Investigating PT2 – Change vs. Progress

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This is the second of six special TOK blog posts to directly assist students and teachers in appreciating vital nuances associated with each of the May 2021 Theory of Knowledge prescribed titles.  For each title, I will identify some initial key concepts and highlight some concrete approaches to address them before pointing subscribers to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal to specific TOK resources that are part of our IB-specific database that can concretely assist in the development of a strong TOK essay for that particular title.  

This piece discusses PT2: Within areas of knowledge, how can we differentiate between change and progress?  Answer with reference to two areas of knowledge.

Key Concepts:  

The first thing that came to mind when I read this title is a discussion of the objective/subjective distinction with respect to the quest for knowledge: Who’s to say (subjective) that, just because we are doing something differently than the way we did it before, we are now making genuine progress in our (objective) quest for knowledge? This sort of reasoning naturally leads us to consider related notions of validity, truth, and verification as we look to distinguish between “mere change” and “genuine progress”.

But while this is certainly an important component of this title, a little reflection makes it clear that this is not the only aspect that needs to be focused on, given that, in many (but not necessarily all) contexts, the notion of “progress” involves a meta-structural and even sometimes moral component to it. Let me try to clarify what I mean by that.  Perhaps I’m looking to establish whether or not specific changes made in the practice of psychology have, generally speaking, enabled the field to more generally “progress”. 

Or maybe I’m forced to assess the implications of a new economic framework that increased the average level of societal prosperity while conspicuously exacerbating the plight of the poor.   As these examples demonstrate, it’s important to take some time to explicitly distinguish between two quite different aspects of the notion of “progress” associated with any given change:

  1. Progress in terms of my level of certainty that the change in question can be interpreted as a bonafide, objective advancement in my knowledge. In what follows, I’ll call this “knowledge progress”. 
  1. Progress in terms of the extent by which some change—modifying our behaviour or implementing some new framework or idea, say—can be roughly regarded as, “the right approach”, and therefore justifiably give rise to a belief that the field in question is “making progress”.  In what follows, I’ll call this “domain progress”.

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Armed with this double-barrelled perspective, I can now set to work more specifically addressing matters by applying things to evaluate to what extent they apply, and in what ways, to different AOKs.

In what follows, I’ll detail my sense of the core issues involved with each of the eight AOKs, together with some associated Ideas Roadshow TOK resources that can concretely assist with appreciating the concepts at hand to assist our IBDP Portal subscribers. 


For mathematics, the first notion of progress (what I called “knowledge progress”) would lead me to assess the notions of mathematical proof and certainty (i.e. what constitutes a proof), the role of insight and intuition in the development of mathematical knowledge, and possibly even the extent to which evidence of mathematical concepts in the natural world serve as some sort of objective indication of their importance or relevance. Related Ideas Roadshow content includes: Predicting the Higgs, Mathematics and The Real World, Playing on a Train, Proof by Picture, Increased Elegance, Mathematical Naturalism and the TOK Sampler Mathematics.

Turning to “domain progress”, what we’re focused on here is how we might go about evaluating the impact of changes in the specific engagement of mathematical activity, from the reliance of the appropriateness of specific mathematical techniques and models in certain domains, to the merits of collaborative approaches to a new appreciation of what mathematical knowledge and reasoning actually is—perhaps by examining the extent to which other animals can engage in mathematical reasoning. Related Ideas Roadshow content appropriate to this category includes: Measured Desperation, Doing Mathematics, Mathematics and the Real World, Valuing the Details, Unlikely Mathematicians and Squandering Big Data? 

Natural Sciences:

In the natural sciences, investigations of “knowledge progress” would centre around to what extent we can be certain that a different perspective or framework enables us to attain (or perhaps obscure) a genuinely deeper understanding of an underlying reality.   A large selection of Ideas Roadshow resources apply here, as you might imagine, including: No Explanation, Galileo’s Gift, Distracted by Language, Beyond the Textbooks, Hunting Exoplanets, Our Internal Internet, Positive Emotions, Neuroplasticity and the TOK Sampler Natural Sciences.  

Meanwhile, investigations of “domain progress” would include evaluations of the impact of changes to how science is being done (What does it mean, exactly, for a scientific field to “progress”? What sort of changes might achieve this?), together with the potential moral implications of specific scientific advancements.   Related Ideas Roadshow content includes: Too Much String, The Perils of Fashion, Suddenly Fashionable, Physics and Gender and Women in Science

Human Sciences:

In the human sciences, there is often a significant internal overlap between knowledge and domain progress. In Making Better Decisions, for example, Stanford University political scientist Josiah Ober contemplates how specific changes in contemporary democratic practices might be interpreted in both increasing our political knowledge (increasing our understanding of what people believe as well as how they come to believe it) together with, consequently, making our political systems more reliable, accountable, and hence lead to an overarching sense of societal progress.

In Knowledge vs Understanding, University of Cambridge literary critic Stefan Collini explicitly compares and contrasts the natural sciences and human sciences in terms of the notion of “progress”, while in Signing as Language, University of San Diego sign language linguist Carol Padden describes how changes in our understanding of language brought on by Bill Stokoe’s innovative “Dictionary of American Sign Language” not only deepened our understanding of what a language is, they also consequently enhanced our respect for signers.  

In Unintended Consequences, UC Berkeley psychologist Stephen Hinshaw describes how a change in public policy aimed at improving educational test scores inadvertently led to an explosion of ADHD diagnoses, while in Testing Morality, anthropologist Frans de Waal explains how applying the so-called “ultimatum game” in economists to chimpanzees enables us to develop a deeper awareness of both human and animal morality. 

The Arts:

In Airborne Horses, University of Warwick mathematician and bestselling author Ian Stewart describes how a change in our objective knowledge of animal motion was inextricably tied to the birth of the film industry; in Nationalism Through Film, UCLA Chinese Studies expert Michael Berry illustrates how the evolving political climate between the United States and China had concrete implications on artistic products in both countries (with the associated notion of “progress” necessarily increasingly subjective).

In Hearing Differently, violinmaker Joseph Curtin argues that, by deliberately changing the way they perceive sound, musicians would be able to significantly improve their performances, and in Redesigning the Violin Parts I and II, he argues that, owing to a strong sense of conservatism that permeates the international music community, changes to instrument design are often strongly discouraged, resulting in an a priori biased notion of “progress”.


Just like for the human sciences, history is an AOK for which the line between knowledge progress and domain progress is particularly fuzzy, as many practitioners would claim that specific changes in approach to the historical enterprise are motivated precisely by an attempt to gain a deeper and more penetrating historical awareness (i.e. representing an objective sense of progress of our historical understanding).

The overarching “knowledge progress” question of to what extent objective historical progress (i.e. “uncovering the truth”) is possible, then (e.g. Bridging the Cultural Gap, Divining the Date, Non-barking Dogs, Opening Up Sightlines, The Historian’s Task, Towards Historical Truth? Uncovering Meaning), finds itself inevitably matched with the overlapping “domain progress” issue of whether or not specific changes in how history is being done results in an objectively improved historical understanding (e.g. Rethinking History, Towards Better Explanations, History, Evolving, Seeking the Bigger Picture, History’s Pendulum, The History Wheel, Enlarging the Conversation).

The last three AOKs—Ethics, Religious Knowledge Systems and Indigenous Knowledge Systems—are somewhat different from the first five as they are naturally significantly more oriented towards what I called “domain progress” than “knowledge progress”.  This might be worth explicitly noting by students keen to compare and contrast the notion of progress between various different AOKs.


While it’s conceivable that some measure of knowledge progress should be considered in Ethics (e.g. to what extent do advances in neuroscience or evolutionary biology reinforce the objective validity of ethical principles?) for the most part this is an AOK where notions of “progress” will primarily be of a domain-related orientation (e.g. how do recent changes in the prevailing societal attitudes gender and sexual identities impact broader notions of what it means to make “ethical progress”?).   Specific Ideas Roadshow resources that address issues of ethical progress include: Behaviour and Values and Fostering Social Change, where University of Michigan Business Professor Andy Hoffman considers both how changes in community behaviour can impact our ethical development and how a deeper ethical awareness can be deliberately fostered by modifying our collective behaviour.

In Leading by Example, UC San Diego Chinese studies specialist Karl Gerth describes the ethical implications associated with prospective changes in behaviour of Western countries towards China and in Making Progress? Cambridge University historian and literary critic Stefan Collini reminds us that The Two Cultures’ exchange between C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis pivoted around a debate about to what extent technological change has resulted in societal progress—and, by association—what is actually meant by that rather loaded phrase. 

Religious Knowledge Systems:

Given the nature of religious knowledge systems and the large role that interpretation plays in its development, most invocations of “progress” in this context will also be associated with domain progress: to what extent can changes in our approach to religious knowledge be somehow be recognized as a form of “objective improvement”? 

Ideas Roadshow TOK resources explicitly related to this issue include Nile Green’s deliberate application of a new economics-modelled vocabulary to yield better religious and historical understanding (Religion as a Marketplace), David Goldberg’s personal recommendation to redefine Jewish identity in a way contrary to standard contemporary practice (Know Thyself) and an examination of very aspects of how the missionary movement impacted religious understanding both at home and abroad (The Impact of Missionaries). 

Indigenous Knowledge Systems:

Lastly, the topic of Indigenous Knowledge Systems brings up an additional aspect of domain progress: how direct contact between two distinct AOKs can directly lead to a change (and possible progress, depending on one’s definition) in one or more AOKs. 

Specific examples include how sign-language linguist Carol Padden’s experience of how interaction with a remote Bedouin community helped modify her views on the evolution of languages (The Roots of Sign Language, Losing the Sharp Edges), and psychologist Carol Dweck’s discovery, in Cultural Mindsets, of how research carried out in an American aboriginal community led her to modify her appreciation of the pivotal role that cultural factors play in the application of her groundbreaking mindset work, leading both Padden and Dweck (it could be argued) to make substantial progress in their respective fields of knowledge.

Additional, AOK-interdisciplinary resources that students might find helpful for this title include the TOK Samplers Knowledge and Technology and Testing Theories

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