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Is all knowledge created equal?

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This week we’ve been talking TOK.

Core teachers had two days of training with John Cannings, an IB Core Workshop Leader and co-author of the CAS guide for students. John focused on TOK as the central element of the core, and showed us how we might use the knowledge framework as a way to guide students through the Extended Essay and CAS. John also led a TOK session with all IB teachers – challenging them to identify the Ways of Knowing and Areas of Knowledge, as well as discovering the knowledge framework in their subjects.

Most importantly this week though, our Year 12 students had an introductory afternoon with John where they learned some key TOK concepts such as the difference between shared and personal knowledge, and what we might consider our most reliable sources of knowledge.

What struck me this week is the TOK journey. It’s a scary road for many – a subject no one studies beforehand, which asks unanswerable questions and challenges students to provide an ‘answer’ of sorts. But it’s a journey, and I know this because when asked what was their most reliable source of knowledge, Year 12 students by and large suggested that their senses and experience were it. ‘You can trust what you see’, ‘you’ve experienced it so you know its true’ were typical comments.

But, when I asked this question of my Year 13 TOK class, I got quite a different response. They’re a year down the TOK road, and they’ve learned a few things about sense perception and memory which have led them to question whether we really can trust what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch.

Take this classic illusion for example. There’s a white triangle right? You can see it, so it must be there. Except, it isn’t, there are no lines drawn – but your brain takes the information provided and makes something recognisable to you. Same reason we see a face in this rock. A face, one of the first things you see after birth, something you see close up when as a newborn you can’t see more than 12 inches away, is a high frequency image and your eyes see it where it doesn’t exist.

So, if our eyes can show us things that aren’t there, are we sure this is our most reliable source of knowledge?

How about memory? Experiences? They must be reliable right? Well, are you absolutely sure someone didn’t just tell you that something happened to you when you were small? How would you go about validating that? Watch this little video about implanting false memory. And, think about it, if your memory was so good, why would there be millions of people making money selling you ‘improve your memory’ books and apps?

With Year 13 students we’ve been discussing an Indigenous tribe called the Moken in Thailand. The Moken live on the water and are a nomadic people. They live right in the spot where the 2004 Tsunami hit Asia the hardest – but they survived. They survived because they read the signs in the waves. And because of a story that when the sea draws back it eats people. They ran for the hills before anyone else. Interestingly the Moken can see underwater twice as far as we can – they suppress the automatic dilation reflex of the eyes. So, can we trust in what we see if there is more there but we cannot see it? Human perception is in fact very limited – think dog whistles – so, do we really want to trust in a limited source of knowledge above all others?

You might ask what else we have. Good question. If we can’t trust our senses and our memories, where are our most reliable sources of knowledge?

Some of our Year 12 students said their parents. While that is an admirable response, I’m not sure I want to be considered as the most reliable source of knowledge for my kids. Let’s consider some of the things I’ve said to them already today:

‘Oscar, get your shoes on or we’ll be late for school’ (we arrive at school at 7am every day – late is very unlikely)

‘Max, stop cracking your fingers or they’ll be twisted and gnarly by the time your’re 15’ (unfortunately he caught me out after Googling this one)

And my personal favourite of the day:

‘You didn’t get an automatic Nerf gun for Christmas because Santa didn’t think you were good enough during the year’

Oh dear!

So as we move forward through the TOK course, we’ll try to answer the question of reliable knowledge (although we won’t be able to). We’ll question what we mean by ‘reliable’, ‘trust’ and even ‘knowledge’, and we’ll wrestle with concept questions such as ‘who owns shared knowledge’, ‘is the pursuit of truth always important?’ and ‘is there any knowledge that is too dangerous to pursue?’

It’ll be a challenge and our brains will hurt, but we’ll have some fun too.




Author: Ann Lautrette

Head of Sixth Form and IB Coordinator at BSJ.

One Comment

  1. Hi Miss Lautrette,
    That was very interesting. Thankyou. “How do we know what we know?” Is a question that is debatable. Depends on where and what we study, our knowledge would be what is useful to us and life. It should be beneficial to consider that every culture or background perceive matters in different ways. Knowledge is something we gather as we “grow”. Having said this, facts that backup our knowledge may be the most reliable knowledge we may depend on.

    Great article.

    Lorraine Branson

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