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Are you over thinking it?


We’re currently assessing Year 12 practice TOK presentations and the more I watch the more I’m asking myself this question.

The TOK presentation is challenging, yes, but several that I’ve watched have seemed to reflect the wandering of a thinking brain. You know how when you start thinking about something, and your brain goes, ‘oh what about that…and that..and this..and that’s like that, and what if that? and on and on and on. On a day to day basis this ‘brain train’ is hard enough to tame, but when we start putting together a TOK presentation it becomes a real challenge. And that’s because of the conflict between one of the key points of TOK – that everything is connected, and the need to focus the presentation on a limited number of AOKs, WOKs and knowledge questions. 

So how do we stop the TOK thinking brain from rambling? In the presentation, the key is the knowledge question and its connection to the Real Life Situation. With any RLS there are probably a number of knowledge questions, a number of AOKs and WOKs which seem relevant, but it’s important to go with one question, select what’s important and then stick to it.  It is really hard for listeners to follow when the presentation suffers from ‘and another thing’ syndrome – where other ideas are repeatedly brought into the net ensuring we’ve forgotten what the RLS is and have no clue what the Knowledge Question was.

The TOK presentation is a difficult task, yes, but it needn’t be complicated. 

Let’s take an example of how we might plan and focus a presentation:

In the news today is this story of a muslim woman who, according to a tweet, walked past victims on Westminster Bridge ‘callously’ ignoring the destruction around her. Upon reading this story we are likely to experience different emotions and think different thoughts according to a number of factors: our experience of the world, our beliefs, our critical media literacy skill etc. Personally, I look at this story in disbelief; firstly, that anyone would post the initial tweet and secondly that this tweet (a few words and an associated image) could generate (or expose) such hatred among those who appear to agree with it. But from a TOK perspective, what I find interesting is how the response to a photograph, taken out of context, can be manipulated by adding a caption which ‘describes’ what the photo shows. Now, in the past this caption writing would have been the realm of journalists and those writing text books. And so as people we associate captions with a certain informed explanation of what is going on in the image and we have relative faith in the accuracy of those captions.

Enter Twitter.

With the ability for anyone, not an expert, not even present at the scene, to attach a caption to an image, we now have a new form of creating knowledge – does the image therefore show whatever we say it shows, rather than the truth?

As an example:

Here’s the caption: Barbaric and Racist – Onlookers smile as asian man is beaten to death in racist ‘Hunger Games’ horror.   

Now I just made that up. For all I know, these poor people are watching a ballgame, but with a few words and disregard for context I’ve just branded them all as racists and barbarians.

So, in the development of my presentation I have my RLS and my explanation of how my RLS links to TOK, but what’s my knowledge question?

Well it definitely has something to do with language (a WOK) – both the language of words and the language of image, and it’s ability to manipulate what is knowledge. And it also has something to do with the way the Ways of Knowing might interact with each other: so I see an image (sense perception), I take in some information about that image (probably make an interpretation of what is happening based on assumptions which come from inductive reasoning), then I look at the caption and does the language overpower my initial interpretation? In which do I have more faith? My sense perception and reason? Or the language I see in front of me? Does it change what I ‘know’?

So this leads me to the knowledge question ‘is language the most powerful way of knowing?’ (I am defining language as a communication through word or image, and ‘powerful’ as having the most influence on what I claim to ‘know’)  

In order to explore this question I need to have a clear argument which is going to be that ‘it depends on the Area of Knowledge’. Then I’m going to pick two contrasting Areas of Knowledge.

I’m going to pick History and ask is language the most powerful way of knowing in Historical study?

Then I’ll make an argument:

Yes: because all the historical sources found mean nothing without the historian’s narrative of what happened. Of course, how do we know that this narrative is true? Well we don’t. History is by definition about interpretation – that’s what the historian does – tells a story about the past based on the interpretation of available evidence. But couldn’t that be just like my photograph and caption above? Couldn’t the historian make any claim he/she wants to about historical artefacts?

(Then I’ll support my argument with some evidence from the AOK)

Well yes and no: David Irving is a historian and famous holocaust denier who basically claims that the holocaust didn’t happen so yes, a historian can make any claim he/she wants, but then Irving was shown to have manipulated the truth and lost this court case. So while he could make the claim it has not been accepted as a valid interpretation of history. So because an explanation in History has to be ‘a plausible theory that explains the relevant source material and fits other accepted theories’ (TOK knowledge Framework for History), then holocaust denial is not accepted as it doesn’t fit with other accepted theories. So while language may be powerful in the interpretation, recording and communication of history, it seems that reason (which must play some role in deciding what is plausible) keeps a check on accepting the narrative.

But what does this have to do with my RLS? Well, it explains why some people agree that the lady in the picture was being heartless and why some criticise this interpretation. If ‘plausibility’ is so important in history, then it must be to us too when deciding what we believe about this image and caption – someone who believes the popular media narrative of ‘all muslims support terrorism’, may see the interpretation of her heartlessness as plausible – it fits with their worldview (and we love to confirm what we already believe – confirmation bias), whereas for someone who believes that you can’t tarnish the many with the actions of the few, it isn’t plausible that this woman would react without care to the scenes around her. So is it the language which is most powerful here? No. It’s belief – all the language does is sit there objectively – we then take it and manipulate it to confirm what we already believe.

To compare though, if I take the Area of Knowledge of the Natural Sciences, is language the most powerful Way of Knowing?

Then I’ll make an argument:

No because the Natural Sciences is ‘based on observation and constructed using reason and imagination’ (Scope in the Natural Sciences Knowledge Framework.) This makes no mention of language – rather sense-perception and reason. So it assumes that we can objectively observe the world, rationalise what we see and explain this through theory. So language shouldn’t be able to manipulate interpretation in the Natural Sciences then. In the Knowledge Framework for Science under language and concepts, ‘maths is central’ and ‘language is precise in order to eliminate ambiguity’.

So what is the role of language in the Natural Sciences as an Area of Knowledge? To objectively describe the world in scientific terms. Well, that is the common understanding, but Physicist David Bohm had a different take on language in science. He thought that the quantum level of the world could be explained with language, (not only Mathematics) but that our language in its current form can’t do that. He said:

“The verb describes actions and movements which flow into each other and merge, without sharp separations or breaks. Moreover, since movements are in general always themselves changing, they have in them no permanent pattern of fixed form.”

So he proposed a new language, called the Rheomode in which the verb would have a primary role.

So does this mean then that language should be the most powerful way of knowing in the Natural Sciences, but, in its current form, it isn’t? And that when we can’t explain things, inventing a whole new language should be on the agenda? In which case, isn’t imagination actually more powerful than language?

If we go back to the original RLS the tweet is used, not in a precise way, but to imply that the woman is a terrorist sympathiser and so in this way, it is the imagination of the person reading the tweet which is perhaps doing the powerful work.

While we may say that language must be precise and objective in the Natural Sciences for scientists, we might also note that in communicating knowledge gained in the Areas of Knowledge to us laypeople, then language plays an extremely important role. If we look at this health article: ‘More people are getting hurt by staying connected’ we can see where ‘science’ crosses the line into media manipulation through language. The word ‘more’ in the headline is non-specific and imprecise, and ‘getting hurt’ is not defined. The research presented in the article to support this claim is at best vague: 97% of students admitted to using cell phones in class, but ‘many don’t even understand how this distraction has affected their grades.’ In what way does this ‘prove’ that grades are being affected? Apparently ‘according to the National Safety Council, cell phone usage caused over 25 percent of car accidents in 2014.’ but can this (albeit plausible) claim actually be proven? Can we isolate cell phone usage as the only variable causing the accident in these cases? Unfortunately plausibility in the Natural Sciences, unlike in History, is not enough of an explanation. The statistic ‘Over 50 percent of adults who use cell phones have walked into someone or something because they were distracted’ is not referenced or supported and while the article goes on to identify individual cases of where cell phones have caused damage, three cases is hardly a representative or large enough sample to claim that ‘more people are getting hurt’. So scaremongering using language to persuade us to change our behaviour – a powerful Way of Knowing indeed, unless we have some critical media literacy skills to call out Fox News.

In the tweeted caption on our RLS photo we see a vague use of language from which we infer something about the woman using our imagination and all of this relies on us having a certain set of beliefs in the first place. So we can’t really identify any one Way of Knowing as the most powerful, instead we need to see them working together to create meaning.

So what are the implications of this conclusion? Well, if the WOKs work together to create meaning, and we all have the same WOKs then we should be able to see people broadly reacting in similar ways. In the responses to the tweet, we see two opposing viewpoints, and the number of people willing to side with one or the other suggests that each person’s opinion is not totally unique and different. And this makes sense when we consider Economics which predicts what large numbers of people will do with their money, or when we consider our ‘herd mentality’ and the desire to do like others, or even in the way we tend to value empathy – how would we be able to understand one another if we were completely different from one another?

And with that I have a pretty comprehensive plan for my TOK presentation. So, when you review this, think about these questions:

-How do I keep the presentation focused on the knowledge question?

-How would this presentation fit the TOK presentation diagram?

-How have I supported my arguments with both evidence and critical reflection on that evidence?






Author: Ann Lautrette

Head of Sixth Form and IB Coordinator at BSJ.


  1. ‘The TOK presentation is a difficult task, yes, but it needed be complicated.’

    Grammatical accuracy in published educational materials should be of upmost importance…

    • Thank you for pointing that out – corrected immediately! Proof that even teachers are not perfect.:) Grammatical accuracy, and spelling, is of course of utmost importance in any circumstance!

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