts, which are much better treated in TOK when given international breadth rather than a narrowly contemporary European focus!

c. Choose examples that imply values.

Some examples give a broader education as a side effect, buried in an indirect way simply in the stories that they use. I’ll pick out two that use my husband Theo’s cartoons with a narrative element relevant to current issues in the media.

  • “’Those experts!’: cartoon, class discussion activity”. December 4, 2017. The discussion questions that accompany the cartoon are open ones, but the cartoon story itself mocks those who willfully and arrogantly reject knowledge. Which side are we on – knowledge or ignorance?
  • “Biases, fallacies, argument: ‘Would you argue with a T-rex?” April 9, 2018. Clearly, the point of this exercise is to ask students to identify cognitive biases and logical fallacies, with a little story about dinosaurs on two islands simply providing material. However, as I comment in the accompanying analysis, there’s an ethical dimension about compassion and obligation to others that could be raised – or, as I prefer, just left implicit.

2. Deal significantly with perspectives.

If there is any one thing I hope I’ve contributed to Theory of Knowledge through my book and my blog, it’s a more analytical understanding of perspectives than I’ve seen prevalent elsewhere in TOK. I fully embrace these aims of our TOK course, that we should encourage our students to:

  • “develop an awareness of how knowledge is constructed, critically examined, evaluated and renewed, by communities and individuals
  • encourage an interest in the diversity of ways of thinking and ways of living of individuals and communities, and an awareness of personal and ideological assumptions, including participants’ own”

I’ve also been influenced by ideas from conflict resolution – particularly the encouragement to examine and try to understand what lies behind other points of view.

Again and again, I’ve put forth the view that “perspectives” are more than simply opinions – that the concept of perspectives is a larger one, and that it holds together:

  • Assumptions
  • Values
  • Selected information and knowledge claims
  • Accepted processes of validating knowledge claims (often involving the judgment of groups with status among those who hold the perspective)
  • Implications of accepting the perspective, in terms of further thought and action

In our academic areas of knowledge, I consider scientific theories or dominant historical interpretations, for instance, to be the perspectives of the field. In religious and indigenous knowledge, I consider the religion or the cultural worldview to provide the perspective. Similarly, I see political and economic points of view as held within a perspective that involves a whole body of beliefs. To me, a “perspective” is much more than a random opinion, since even seemly independent opinions so often emerge from a package of beliefs.

To me, it seems that TOK is ideally placed to examine how perspectives work to shape knowledge and, in the process, encourage our students to be “open-minded” in the terms of the IB learner profile:

“They understand and appreciate their own cultures and personal histories, and are open to the perspectives, values and traditions of other individuals and communities. They are accustomed to seeking and evaluating a range of points of view, and are willing to grow from the experience.”

It’s hard to pick out any particular blog post to illustrate a whole approach – and my book would be handier here – but I’ll choose a few that I’ve written on Indigenous Knowledge:

3. Stress awareness and skills of critical thinking as the connection between ways of knowing and the methodologies of areas of knowledge.

Examining how we build knowledge is central to our course. The ways of knowing, examined with awareness and used critically, feed into the methodologies of the areas of knowledge. Conversely, as the practitioners of different disciplines encounter problems and refine their methodologies, they feed what they’ve learned back into general public understanding of critical thinking, as seen in the articles, blogs and podcasts of a community concerned with knowledge. Recognition of confirmation bias, for instance, has crossed academic and popular lines.

I won’t pick out individual blog posts here but instead recommend that you have a look at the structure of my Theory of Knowledge book: several chapters on ways of knowing are followed by inter-chapters that deal with using them consciously and critically. Even if you don’t have my book or want to structure classes in this way, it’s important to trace ways of knowing into their roles in the methodologies of the areas of knowledge. Doing so demands becoming aware and critical regarding the ways in which knowledge is constructed.

4. If you deal directly with current public debates, stress the transferable skills.

As I’ve been arguing, we teachers can make choices that serve the aims of Theory of Knowledge but at the same time support other broad educational goals of the International Baccalaureate. Indeed, some of the goals of the IB profile can scarcely be distinguished from the goals of our course: we are to encourage IB student to develop “conceptual understanding and “critical and creative thinking skills.” But how directly should we, in our TOK classrooms, “engage with issues and ideas that have local and global significance”?

When we directly treat public issues and debates, we get the advantage in class of demonstrating the relevance of the skills we’re teaching, and we also get the energy buzz of treating Hot Topics. As we give our students practice in applying their skills to knowledge claims and perspectives in the media and politics, social controversy can feed our course, even as our course illuminates social controversy. This kind of engagement is potently appealing.

However, if we’re not careful, it can all go horribly wrong. The maelstrom of public opinion can whirl with such velocity that class discussions can get sucked down into the vortex! It can be difficult – and essential – to keep an emphasis on an analytical and not merely descriptive approach to perspectives. Moreover, we want to safeguard the quality of student communication and not import fractious confrontations into our class context!

To me, a huge test of the value of any class is offered by the question, “How much of this lesson is TRANSFERABLE?” Does it develop conceptual understanding in a way that will be relevant another time to a related topic? Does it develop thinking skills that are applicable to the next case, and the next, and the next? When considering public issues in TOK, we’re never out to deliver information. We’re always out to help students develop ways to evaluate information – and good lessons contribute to a cumulative effect.

I’ll pick out here just one incident on which I blogged a couple of years ago to illustrate what I mean by the transferable skills that emerge from giving a TOK treatment to a particular controversy, one with both local and global implications. Many other controversial situations can be treated similarly:

TOK and the media, double vision and transferable skills

Almost inevitably, Theory of Knowledge discussions on the knowledge claims that circulate in everyday life will lead, to some extent at least, into a critique of the media. But there, too, we have to keep our sights on the major overview knowledge questions as we apply our thinking to the day’s hot topics. We have to hang on to that TOK double vision!

Calling a report “fake news”, for instance, uses the buzz words of the present. But what we care about, as we skirt the partisan yelling, are larger questions such as these: “How does the definition we give to ‘fake news’ affect the way we think and talk about it?” OR “What are the characteristics of a reliable source of knowledge for news of the world?” OR “How do the cognitive biases of intuition affect what we accept as true in the media?”

If you care about media analysis – or rather, in TOK, about analysis of the flow of knowledge claims through the media! – you might find the following posts useful in nudging your own thoughts.


And whew! I didn’t mean to write so much on this topic. I care a lot about holding that double vision in TOK – the general knowledge question’s high level overview and the particular topic’s grounded relevance to gaining knowledge. I truly believe what I said earlier – that if we can get it right, we could be guiding our students toward conceptual understanding and transferable skills of critical thinking that will benefit them and others for the rest of their lives. We hope our students will be thoughtfully engaged participants in their social contexts of the future, making a positive contribution to wherever they find themselves in the world.

One thought on “TOK double vision: lofty overview but critical engagement in the world

  1. Mimi Bick says:

    Couldn’t agree more about teachers keeping their sites set on transferable skills and big concepts. There are different ways to articulate this, but you do a great job of showing what you mean in each and every one of your posts over these years.
    Thanks again for today’s blog and for your generous and insightful thinking.

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