There are many, many books that are very “TOK” but I’m going to limit this list to books that I have created readings and activities around. These are not always the most sophisticated books but are accessible to students and easily adapted to the classroom. TOK textbooks provide some good background knowledge, particularly for the new teacher, but don’t provide as much utility as you would think.
Click on the image to go to each book’s amazon page.
Recommended Books on Ethics
Justice by Michael Sandel
Michael Sandel is an excellent and accessible writing on contemporary ethics and a great educator as well.
This book, adapted from his series of classroom lectures (linked above), provides some great reading materials for some discussions about ethics that is applicable in an every day way. There is also the accompanying Justice: A Reader that can provide valuable source material.
Affirmative action, same-sex marriage, physician-assisted suicide, abortion, national service, the moral limits of markets―Sandel relates the big questions of political philosophy to the most vexing issues of the day, and shows how a surer grasp of philosophy can help us make sense of politics, morality, and our own convictions as well.
Justice is lively, thought-provoking, and wise―an essential new addition to the small shelf of books that speak convincingly to the hard questions of our civic life
What money can’t buy by Michael Sandel
May be more appropriate for an economics class when considering the nature of markets in allocating goods and being “efficient.” I do use readings from this for that purpose but I think it has a place in a TOK class as well to consider the nature of moral outcomes from an amoral science.
Should we pay children to read books or to get good grades? Should we put a price on human life to decide how much pollution to allow? Is it ethical to pay people to test risky new drugs or to donate their organs? What about hiring mercenaries to fight our wars, outsourcing inmates to for-profit prisons, auctioning admission to elite universities, or selling citizenship to immigrants willing to pay?
In his New York Times bestseller What Money Can’t Buy, Michael J. Sandel takes up one of the biggest ethical questions of our time: Isn’t there something wrong with a world in which everything is for sale? If so, how can we prevent market values from reaching into spheres of life where they don’t belong? What are the moral limits of markets?
The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt
Intuition, Reason, Emotion, Ethics
Really fascinating, well-written book. Discusses the competing models for understanding the brain’s most basic mechanisms with regard to the relationship between intuition and reason. Makes a compelling argument for the primacy of intuition. Then moves on to discuss the evolution of morality in our minds and cultures and lays out the case for different moral matrices. Lastly, discusses the different moral beliefs of people who subscribe to different political philosophies (liberals and conservatives). Haidt also gave a TED Talk in which he lays out his beliefs. This book is worth a read though.
Drawing on his twenty five years of groundbreaking research on moral psychology, Haidt shows how moral judgments arise not from reason but from gut feelings. He shows why liberals, conservatives, and libertarians have such different intuitions about right and wrong, and he shows why each side is actually right about many of its central concerns. In this subtle yet accessible book, Haidt gives you the key to understanding the miracle of human cooperation, as well as the curse of our eternal divisions and conflicts. If you’re ready to trade in anger for understanding, read The Righteous Mind.
This book is just a generally awesome resource on the human body. It is particularly useful in terms of learning about and discussing the various ways of knowing.
Bill Bryson once again proves himself to be an incomparable companion as he guides us through the human body–how it functions, its remarkable ability to heal itself, and (unfortunately) the ways it can fail. Full of extraordinary facts (your body made a million red blood cells since you started reading this) and irresistible Bryson-esque anecdotes, The Body will lead you to a deeper understanding of the miracle that is life in general and you in particular. As Bill Bryson writes, “We pass our existence within this wobble of flesh and yet take it almost entirely for granted.” The Body will cure that indifference with generous doses of wondrous, compulsively readable facts and information.
Recommended Books on Reason
Reason, Fallacies, Emotion, Intuition, Ways of Knowing
Really great book (also a great podcast) that discusses, through interesting examples, cognitive biases, reasoning fallacies, and the general limitations and challenges of knowing.
From the book’s amazon page:
You believe you are a rational, logical being who sees the world as it really is, but journalist David McRaney is here to tell you that you’re as deluded as the rest of us. But that’s OK- delusions keep us sane. You Are Not So Smart is a celebration of self-delusion. It’s like a psychology class, with all the boring parts taken out, and with no homework.
Based on the popular blog of the same name, You Are Not So Smart collects more than 46 of the lies we tell ourselves everyday
Easy to read book that evaluates and discusses how we come to decisions. Easy to adapt student readings from this book.
The first book to use the unexpected discoveries of neuroscience to help us make the best decisions
Since Plato, philosophers have described the decision-making process as either rational or emotional: we carefully deliberate, or we “blink” and go with our gut. But as scientists break open the mind’s black box with the latest tools of neuroscience, they’re discovering that this is not how the mind works. Our best decisions are a finely tuned blend of both feeling and reason—and the precise mix depends on the situation. When buying a house, for example, it’s best to let our unconscious mull over the many variables. But when we’re picking a stock, intuition often leads us astray. The trick is to determine when to use the different parts of the brain, and to do this, we need to think harder (and smarter) about how we think.
Reason, Emotion, Intuition
This is one of my favorite non fiction books of all time. This book is a compendium of all the groundbreaking work done by Kanheman and Tversky. Really thorough and insightful. Too long to be a text for students to use but would provide a teacher with lots of insight. Similar to Blink in its discussion of Intuition, this is far more thorough and detailed and creates an effective model for thinking about the brain: System 1 and System 2, or, the fast and slow brain.
The international bestseller, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, the renowned psychologist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, takes us on a groundbreaking tour of the mind and explains the two systems that drive the way we think. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. The impact of overconfidence on corporate strategies, the difficulties of predicting what will make us happy in the future, the profound effect of cognitive biases on everything from playing the stock market to planning our next vacation—each of these can be understood only by knowing how the two systems shape our judgments and decisions.
Facts and information do not exist in a vacuum in our minds. They exist inside of some context, or “mental model” that helps us make sense of things. This book is an adaptation of a really thorough and well done website you can find here
The world’s greatest problem-solvers, forecasters, and decision-makers all rely on a set of frameworks and shortcuts that help them cut through complexity and separate good ideas from bad ones. They’re called mental models, and you can find them in dense textbooks on psychology, physics, economics, and more.
Recommended Books on Emotion
Really interesting work on the relationship between emotion and reason. There are some really great stories that are easily adapted to the TOK class from this book. This work is often cited in other articles and books about how we make decisions.
Here is a good summary of the main ideas of the book:
From the amazon page for the book:
Since Descartes famously proclaimed, “I think, therefore I am,” science has often overlooked emotions as the source of a person’s true being. Even modern neuroscience has tended, until recently, to concentrate on the cognitive aspects of brain function, disregarding emotions. This attitude began to change with the publication of Descartes’ Error in 1995. Antonio Damasio—”one of the world’s leading neurologists” (The New York Times)—challenged traditional ideas about the connection between emotions and rationality. In this wondrously engaging book, Damasio takes the reader on a journey of scientific discovery through a series of case studies, demonstrating what many of us have long suspected: emotions are not a luxury, they are essential to rational thinking and to normal social behavior.
Originally written in 1999, this book does a great job documenting and discussing various cases of the things Americans (incorrectly) fear. Short and interesting read.
In The Culture of Fear, sociologist Barry Glassner demonstrates that it is our perception of danger that has increased, not the actual level of risk. Glassner exposes the people and organizations that manipulate our perceptions and profit from our fears, including advocacy groups that raise money by exaggerating the prevalence of particular diseases and politicians who win elections by heightening concerns about crime, drug use, and terrorism.
Books on History
The Land Scape of History by John Lewis Gaddis
What is history and why should we study it? Is there such a thing as historical truth? Is history a science? One of the most accomplished historians at work today, John Lewis Gaddis, answers these and other questions in this short, witty, and humane book. The Landscape of History provides a searching look at the historian’s craft, as well as a strong argument for why a historical consciousness should matter to us today.
Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret MacMillan
Acclaimed historian Margaret MacMillan explores here the many ways in which history affects us all. She shows how a deeper engagement with history, both as individuals and in the sphere of public debate, can help us understand ourselves and the world better. But she also warns that history can be misused and lead to misunderstanding. History is used to justify religious movements and political campaigns alike. Dictators may suppress history because it undermines their ideas, agendas, or claims to absolute authority. Nationalists may tell false, one-sided, or misleading stories about the past. Political leaders might mobilize their people by telling lies. It is imperative that we have an understanding of the past and avoid these and other common traps in thinking to which many fall prey. This brilliantly reasoned work, alive with incident and figures both great and infamous, will compel us to examine history anew—and skillfully illuminates why it is important to treat the past with care.
Books on the Natural Sciences
Does an excellent job deploying scientific reasoning and explanation to make his case.
With great care, attention to the scientific evidence and a wonderfully accessible style, Coyne, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Chicago, presents an overwhelming case for evolution. Ranging from biogeography to geology, from anatomy to genetics, and from molecular biology to physiology, he demonstrates that evolutionary theory makes predictions that are consistently borne out by the data—basic requirements for a scientific theory to be valid. Additionally, although fully respectful of those who promote intelligent design and creationism, he uses the data at his disposal to demolish any thought that creationism is supported by the evidence while also explaining why those ideas fall outside the bounds of science. Coyne directly addresses the concept often advanced by religious fundamentalists that an acceptance of evolution must lead to immorality, concluding that evolution tells us where we came from, not where we can go. Readers looking to understand the case for evolution and searching for a response to many of the most common creationist claims should find everything they need in this powerful book, which is clearer and more comprehensive than the many others on the subject.
Recommended Books on Math
How to Life With Statistics by Darrell Huff
This book is a classic and should be required reading for all students.
“Darrell Huff runs the gamut of every popularly used type of statistic, probes such things as the sample study, the tabulation method, the interview technique, or the way the results are derived from the figures, and points up the countless number of dodges which are used to full rather than to inform.”
The Golden Ratio by Mario Livio
“Throughout history, thinkers from mathematicians to theologians have pondered the mysterious relationship between numbers and the nature of reality. In this fascinating book, Mario Livio tells the tale of a number at the heart of that mystery: phi, or 1.6180339887…This curious mathematical relationship, widely known as “The Golden Ratio,” was discovered by Euclid more than two thousand years ago because of its crucial role in the construction of the pentagram, to which magical properties had been attributed.The Golden Ratio is a captivating journey through art and architecture, botany and biology, physics and mathematics. It tells the human story of numerous phi-fixated individuals, including the followers of Pythagoras who believed that this proportion revealed the hand of God;”
Many of the following books get into the challenges and limitations of knowledge, particularly, mathematical knowledge. I think each of these books cover similar ground but they are all excellent.
The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow
By showing us the true nature of chance and revealing the psychological illusions that cause us to misjudge the world around us, Mlodinow gives us the tools we need to make more informed decisions. From the classroom to the courtroom and from financial markets to supermarkets, Mlodinow’s intriguing and illuminating look at how randomness, chance, and probability affect our daily lives will intrigue, awe, and inspire.
The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver
Drawing on his own groundbreaking work, Silver examines the world of prediction, investigating how we can distinguish a true signal from a universe of noisy data. Most predictions fail, often at great cost to society, because most of us have a poor understanding of probability and uncertainty. Both experts and laypeople mistake more confident predictions for more accurate ones. But overconfidence is often the reason for failure. If our appreciation of uncertainty improves, our predictions can get better too. This is the “prediction paradox”: The more humility we have about our ability to make predictions, the more successful we can be in planning for the future.
Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Taleb
This book is about luck–or more precisely, about how we perceive and deal with luck in life and business. Set against the backdrop of the most conspicuous forum in which luck is mistaken for skill–the world of trading–Fooled by Randomness provides captivating insight into one of the least understood factors in all our lives. Writing in an entertaining narrative style, the author tackles major intellectual issues related to the underestimation of the influence of happenstance on our lives.
Naked Statistics by Charles Wheelan
From batting averages and political polls to game shows and medical research, the real-world application of statistics continues to grow by leaps and bounds. How can we catch schools that cheat on standardized tests? How does Netflix know which movies you’ll like? What is causing the rising incidence of autism? As best-selling author Charles Wheelan shows us in Naked Statistics, the right data and a few well-chosen statistical tools can help us answer these questions and more.