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No. 48, November 2003

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The relevancy of TOK

Rick Bisset
International School of Kuala Lumpur, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

What arguments do you use to convince your students that TOK is relevant to their lives? Below, Rick Bisset shares his.

A good grabber for a TOK lesson is about as hard to come by as a good friend. Even though we teachers feel that we have a good message when we begin a lesson, the relevancy of TOK occasionally eludes our students. Perhaps that, in itself, is a good lesson to use.

As someone who attempts to model what I teach, I have reflected on how to best grab my students' attention. As a firm believer in the Socratic method, I have tried to answer many questions on this issue: "How can I make this lesson relevant? What are the students interested in hearing? What can I do to better illustrate the significance of TOK?" and more bluntly, "Why would anyone want to learn this stuff?"

Since "man is indeed the measure," perhaps the best way to approach a discussion with students about the relevancy of TOK would be to begin by stating that it is invented. Someone sat down and wrote it. And, at various times throughout history, other individuals have sat down and written their answers to tough questions, too. For example, any decent library will contain stacks of books on religion, relativism, and skepticism--to name just a few. These were all attempts by people to make sense of the world.

TOK often begins with the premise that knowledge is defined as a claim that is justified, true, and believed; hence the well-known maxim, Knowledge = JTB. [Ed.: This is one definition of knowledge; there are others.] As with other systems that try to make sense of the world, JTB is put forth as a given. Descartes put forth a similar given with his famous declaration "I think, therefore I am." Einstein postulated, "Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light." Euclid put forth his well-known axioms defining a point, a plane, and a line. As well, stoicism and reductionism have their central tenets and principal assumptions. All systems do. And of course there are the religious principles of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, etc., each containing its own set of "givens."

These declarations, postulates, principles, precepts, and axioms are presented as self-evident absolutes in each respective system. However, fascinating results are obtained when the fundamental premise is not accepted as "a given." For example, non-Euclidian geometry is based on the counter-axiom to Euclid's fifth postulate; namely, that parallel lines do intersect. (Every time you fly on an airplane, you should silently thank the person who sat down and wrote this system of making sense of flying in a straight line on a curved surface!) An interesting tangent is to point out that students too can develop "a system." Why, someday, we may be teaching Ben-ism, or Angela-ism, or Mary-ism in schools around the world! (To have fun with this tangent, simply substitute the name of any student in your class and add "-ism.")

A good grabber would let students know that TOK, in its own way, is just another attempt to answer questions. Obviously, it is not the only way, and it is debatable whether it is the best way. However, TOK does offer interesting and useful answers to difficult issues. For example, the relevancy of TOK becomes apparent when students are presented with questions such as: "What are you going to say when your boyfriend (or girlfriend) asks you to prove your love for him (or her) by going to bed?" or "What will be your response at a party when your best friend asks you to try some little white pills?" Students may be surprised to realize that answers can be found using JTB.

In the first case, for the sake of simplicity we'll assume that the boyfriend is the pursuer and the girlfriend the pursued. To convince the girlfriend to have sex, the boyfriend would make the assertion that love equates with a physical response. His hypothetical syllogism might be:

If you love me, then you will go to bed with me.
You say you love me.
Therefore, you will go to bed with me.

In this example, the girl being asked to "prove" her love could use JTB to arrive at her answer. The justification would involve proof, evidence, facts, corroboration, testimony, data, authority, verification, etc. The truth could involve either the Coherence Test--the girl would analyze all she has learned about Platonic love; or the Correspondence Test--the girl would examine if she indeed said "I love you" to the boy; or perhaps the Pragmatic Test--the girl would evaluate what she has seen happen to other girls who agreed with boys like this. In fact, the girl could use all three Truth tests. The belief would involve her feelings, emotions, and personal experiences.

After applying JTB to the question, the girl would arrive at a knowledge claim with a high degree of certainty, and would feel confident in giving her answer. Perhaps she would say something like this to the boy: "I am sorry, but your syllogism is based on at least one false premise." Or more plausibly in today's world, she would shout, "Go suck a lemon!"

Arriving at a knowledge claim and subsequent judgment using JTB involves a considerable amount of time, effort, and research, and obviously isn't always possible. When your school principal comes to your classroom door and tells you that the building must be evacuated immediately, you are not going to use JTB. In an emergency what is needed is quick action, not long, involved reflection and introspection. Likewise, when you buy a burger you do not begin to question the salesperson, "Have you washed your hands? Do you have a cold? What kind of soap did you use to wash the cooking pans?" In fact, these types of questions would be regarded with suspicion, and you might be regarded as neurotic or obsessive about details. In this type of situation, the majority of people would simply accept the product and believe (or hope!) that it will be okay. In other words, there is a time and a place to use JTB.

This is an important point to make with the students. Once they understand that TOK contains useful tools, its relevancy to their daily lives becomes clear. Once they understand that there is a time and a place to use JTB, then different scenarios can be examined. Using a variety of real situations in the classroom allows the teacher to point out the applicability of any part of the TOK course. As a result, you will have definitely grabbed your students' attention!


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