Try a Little Selfishness

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In last week’s post, I urged students to use their imagination to ask themselves what the title-makers might have had in mind when they came up with this year’s version.  The idea was that by engaging in this thought experiment students could assess the titles in terms of how they believed they corresponded to those specific TOK concepts that interested them.

This notion of focusing on student interest is a core feature of Ideas Roadshow’s educational philosophy.   We strongly believe that students will succeed much more frequently, and to a much greater extent, if they have the opportunity to engage with ideas that already interest them, and that an essential aspect of the job of any educator, and any educational resource, is to present them with as many relevant opportunities as possible to pique their interest and launch them on their educational journey.

Of course at some level this is all pretty obvious.  After all, nobody would recommend that someone consider doing an extended essay or internal assessment on something they were profoundly indifferent to (or, worse still, actually repulsed by), but there are nonetheless times when we often fail to take a moment to explicitly consider what students actually get excited about.  Like the TOK essay. 

This post is about doing precisely that. 

We all know that TOK is a many-faceted, naturally interdisciplinary beast that surfaces in all sorts of intriguing and complex ways throughout the real world.  This often makes the associated concepts difficult to understand, and the entire subject virtually impossible to comprehensively define.

But this inherent depth and universal relevance has a very positive flip side: no matter what your specific area of interest is, there’s going to be an intriguing TOK angle to it if you take the time to investigate it closely.   Contrast this with many standard DP subjects. In most courses, at least some of the time will likely be spent wading through material that students aren’t terribly excited about. In some cases only a specific part of the syllabus will be particularly appealing, while sometimes the entire course is simply a necessary requirement that has to be navigated en route to a particular career choice. Often students simply have to grin and bear it, doing their best to plow through a body of material that doesn’t particularly captivate them, at least at the outset. We’ve all been there.

But happily, this simply doesn’t apply to the TOK essay.   Since TOK applies to virtually everything, one can simply turn things around and say that virtually everything has a TOK component to it.   Which means that as students go through the process of deciding which TOK prescribed title is best for them, an important aspect of that decision procedure should be – ironically enough – to forget about the titles entirely for a moment and instead just focus on TOK concepts aligned with their interests.

Then they can look at the titles afresh and see which of those give the greatest opportunity to tackle those TOK concepts.  The benefits of this technique include, but extend well beyond, the selection of a prescribed title. If writing an essay provides you with concrete opportunities to deepen your understanding about something you’re already passionate about, chances are that you’ll soon find yourself moving away from thinking, “I’ve got this essay to write” towards, “This is a really cool idea”.   And your essay will most certainly reflect that.  

Again, the good news is that, given its universal relevance and applicability, TOK provides that opportunity for just about any topic. 

So let’s take an example now to demonstrate what I mean.  Once more it should be stressed that these are only my thoughts, and hardly represent objectively true statements, but if I were to end things here without giving you something concrete to grab on to and agree or disagree with, then all of this would rapidly degenerate into little more than a stream of clichés.   

Suppose I’m passionately interested in the arts – one or more of visual arts, music, theatre, film and dance. Perhaps I have ambitions of being a film director or a professional musician.

 So what are some TOK-related concepts that would naturally appeal to me?  Well, probably something like the nature of intuition and imagination in the creative process and its relationship to the development of artistic knowledge; objective vs subjective judgements of artistic quality and how we can be certain in distinguishing between good and bad art; the mechanisms involved in the public reception of new artistic developments and their relationship to prevailing cultural biases; how societal judgements of artistic achievement change over time; what it means to come up with genuinely new ideas in the arts and to what extent that can ever be objectively assessed, and so forth. 

In other words, these are just a few of the sorts of things I’d naturally spend time sitting around discussing with my friends altogether aside from the fact that I have a TOK essay to write.   

Now look to the prescribed titles for May 2020.  Which ones seem to be the best fit with those particular interests?  Again, I can only offer my opinion, and even those are largely dependent upon the specific TOK themes I happened to have mentioned.   But my sense is that titles 1, 3 and 6 would probably provide the best opportunity for me to discuss the sorts of things that I’m naturally interested in.  

And now I’m away to the races, because not only do I have a clearer sense of what title I’m going to pick, I also have some concrete thoughts about  which TOK themes I’d like to explore in my essay. Better still, I’m starting to get surprisingly interested at the prospect of doing so because the whole thing is a subject that I naturally find fascinating and worth exploring.   

Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that.  

Aside from the fact that writing essays involves a good deal more time and deliberate effort than just chatting with my friends, construction of this particular essay will necessarily force me to make links to things well outside my core interests, in this case invoking other TOK concepts and areas of knowledge that I might not normally care much about.  

But now there’s a difference: I’m not just doing so because “I have an essay to write”, or because “I need to find another AOK”, but instead out of a desire to better investigate my own particular interests and passions. 

Sometimes just focusing on yourself is the best way towards developing a broader understanding.

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