You can use any or all of the resources linked below with attribution when appropriate
Web Resources on Knowledge and the Knower
Quotes on Knowledge
Knowledge is useful information, by which we mean knowledge that solves a problem.
-Karl Popper (paraphrasing)
“If a little knowledge is dangerous, where is the man who has so much as to be out of danger?”
― Thomas Henry Huxley
“When you can believe in one stupid thing then all stupid things become available to you.”
— Pradeep Satyaprakash
“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
― T.S. Eliot, The Rock
“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” – Bertrand Russell
“Our intellect is not the most subtle, the most powerful, the most appropriate instrument for revealing the truth. It is life that, little by little, example by example, permits us to see that what is most important to our heart, or to our mind, is learned not by reasoning, but through other agencies. Then it is that the intellect, observing their superiority, abdicates its control to them upon reasoned grounds and agrees to become their collaborator and lackey.”
“It Ain’t What You Don’t Know That Gets You Into Trouble. It’s What You Know for Sure That Just Ain’t So”
-Mark Twain (but probably not)
“Great doubt, great awakening. Little doubt, little awakening. No doubt, no awakening.”
“We can understand things better. We can never understand things fully”
— David Deutsch
“Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.”
-George Bernard Shaw
Handouts and Activities
Not sure what the best way to introduce the course is but I HATE starting any course looking at a course outline. I’d rather just jump into the work of the course without much introduction and then work backward to fill in any gaps that may exist.
Two years ago, I had the kids think about the topic of vaping, what they know about it, what sorts of knowledge claims they can make, and the basis of those claims. The purpose of this to explore the various source of their knowledge and to introduce concepts like certainty.
This past year, I had kids look at different fake news stories and evaluate why people believed them. I believe I got this lesson activity from another source. Included here are some links and the compilation of notes from the class discussion.
Here is the follow up work we did discussing implications and applying some of our understandings to a new question about Covid vaccines. This went particularly well but this was in September 2021. This discussion has a limited shelf life.
Here is my standard course outline. I give it out at the end of class and we never talk about it again.
Introducing Key Concepts
Knowledge vs. Belief
This activity and reading asks kids to explore the different concepts and definitions of knowledge and belief. I put this all into one handout but this would probably take a couple of days to do completely.
This was an activity I used to do with the old iteration of the course. I didn’t do it this past year but it still has some value I think.
Using Fiction to Explore TOK Ideas: “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling”
This is a copy of an amazing short story from Ted Chiang’s collection, Exhalation. I adapted the story to read in class. It’s a bit long and I need to think about how to do this better but it raises many great discussion points. It’s worth reading for any TOK teacher.
Problems of Knowing
Pencil tapping activity
This is a really fun activity (I read about this somewhere and adapted it) in which I ask a volunteer to tap with a pencil a song that they and everyone in the class knows. The specific song is known only to me and the pencil tapper. Once they are done tapping out 10 or so seconds of the song, each person in the class writes down what they think the song was. I ask the tapper to estimate what percent of the class will have guessed correctly. We then poll the class to see what percent of the class actually got it. Almost every single time, the pencil tapper overestimates the number of students who will correctly guess the song. We then reflect on the implications of this activity and then read an article by Steven Pinker called, the “Source of Bad Writing.” All of this helps the kids think about how the possession of knowledge changes you and makes it hard not to know and to understand someone else’s mind that does not know what you know.
Definitions of Truth
Neil deGrasse Tyson on the three kinds of truth
I can’t say I agree with his points here but it is a worthwhile conversation started with the kids. The video is queued up to the appropriate part. Let it play for about three minutes.
If you want to play just the audio, below is the relevant part.
Personal vs. Shared Knowledge
This is an introduction to different concepts of knowledge. I have the kids watch Matt Ridley’s TED talk translates well to the ideas of personal and shared knowledge.
This article pairs nicely with the ideas discussed above. You can also use this article in the knowledge and technology unit.
Intuition and Knowledge
I used to do this activity when discussing intuition as a way of knowing. I moved this into the Knowledge and the Knower unit. One of the most accessible books on intuition that I have found is Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. I adapted the following readings to help students get a sense of what intuition is and how it differs from reason. Generally speaking, the ways of knowing are easier to explore when not dealing with them in isolation. It is often really interesting to find activities to let kids explore their own thoughts and conclusions and try to evaluate what’s going on in their own minds. What is the role of reason? Intuition?
This lesson was based on a famous image (left) and the reaction to that image and the subsequent fallout really lent itself to some great TOK discussions. This would fit well within the knowledge and politics unit. After discussing the image, watch the fuller video with larger context to see whether opinions change.
Video of the incident.
This topic has become increasingly important. The problem with the way many students and teachers think about it is that this is an issue that other people have but not us. How can we help educate them. One of the approaches I try to take here is to help students think about this as a human problem and try to include stories that challenge their political beliefs and assumptions rather than populate the class with examples they are already familiar with or ones that reinforce their own beliefs.
To get started, I had students think about different knowledge claims and identify which ones a person could be led to believe false things about. Generally, the claims were sorted into ones that people had immediate personal knowledge of or would suffer consequences from. After that we discuss the concept of fake news in general and conclude with Stephen Colbert’s video on “truthiness.” I include in this worksheet the prompts I gave kids over two days along with class discussion notes.
This clip from the early 2000s from the Colbert Report when Stephen Colbert first coins the term, “truthiness” which really captured (jokingly) the essence of what was to become the concept and problem with “fake news.”
I found some examples of viral “fake news” that circulated around the internet to explore why these became so popular and speculate as to their impact.
The second day we try to explore why people believe fake news. The article that follows is probably the best, most concise article I have used with kids to understand the issue
Below are some of the definitions students came up with for what they thought “fake news” was.
Here is a contrary voice on the issue of fake news and the mainstream media being the arbiter of truth.
Here is an article and diagram discussing the claim that Covid 19 possibly spread from a lab. Looking at this issue raises a lot of important questions about what we deem fake news, who has power, how personal motivation can affect what is considered legitimate vs. fake. Another good example would be the story about Hunter Biden’s laptop. I posted some news resources here on that topic.
Contrasting reason, emotion and intuition
Often, we contrast these two ways of knowing as being opposed to one another. This reading and activity, adapted from the book, How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer, is based on interesting neurological research on what happened to patients who suffered from brain damage and made decisions without any emotion factoring in. The results are not what we might expect.
Jonathan Haidt lays out his own model for the relationship between Intuition and Reason. Below is a handout adapted from his book, The Righteous Mind, in which he lays out the metaphor of the rider and the elephant. This handout has a lot of utility when studying ethics and the WOKs associated with how we decide what we think is right.
Haidt further examines how we use these competing impulses to make moral judgments. How “moral reasoning” is often a after the fact rationalization of what we intuitively believe to be correct. Here is an adaptation of some of his ideas along with possible prompts to get students thinking.
Haidt also discusses his concept of the “rationalist delusion” and explicitly discusses the limitations of reason as a way of knowing.
I only spent a day on this but it’s worth finding ways to revisit this concept within AOKs rather than just doing a quick intro here. The first handout are examples of cognitive biases. There are two versions of the final question. I give one of each to half the class to illustrate the concept of small samples sizes. What follows is a reading about biases.
One of the most fun topics and activities I do in TOK is on reasoning/logical fallacies. I’m not quite sure how to get students to incorporate these concepts into their minds outside of this specific part of TOK and become better thinkers but that is a problem for another day. Below is the powerpoint I use to introduce students to the concept of a logical fallacy along with the basic construction of what an “argument” is: premise, assumption, conclusion. After working through the powerpoint, students work individually or in groups to work through the worksheet (with the definitions to help them). An extension activity is to assign groups two random fallacies and create a fallacious argument they read out to the class and other students have to identify which fallacy they were try to reproduce.
You can also find examples of fallacies or errors in reasoning on the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). I have in the past given students examples to let them work through.
Here is a great poster for the TOK classroom. You can download the image for free or pay to have a high resolution poster delivered to you. Totally worth it!
(Click on the image below to go to the site)
You can also buy a deck of critical thinking cards from the same site. They’re fun.
Another clever cartoon below
Understanding Knowledge Questions
Students are not expected to pose their own knowledge questions in the new course but I still want them to practice because it helps them understand the nature of KQs and helps them answer them more effectively.
“The Map is not the Territory”
This is a commonly heard expression and a profound one that we return to throughout the TOK course. I think it makes sense to introduce in the intro unit but also connect back to in a Language unit by discussing the extent to which words are like maps of real world ideas.
I introduce this by having students look at different NYC subway maps. I printed them out in color on legal sized paper for each group of kids to look over. I am posting here the relevant maps but also one worksheet with multiple days worth of work on the topic.
Further examples could be to contrast representations of the solar system. More “accurate” representations are not generally helpful.
Solar system drawn to scale
“Distorted” Solar System
Here is a lesson plan I found on this issue from the IB.
One standard and common fallacy is the “correlation does not equal causation.” This website finds a bunch of different phenomena that are correlated (as evidenced by the graphs presented) but obviously not causally related. My personal favorite is the correlation between drowning deaths and Nicholas Cage movies. (Click on the image to visit site)
“You’re not going to believe what I’m about to tell you” Cartoon by The Oatmeal (Click on image to view)
This is a fantastic cartoon that does a great job walking you through some new information and facts and asking you to evaluate your thoughts and emotions as you go. It is far too long to print out for a class activity but if you have ready access to computers in your class, it would be worthwhile to have students work their way through this cartoon.
You are not so smart Podcast
If there were a single podcast that I would say is the closest to the TOK class, it would be this one. The episodes get into so many interesting aspects of how we acquire knowledge and the nature of producing knowledge in various fields and most importantly, as you may infer from the title, the various limitations involved. I would strongly encourage having students find an episode they find interesting and having them listen, identify main points, connect to relevant AOK and WOK and then produce some sort of writing or present to group members what they listened to. I am always trying to get students to listen to more podcasts.
Ethics is no longer an Area of Knowledge but is now embedded within the main AOKs. Linked here is my Ethics page from the previous course. I have used some of these materials to help introduce Ethics concepts to the course.
The new course has done away with Ways of Knowing, however, some of these ideas and concepts are still useful in the new course that can be integrated into the Knowledge and the Knower unit or select AOK units. Memory has a good place within History, for example. Linked here are my old WOK units.