TOK Title Tips, Part 2 – The Power of Persuasion

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In last week’s post, TOK Title Tips, Part 1 – Getting Practical, I highlighted two of five key points (“Make an argument” and “Decide on your argument before you write”) that students should bear in mind as they turn to the concrete task of constructing their TOK essay.  Today, in this last TOK Tuesdays post of 2019, I will tackle the remaining three.  

3) Tackle the soft spots in your argument

This one might seem particularly strange.   After all, why should an essay writer point out the inherent weaknesses in her argument?  Won’t that run a serious risk of damaging one’s case and result in a poorer mark?  

No.  Not if it’s done right. 

It’s important to emphasize that any sophisticated argument is going to have strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes TOK advocates like to highlight that, “In TOK, unlike other courses, there is no one right answer.”  Which is true enough. But the important point to stress is that this is hardly simply an idiosyncrasy of TOK. There is “no one right answer” to how to go about addressing climate change, or which social programmes to fund over others, or how to conduct an effective international trade strategy, or how to shape an investment portfolio, or which historical “lessons” provide the most insight to our current situation or which work of music is a masterpiece. Indeed, it is safe to say that virtually all the really interesting questions one can encounter in life do not have “one right answer”. Which is, of course, why exposure to TOK thinking is so important to everyone, as there is no other course which better prepares people for critical engagement with the world around them.

But precisely because TOK forces one to grapple with the real, complex, messy world with a wealth of different perspectives and many shades of grey – that is to say, because a response to a knowledge question is necessarily open-ended and a matter of opinion, it is important to recognize that other people will have different views and different arguments, and that a truly persuasive essay will be one that explicitly considers those before later rejecting or minimizing them. By doing this, you will make it clear to examiners that you have considered a wealth of different arguments and counter-arguments before settling on your own, rather than merely opting for a particular view simply because it seemed immediately plausible.

4) Choose your examples (and AOKs) wisely

This point is really a natural consequence of the first three: your first job is to formulate an argument, which needs to be sketched out in general terms before you start to write.  Then you have to become aware of what a critic of your position would say. Now, finally, it’s time to make your case.  

One of the best ways to do this is by selecting concrete examples that reinforce your position while tangibly demonstrating why an opposite view is much less convincing.  

Clearly, if you haven’t gone through the first three steps carefully, you will have no good way of assessing which examples will be “good ones” for you and which ones will be worse. 

The same is true for your choice of AOKs.  As you are doubtless keenly aware, half of the prescribed titles specifically ask you to discuss matters with respect to two AOKs. Some students rush to choose their AOKs ahead of time, often based on which ones they “like better” or “feel more comfortable with”.  But this makes no sense. The two AOKs you select for such titles should be those that best help you make your argument as described above. Which means that you first need to have the clearest possible sense of what that is, together with which general issues need to be addressed.    

Maybe you will choose two different AOKs to demonstrate that the same sort of applies to two entirely different domains.  Or perhaps you will deliberately opt for invoking an AOK “naturally associated” with an opposing view to illustrate why it doesn’t hold water.  Or maybe you will become convinced that the most appropriate response to the title actually depends, somehow, on the AOK that is chosen. But whatever your direction, your choice of AOKs needs to be an inherent part of your argument and not simply some random choice or one made out of habit. 

5) Get a range of different views

Finally, let’s imagine that the first draft of your essay is finished. What should you do now? Well, most people simply submit their draft to their teacher as part of the standard TOK essay timeline procedure.

Of course that’s an important thing to do: bouncing your work off an experienced pair of eyes to get good, concrete advice is always a good idea.  But the point worth stressing here is that nothing stops you from getting the broadest possible feedback you can. What do your friends think of it?  What do your parents have to say? Remember, you’re making an argument here. Can others understand it? Are they convinced by it? Are there parts of it that don’t make sense to them?  

Of course different people will say and think different things, and it’s your essay: you have every right to ignore whatever anyone else says and simply do what you want. But chances are if nobody follows your argument you are not making it very convincingly, or at least not convincingly enough.  

Because of their combined experience in TOK and essay-writing, your teacher’s criticisms will likely be the most valuable and should therefore be recognized as such. But teachers are human too. Maybe you’ve discussed your essay so many times with your teacher that she “knows what you mean to say” even if you don’t actually say it properly. Perhaps she unthinkingly “fills in the blanks” of an argument which isn’t, in fact, made. Or maybe your teacher is naturally disposed to your argument, or is somewhat preoccupied with working with other students who are struggling more significantly with how to build their essay. At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that the point of the venture is not simply to make your teacher happy, but to have the strongest possible essay – and the best way to ensure that that is the case is to prove to yourself that your argument can convince the broadest cross-section of people.

Six comprehensive Titled Assistance videos – one for each of the six May 2020 Prescribed Titles – are now available on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal to all individual subscribers and subscribing schools. They can be found in the Theory of Knowledge section (under “TOK Compilations”), Student TOK section and Teacher Resources section.  All videos contain a wealth of revealing examples associated with each PT drawn from Ideas Roadshow’s extensive video resources.

Visit our informational website, here, if you’d like to learn more about the innovative TOK resources Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal offers to support students and teachers.