December 2019 RSL

Outline of story ABig Think article, looking at how Carl Sagan’s ‘ECREE’ maxim can be applied not only to scientific knowledge, but at how we view the world in general.

Key terms and ideas ECREE

Links to TOK Natural sciences (etc.), reason, knowledge & the knower

Related BQs Development (2015 syllabus), Creativity (2022 syllabus)

Knowledge questions and exploration The ‘ECREE’ acronym represents a crucial idea for students to be aware of, and will really help them with their critical thinking skills. But they should try to go further than this, and prove themselves as sophisticated thinkers: first, why it is useful to us? What examples can they think of to support it? And most of all, what are the limitations and problems with ECREE - can it actually hinder the production of new knowledge?

DP integration Most DP subjects

Outline Guardian article, looking at the Mexican reaction to a new work of art by Fabián Cháirez, which depicts a naked Zapata, wearing a pink sombrero and high heels, sat astride a white horse.

Terms Freedom of expression vs. mockery, Malleable image, Social agenda, Symbol

Links The arts, ethics, human sciences, history

BQs Purpose & value (2015), Perspectives (both syllabi) 

Exploration This is a provocative real-life situation that should get the students thinking about the purpose and nature of art, and the way in which it can convey different perspectives. Is it the obligation of the artist to represent the world as it actually is? Should art be about playing with ideas - in this case, the fact that Zapata stood for revolution and change? Do the same ethical constraints apply to artists as practitioners of other areas of knowledge? Does the whole ‘freedom of expression vs. mockery’ have any relevance here? A lot of concepts to play with!

Integration Visual arts, history

Outline ThisAeon article considers how ‘virtue signalling’ may not be hypocritical and a false indication of moral understanding. 

Terms Virtue signalling, Moral discourse, Religious signalling, Hypocritical

Links Ethics, reason, knowledge & the knower

BQs Representing reality (2015), Values, Spin (2022) 

Exploration We looked at a Big Think video about how ‘virtue signalling’ or ‘moral grandstanding’ can undermine the integrity of a person’s moral argument - but here is the counterclaim, an article which suggests that this form of ethical expression is actually “a core function of moral discourse”. Which point of view is right? 

Integration Psychology, philosophy, world religions

Outline Big Think video, which considers who (and what) in society determines whether art is judged as being ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

Terms Taste hierarchies, Art criticism

Links The arts, human sciences

BQs Experts (both syllabi)

Exploration This is a huge question in the arts (and, by extension, other areas of knowledge) - who gets to judge whether a piece of art is ‘good’ or not. First, decide what the role of the critic is, according to A.O. Scott. Then ponder his assertion that “everything else is kind of sociology and politics and prejudice and snobbery kind of sneaking in”. In other words, what part does our judgement of art alone play a role in how we evaluate the quality of art, and what part do other considerations play? Get students to be honest here!

Integration Language & literature, Group 6 subjects

Outline An Atlantic article, which argues that historians should refrain from offering their judgements on modern day politics.

Terms Knowledge vs. judgement

Links History, human sciences

BQs Purpose & value (2015), Values (2022) , Experts (both syllabi) 

Exploration This article should lead students on to a deep reflection about history, and the purpose of historical knowledge. What error does writer Andrew Ferguson feel he made? Was he right? And does that mean that historians should avoid commenting on current political situations? If so, where does that leave us in terms of the purpose of historical knowledge? Should it remain within the realm of the past? Or can we (who?) apply it to the contemporary world? See also this article for more thoughts on learning lessons from the past - does it correspond to what Ferguson says?

Integration History, Global politics

Outline A Vox article that looks at 15 of the key scientific discoveries of the last decade.

Terms Breakthrough

Links Natural sciences

BQs Development (2015), Creativity (2022)

Exploration Get students to look through this article, and simply pick the discovery that they are most impressed by (how do they support this judgement?). Then think more widely about the nature of science - what does this indicate about the extent to which science changes over time? Are discoveries driven by need, by curiosity, or other stimuli? 

Integration Group 4 subjects

Outline Conversation article, that looks at the Sutherland Reburial project, which is trying to reconstruct the faces of skulls acquired unethically by the University of Cape Town in the 1920s. 

Terms Facial reconstruction, Historical redress initiatives

Links The arts, natural sciences, technology, history

BQs Development (2015), Creativity (2022)

Exploration At the heart of this real-life situation is the assertion that the project is a case study in how “science, art and technology converge”. Get students to view the project through that lens - do they agree? And how does this project bring more “meaningful connections between the past and present?” Students can also link this story to 14 , which looks at how historians are doing more to reclaim ‘individual’ lives in African American history.

Integration History, anthropology

Outline Vox article which explore the ‘proprioception’ sense, and what knowledge it provides us about the world.

Terms Proprioception

Links Sense perception, knowledge & the knower

BQs Reality check (2015), Foundations (2022)

Exploration TOK students should be more than aware that humans possess significantly more than 5 senses (as well as those senses overlapping a great deal - consider how smell and taste work alongside each other). After reading this article, students could assess the knowledge provided to us by our proprioception sense, and its importance in helping us navigate the world. Why is this such a ‘neglected’ sense? Does it figure more in some cultures than others? 

Integration Biology, Psychology

Outline This New Humanist looks at the ‘Understanding Unbelief’ project, by Dr Lois Lee from the University of Kent, which aims “to advance the scientific understanding of atheism and other forms of so-called ‘unbelief’ around the world.”

Terms Belief, belonging, and behaviour, Non religious, Atheism, Agnosticism

Links Religion, human sciences

BQs Development (2015), Creativity (2022), Perspectives (both syllabi)

Exploration Get students to hone in on what the article identifies as (possibly) “the single biggest change in the religious and cultural landscape of Britain for centuries, even millennia”. What is this change? What does this reveal about, first, religion itself, and second, our ways of studying it? What do they make of the statement near the end of the article: “the idea of a simple division between religious and non-religious is looking increasingly untenable”?

Integration World religions, anthropology, sociology

Outline Conversation article, that examines the fallout from the Chinese gene editing story from last year.  

Terms Governance of knowledge, Moratorium

Links Natural sciences, ethics

BQs Connections (2015), Values (2022)

Exploration The gene editing story was one of the biggest in science over the last 50 years, and we considered it in November 2018’s newsletter (see this article). This story looks at the story now that a little more time has passed, and poses the question of the extent to which our ethical awareness and sophistication should determine what knowledge we produce in science, and how we do it. After reading the article, do students feel that there is some type of science that we are not ‘ready’ for? Why do they think this (or not)?

Integration Group 4 subjects

Outline Writing for The Atlantic, John McWhorter considers why the term ‘Latinx’ hasn’t caught on by language users - and what makes this term different from other ones that have.

Terms New words from below

Links Language, human sciences

BQs Development (2015), Creativity (2022)

Exploration First, what is this new term ‘Latinx’, and why have people tried to introduce it? How does McWhorter explain the fact that it hasn’t quite caught on? Finally, thinking more broadly, what does this reveal about the way in which language evolves over time, and what drives its development? 

Integration Language acquisition, anthropology

Outline AVox article, considering what we can learn about the world during the 2010s from social sciences.  

Terms  Randomized trials, Evidence-based policy, Bayesian statistics, Public opinion

Links Natural sciences

BQs Development (2015), Creativity (2022), Perspectives (both syllabi)

Exploration This article is similar to the one exploring discoveries within the natural sciences over the last decade. Get students to carry out a similar task - which of these case studies most provides the most impressive insight about human society? Why do they think this? Compare the two articles - which of these areas of knowledge moves forward more objectively and definitively? To what extent does our interpretation of knowledge within them depend on our perspective?

Integration Group 4 subjects

Outline AGuardian article that points out how ancient cave art was the polar opposite to modern day selfies when it comes to human expression and communication. 

Terms Selfies, Shamanistic, Primitive, Advanced

Links The arts, history, human sciences

BQs (2015) Representing reality (2015), Spin(2022)

Exploration Cave art is stunningly beautiful, and if your students are not familiar with it, this article may help them to realize that. It throws up many questions for us in TOK - first, how does (/does) it help us to explore the purpose and meaning of art? Second, what does it reveal about the relationship between art and the artist? This anonymous art prompted Picasso to assert “Beyond Altamira, all is decadence.” - what exactly did he mean? And finally, get students to consider the thesis of the article - that cave art highlights the narcissistic age in which we live, and images lack meaning and resonance for us unless we are in them. Is this valid?

Integration Visual arts, anthropology

Outline Smithsonian article, looking at how a new online resource will offer a new level of insight into the effect on African Americans caused by slavery during the 19th century.

Terms Individual stories, Digital humanities

Links History, technology

BQs Knower/s (2015), Perspectives (both syllabi)

Exploration This amazing new resource seeks to overcome “the biggest challenge” in slave studies, the idea that “people were unknowable, that the slave trade destroyed individuality.” First of all, how is this project trying to do that? What knowledge do we restore when we achieve that? How important is it to possess “individual stories”? And can we link this to Stalin’s cynical observation that, “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”?

Integration History, anthropology

Outline In this Big Think video, Dr. Michio Kaku considers why people still subscribe to flat-Earth theory and anti-vax conspiracies.

Terms Superstition, Science, Pareidolia, Genetic predisposition for nonsense

Links Natural & human sciences, knowledge & the knower

BQs Knower/s (2015), Foundations (2022)

Exploration Students should consider Kaku’s explanation of why people still buy into discredited ideas, such as flat-earth and anti-vaccination theories. Is it all because of the way we have evolved? If this is true, can we overcome it? To what extent are our beliefs about the world due to a choice that people make: embracing a lazier, more instinctive, and superstitious approach to understanding, rather than accepting that valid knowledge only comes by applying a long, often painful, process of scientific thinking? 

Integration Group 3 & 4 subjects

Quick stories

E1. Oligarchy of ideas

  • Links Technology, human sciences, knowledge & the knower
  • Terms Marketplace of ideas vs. oligarchy of ideas, Free speech
  • BQs Representing reality (2015), Development (2015), Values (2022), Creativity (2022)
  • Exploration Is free speech more conducive to the production of new knowledge about the world?
  • Integration ITGS, Group 3 subjects
  • Source New Humanist 


E2. Word of the year reservations

  • Links Language, human sciences
  • Terms Word of the year
  • BQ Representing the world (2015), Spin (2022)
  • Exploration To what extent can a single word summarize the state of contemporary society?
  • Integration Language acquisition, group 3 subjects
  • Source The Conversation 


E3. Kama muta

  • Links Language, emotion, human sciences
  • Terms Kama muta
  • BQ Representing reality
  • Exploration Do we need a term for a feeling in order to make sense of it?
  • Integration Psychology, Language acquisition
  • Source Aeon 


E4. Mandela Effect

  • Links Sense perception, intuition, human sciences, knowledge and the knower
  • Terms The Mandela Effect
  • BQ Reality check (2015), Foundations (2022)
  • Exploration “We know accurately only when we know little; with knowledge doubt increases.” Discuss!
  • Integration Film, psychology
  • Source The Conversation 


E5. Kids these days

  • Links Memory, human sciences
  • Terms Kids these days effect
  • BQ Connections (2015), Knower/s (2015), Foundations (2022), Creativity (2022)
  • Exploration To what extent does flawed memory explain the way people interact?
  • Integration Psychology
  • Source Smithsonian 

November 2019 RLS

Outline of the story Guardian article, looking at a Christmas-themed work of art by Banksy.

Links to TOK The arts, ethics, human sciences

Related BQ Connections, Purpose & value

Key terms Representing themselves, Interactive

Exploring the story Jonathan Jones is generally unimpressed by the work of Banksy (see this article), but he views this as bordering on genius. In order of levels of sophistication, first, use this story to consider what makes it so good (think about the concept and the execution of the art). Second, how effectively is art able to explore ethical issues (perhaps in a way that other forms of expression aren’t able to do)? Finally think about the perspective of the source - The Guardian newspaper - how might their political and social agenda shape the way they assess this work of art?

DP integration Visual arts, Group 3 subjects

Source outline Time article on why ‘They’ is the Merriam-Webster word of the year for 2019. 

Links Language, human sciences, ethics

Outline Guardian article, looking at the concept of ‘firehosing’, which is being used by those who seek to promote anti-vaxxing beliefs. 

Links Language, natural sciences, Knowledge & the knower

Outline Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer, playwright, and actor, discusses in The Atlantic the purpose of art, and what role artists should play in society. 

Links The arts, ethics

Outline This Smithsonian article looks at the ‘true’ story of Thanksgiving, why it became mythologized, and how we should be learning about it differently. 

Links History, indigenous knowledge, human sciences, ethics

Outline An Aeon essay that considers the problems with the ethical ‘golden rule’, and how the Chinese thinker Mengzi (or ‘Mencius’, as he is sometimes known) provides us with an alternative.

Links Ethics, knowledge & the knower

Outline An extensive Guardian article, that considers how figuring out the patterns and cycles of history could help us understand both the past and the present more effectively.

Links History, human & natural sciences

Outline Conversation article, looking at how algorithms alone cannot be held responsible for radicalizing humans. 

Links Technology, ethics, human sciences, reason, knowledge & knowers

October 2019 RLS

1. Superheroes and cinema

Outline A Conversation article, looking at the assertion made by Martin Scorsese that superhero films are not cinema.

Links The arts

BQ Authority figures

Exploration Students should first begin by understanding exactly what Scorsese said - a lot of reports in the press have commented on his assertion, but have misrepresented his actual statements (see Story 5, and what Hoffman said about clearly framing the argument!). Does he makes a strong point - and can we justify our own opinions? Who should determine the validity of art, and which genre it belongs to? Is art different in this respect from other areas of knowledge?

Integration Film, visual arts, language & literature

2. Looting vs. finding food

Outline An Aeon article, looking at how different ethnic groups of people caught up in Hurricane Katrina were portrayed differently in the press.

Links Language, ethics, art

3. Vietnam blues

Outline A Newsweek article, considering a the work of UK researchers who concluded that the lowest point of happiness in the U.S. over the last 200 years occurred during the Vietnam War.

Links Emotion, history, human sciences

4. Unsafe psychology

Outline A Guardian article, looking at how the work and legacy of influential psychologist Hans Eysenck is now being ruled as ‘unsafe’.

Links Human sciences, intuition, reason

5. Terms & conditions

Outline A Big Think video, in which Donald Hoffman argues that the key to successful arguments is ensuring that everyone is using terms clearly and understandably.

Links Language, and most areas of knowledge, spin

6. Historical analogies

Outline A History Today article, considering whether we can explain modern politics (eg Brexit) via historical analogies.

Links History, human sciences, politics

7. Rebalanced art

Outline A Guardian article, looking at how the Museum of Modern Art in New York is ‘rebalancing’ its walls by adding a lot more works by female and black artists.

Links The arts, ethics, human sciences

8. Science as a team sport

Outline An Atlantic review, exploring how Thomas Edison’s greatest achievement was a way of thinking, rather than a tangible invention.

Links Natural & human sciences, reason, imagination

Septermber RLS

1. Reevaluating red meat?

Source outline This Big Think article examines a recent research study into the effects of red meat on our health, concluding that there is little evidence of correlation between it and bad health. 

TOK Links The natural sciences, reason, emotion, my assumptions

Related BQ Development

Knowledge questions & exploration This is a fascinating real-life situation, and brings into question the extent to which (and on what basis) we are invested in scientific ideas. We have accepted for quite some time that red meat is harmful to our health - how should we view this issue now? Have the authors of the study “eroded public trust in scientific research"? Does this prove that we only accept new ideas if they correspond to what we already believe? Does this indicate that the natural sciences are just as vulnerable to emotional ties to ideas and theories as other areas of knowledge? Finally, what does it indicate about the challenges associated with producing definitive scientific knowledge? Check out the story in The Guardian and Vox (it was also in many other media sources.

DP integration Biology, chemistry, physics, sports/health science

2. Historical evidence

Outline A Smithsonian article, looking at an art exhibition that presents the historical evidence used against David Irving when he sued Deborah Lipstadt for referring to him as a Holocaust denier.

Links History, the arts, human sciences, ethics, reason, emotion

3. Measuring love

Outline A Guardian article, looking at how Bobby Seagull applied mathematics in an attempt to figure out the odds of him falling successfully in love. 

Links Mathematics, human sciences, emotion, reason

4. Stadium art

Outline A CNN video looking at Swiss artist Klaus Littmann’s ‘art intervention’ of 300 trees in a football stadium in Austria. 

Links The arts, ethics, natural sciences, imagination, emotion

5. Misreading strangers

Outline A Guardian podcast, in which Malcolm Gladwell discusses how we misread human emotions, and the implications of this.

Links Emotions, language, reason, navigating the world, assumptions

6. Vitamin C

Outline A Vox video, looking at the myth about Vitamin C being effective in treating the Common Cold. 

Links The natural sciences, reason, intuition, my assumptions

7. Miracle cure

Outline A Telegraph article, considering the belief of a British man that his cancer was cured by a trip to Lourdes. 

Links Religious knowledge systems, natural sciences, faith, reason

8. 1984 today

Outline A New Humanist article, exploring how the way we read, understand, and discuss Nineteen Eighty-Four has changed over time - and what that says about society.

Links The arts, ethics, human sciences, origin of values


August RLS

1. Motivated seeing

Outline of story A Vox article, exploring how ‘motivated seeing’ can warp the way we view the world. 

TOK Links Sense perception, human sciences, my biases & perceptions

Related BQs Reality check, Perspectives

Knowledge questions & exploration The phrase ‘motivated seeing’ is a great one to grasp, and can be applied to many different subject areas. First, students can apply this to themselves - in what ways are they motivated to see in a particular way (an obvious context for considering this might be a sporting event)? Second, what are the implications of ‘motivated seeing’ in terms of how we understand the world? Can we overcome this - and if so, how?

2. Emergency measures

Outline A Forbes article, demonstrating how the labelling of a phenomenon (climate change) as an ‘emergency’ changes the way we perceive that phenomenon.

Links Language, human sciences, emotion

3. Literally

Outline A Guardian article, looking at why Taylor Swift’s use of the word ‘literally’ in an interview should only bother linguistic pedants. 

Links Language

4. Ungendered language

Outline A UCLA study (highlighted in Eureka Alert), on the relationship between gender-neutral pronouns and our levels of gender bias.

Links Language, ethics, values

5. Incredible isotope

Outline A Guardian article, looking at how Carbon 14 was discovered, and the impact it has had on the world. 

Links Natural sciences, technology

6. Cinematic assumptions

Outline An Aeon video, considering how we view and perceive early movies in the wrong way - and thus do not grasp how ‘vivid and realistic’ they actually were.

Links The arts, history, emotion, my assumptions

7. Tasting the past

Outline A Guardian article, looking at how archaeologists and historians are increasingly recreating ancient recipes in order to understand the past. 

Links History, sense perception

8. Shapes in the clouds

Outline A BBC/Open University video, looking at how we all construct reality based on our past experiences and the expectations these create.

Links Sense perception, my assumptions

Summer 2019 RLS

1. Lunar lies


Outline of the RLS This podcast examines the origin of the moon landing hoax story, and some of the reasons why people persist in believing in this conspiracy - despite it being a lot more far-fetched than the official truth.

Links to these elements of TOK Reason, navigating the world, spin, politics

Related Big Question Representing reality (BQ5)

DP Integration This story could be used by any DP teacher looking to explore our application of reason, but is perhaps best suited to Group 3 and Group 4 subjects.

Questions and ideas to explore Students could perhaps explore one or two of the most common arguments against the moon landings being real, then listen to the podcast, and how easily these are debunked - leading them on to a consideration of why people insist on embracing them. Link this to a consideration of the role of social media, the current political climate around the world, and our mistrust of ‘experts’. Focus in on the fundamental question asked by Richard Godwin (at around 17 minutes) is: “If you are prepared to swallow all that, what on earth is the basis of your belief in anything?” Is it harmless? Or does it feed into our belief of other more dangerous ideas, such as linking vaccinations to autism?

Source The Guardian

2. Heaven vs. the heavens

Outline In this short Big Think video, Dr. Michio Kaku discusses the distinctive purposes of science and religion, and how there are two Gods - one ‘personal’, and one related to the order and harmony of the universe.

Links Natural sciences, religion, faith, reason, values

BQ Purpose & value (BQ2)

Integration This source would work particularly well for teachers of World Religions, and for Group 4 subject teachers.

Exploration Do students agree with the basic premise of the video - that “the purpose of science is to determine how the heavens go. The purpose of religion is to determine how to go to heaven”? And do they find Kaku’s identification of two Gods (what are these) helpful? Does this indicate that we cannot approach the world purely with a scientific worldview, as other thinkers may advocate? Contrast Kaku’s assertion that the universe is “quite elegant, quite simple” with what story 14 says. 

Source Big Think

3. Falling into temptation

Outline Pope Francis has approved a change to the Lord’s prayer, outraging some of his followers, but pleasing others. This article considers the reasons for both reactions, and what this says about the development of religious ideas over time.

Links Religion, language

Source Christian Post

4. Biologically moral

Outline This is an interview with Patricia Churchland, a ‘neurophilosopher’ who specialises in how biological evolution impacted on our intuitive ability to distinguish right from wrong.

Links Natural & human sciences, ethics, origin of our values

Source Vox

5. Proving the obvious

Outline This long article sets out to explore the relationship between money and politics, specifically, whether campaign donations effect political decision-making. But it also asks a bigger question: “Does evidence matter when it tells us something we’d already thought was true?”

Links Human sciences, reason, my assumptions

Source FiveThirtyEight

6. Women in power

Outline This article/podcast examines how ‘big history’ is helping us to explore the role of women wielding power and influence in eight premodern societies spanning five continents and more than 4,000 years.

Links History, human sciences, technology, navigating the world

Source Big Think

7. Cultures of acceptance

Outline This article ask a very simple question, that has a complex answer: why are same-sex relationships supported within some countries, and opposed in others?

Links Ethics, human sciences, origin of our values

Source BBC

8. Landscape and history

Outline This article explores how landscape (specifically, woodland) impacts on the events of the past in as significant a way any ‘king, battle, or war’ 

Links History

Source New Statesman

9. Wellbeing and GDP

Outline The article questions whether a country’s GDP is the most helpful indicator of its health and prosperity, arguing that ‘well-being’ is a better way of judging how well a country is progressing.

Links Human sciences, politics, spin

Source Forbes

10. Beauty and truth

Outline This article by Massimo Pigliucci looks at Richard Feynman’s belief that truth in physics is something that correlates to elegance and beauty. 

Links Natural sciences, sense perception, the arts, reason, navigating the world

Source Aeon


Quick stories

E1 Aladdin & diversity

  • Links The arts, ethics, human sciences
  • BQ Connections (BQ3)
  • Integration Perfect for Group 6 subjects looking to explore the moral dimension of art
  • Exploration How do the arts (film) shape our ethical outlooks? (part 1 - racial equality)
  • Source NY Times

 E2 Saving the world

  • Links The arts, ethics, natural sciences
  • BQ Connections (BQ3)
  • Integration Perfect for Group 6 subjects looking to explore the moral dimension of art
  • Exploration How do the arts (most forms of art) shape our ethical outlooks? (part 2 - climate change)
  • Source The Guardian

 E3 Studying humans

  • Links Human sciences
  • BQ Perspectives (BQ6)
  • Integration Very helpful for Group 3 subjects in considering methods of studying human beings
  • Exploration Can we escape the Hawthorne effect in the human sciences?
  • Source The Conversation

E4 Mentalism and happiness

  • Links Reason, emotion
  • BQ Purpose & value (BQ2)
  • Integration Useful for teachers of psychology and philosophy
  • Exploration How do our goals shape the way we understand the world?
  • Source BBC

May 2019 RLS

1. Intention vs. impact

Outline of story The article looks at calls being made to remove the 1936 mural created by artist Victor Arnautoff, in George Washington High School, San Francisco. The mural features brutal moments from the country’s colonial past, and although the intention of the artist was undoubtedly to communicate the moral ambiguity of US history, this is being overlooked by those who believe that “merely depicting past atrocities justifies them”. A first-order KQ could be, “What themes are explored in Arnautoff’s mural The Life of Washington?”

Links to TOK The arts, ethics, history, the human sciences, reason, emotion

Big Question Connections

Exploring the story This is a great real-life situation for students to get their teeth into, touching on several different ways of knowing and areas of knowledge and knowledge questions. First of all, students should consider the background of the artist, and his motive for the mural. To what extent should the intention of an artist be considered when trying to understand a work of art? Second, get students to think about the historical context - of when the mural was created, and of the events it portrays. Why do we feel the need to ‘revise’ history? Finally, consider the ethical angle. To what extent do the arts help us to produce ethical knowledge? How do (/should) we produce objective knowledge about moral issues?

Source The Conversation

2. Miracle gel

Outline The article explores the popularity of the ‘miracle gel’ Somaderm, which users claim can improve your mood, help with weight loss, make you sleep better, reduce wrinkles, thicken hair and enhance libido. There is no clinical evidence for any of these effects. A first-order KQ might include, “How thoroughly has Somaderm been tested?”

Links The natural & human sciences, faith, reason, language, spin

BQ Representing reality

Exploration The key question here is ‘Why?’ Why do people believe in the claims made by the manufacturers of this product - is it because it works (what’s the evidence for this?)? Is it because they’re desperate? Is it because the language used by the sellers is so persuasive? Is it because they are failing to apply reason - or applying it effectively? Extend this out to knowledge in general - why are people, in general, so inclined to believe unverified claims such as these? 

Source The Guardian

3. Victory of humankind

Outline This story looks at the way a kilogram is calibrated, and the huge implications of what this means in terms of the way we interact and understand reality. First-order KQs could include, “How has the new kilogram unit been calculated?”

Links The natural sciences, language, technology

BQ Representing reality / Development

Exploration As we saw in a previous edition of the newsletter, the concept of a kilogram used to be based on ‘Le Grand K’ in Paris. Scientists have now switched to a more accurate form of calibration, based on the Planck constant. Get students to understand how this works (via a consideration of the way metres are calculated), then consider why the writer of the article believes the kilogram is “a victory of humankind against the chaos that pervades the universe.” Is this form of generating knowledge the ‘truest’ form of knowledge there is?

Source Vox

4. Emotive issue #1

Outline The article looks at the introduction of sweeping new laws to outlaw abortion in Alabama, including cases of conception via rape and incest. It also compares abortion laws in other countries around the world. A first-order knowledge question might be, “Is abortion right or wrong?”

Links Ethics, the human sciences, reason, emotion, values

BQ Perspectives, Authority figures

Exploration This real-life situation is a great opportunity to apply ethical principles to an actual case - although be clear that in TOK, we are not interested in answering first-order questions (see above), only in exploring how we arrive at our ethical judgements. So, how (and who) should we produce ethical knowledge in this case? Should ethical knowledge be based on what the majority of the people want? Should it be based on religious principles? Should it be based on what’s practically applicable? Should it be designed with the mother in mind? Should such an issue be decided purely by mean - as it was - or should men be restricted from offering an opinion? Think about consequentialism and deontologicalism - does this enable any kind of route towards consensus? Finally, can we debate this issue in a rational way, or will our emotional involvement always get the better of us?

Source New York Times

5. Music and the mind

Outline This very long but fascinating Aeon article looks at how how we traditionally view the senses, and the fact that how we perceive music is very rarely considered alongside how we see, hear, feel, and so on. It concludes that “making sense of the world is not necessarily just a matter of representing it.” First-order KQs could include, “What is entrainment?”

Links The arts, sense perception, language, intuition, reason, me as a knower & thinker

BQ Reality check

Exploration There is so much to this article, it’s hard to break it down. Students could consider its overall point - that the way in which our minds react to music indicates that we are more than just a logic-driven computer when it comes to interacting with the world (why?). Then they can focus in on some of the key points, explaining what’s meant by them - “the lived reality of music puts pressure on philosophers to broaden their conception of what the mind is”; “Detecting temporal structure in sound is key to grasping what other people mean, and also to conveying meaning ourselves”; “Music is a reminder to philosophers of mind that perceptual experience isn’t exhausted by vision.” 

Source Aeon

6. Evolution of belief

Outline This review of Ethan Shagan’s new book, The Birth of Modern Belief, considers that it isn’t just the concept of religion that has changed over time, it is also the concept of belief. A first-order knowledge question might be, “How has the number of people worshipping in churches changed over time?”

Links Religious knowledge systems, faith, reason, language

BQ Development, Knower/s

Exploration First, students could consider the way in which religion has developed over time, based on the first paragraph of the article (plus their own ideas, and outside reading). Then get them to think about the meaning of belief (something that we look at in our Introductory unit to the course). Then link our two big questions to the article - considering how belief has become personal, rather than shared, over time. What are the implications of this in terms of how we understand and produce religious knowledge (and other AOKs - such as ethics, etc.)? 

Source History Today

7. A historian's notes

Outline This is an article by the great-grand-daughter of EH Carr, one of the most influential historians of the last 20th century. It discusses his approach to this area of knowledge, and what he believed the purpose of history - and the historian - was. A first-order KQ might be, “What were EH Carr’s key contributions to history?” 

Links History, reason, biases

BQ Purpose & value, Authority figures

Exploration EH Carr’s ideas are fundamental to our understanding of history, and really help us to get to grips with this area of knowledge. Start students off with his initial quotes - “study the historian before you begin to study the facts” and “The facts… are like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. The historian collects them, takes them home and cooks and serves them.”. Then get them to think about the way he classified facts as ‘past’ and ‘present’. Overall, was Carr right to say “The historian frequently does not draw from objective fact, but his experiences of them”? And, can objective judgement ever be made about the past? 

Source New Statesman

8. Cognitively costly

Outline This is an interview with neuroscientist Dr Hannah Critchlow, in which she discusses - as the title of the article suggests - why is is so difficult for us to change our minds, and embrace other perspectives. A first-order KQ might be, “How do our brains physically change as they receive new knowledge?”

Links The human & natural sciences, reason, me as a knower & thinker

BQ Knower/s

Exploration This interview is interesting throughout, but it’s probably at its most useful to us where Critchlow gets to the point where she’s discussing the role of genes in determining our decision making. Get students to assess whether her approach to studying decision-making is an effective one - in other words, what can we understand about human behaviour via physiological considerations of the brain? Contrast this article with the Aeon one - how do they differ in terms of the way they present our mind?

Source The Guardian

9. The humble philosopher

Outline In this short video, Keith Whittington discusses the approach to knowledge of John Stuart Mill, the 18th century British philosopher. In particular, he focuses on Mill’s belief that humility was at the base of arguing, and you must be genuinely prepared to accept that you are wrong. A first-order KQ might be, “What were John Stuart Mill’s key ideas?”

Links Reason, the human sciences, biases & assumptions

BQ Authority figures

Exploration This is a great way of getting students to consider how open-minded they are themselves: what, if anything, would they be prepared to admit they may have figured out wrong? Then introduce them to the video, focusing on what Whittington says - “It’s only by accepting the possibility that we are wrong that we can learn.” To what extent do we think “carefully to our convictions, and deliberately expose them to criticism?” What are the implications of not doing so? In which areas of knowledge is it easier and more difficult to do so?

Source Big Think

10. Beyond assumptions

Outline The is an article on anti-vaxxers, which attempts to avoid passing judgement on them, presenting them as a heterogenous group, with vastly different motives for refusing vaccinations, ranging from those who are simply anti-science, to those who have weighed up the odds of the vaccines having a tangible effect on the health of their own children. A first-order KQ could be, “What reasons do people have for not vaccinating their children?”

Links Natural & human sciences, reason, intuition, emotion, biases & assumptions

BQ Authority figures

Exploration It’s easy to be judgemental and dismissive of those who choose not to vaccinate their children. However, as John Stuart Mill pointed out, in order to properly debate, you need to base your outlook on humility. You could begin by asking students what they think of the anti-vaxxers, identifying any strong opinions. Then ask them to read through the article. What does it reveal to them? How important is it to suspend judgement in order to understand? Is having an open mind always beneficial for the way in which we gather knowledge in the human sciences?

Source Vox

11. Loaded term

Outline These two articles looks at the way in which the term ‘Judeo-Christian’ has evolved over time, and now acts as a central tenet in one particular interest group. A first-order KQ might be, “What does the term ‘Judeo-Christian’ mean? 

Links Language, history, language, human sciences, biases

BQ Development

Exploration Students can begin by looking at the claim of one thinker that Notre-Dame was built on ‘Judeo-Christian’ heritage, and the reasons why this is completely invalid. Then they can build up an understanding of how this term has developed over time (after the war, it was used a term of tolerance and diversity; more recently - ironically - it has been adopted by a more right-wing coalition of users). Then students can consider the second-order knowledge here: how does the evolution of words shift our understanding of concepts? And, to what extent do our biases affect the way we communicate our ideas?

Source New Republic & New Humanist

12. Barca nostra

Outline This article looks at the installation by artist Christoph Büchel at the Venice Biennale, entitled ‘Barca Nostra’ which was the hull of a boat that sank in the Mediterranean, in which 700 migrants drowned. A first-order KQ could be, “What is the message of Büchel’s Barca Nostra?”

Links The arts, ethics, emotion, values

BQ Connections, authority figures

Exploration This is an excellent real-life situation to explore the relationship between art and ethics. Get students to give their reactions to Büchel’s installation, making sure that they properly examine their own responses. Then ask them to consider this relationship: does the fact that art produces an emotive reaction in us help or hinder us as we seek to understand ethical issues? Are artists ‘moral experts’? Should (/can) we seek to establish our ethical outlooks in an objective way?

Source The art newspaper

13. Earth rising

Outline This article shows a series of images representing steps forward in our understanding of the workings of the universe, from the moon landings of 1969, to the Event Horizon telescope pictures of the M87 Black Hole. A first-order knowledge question might be, “What have been the most significant images taken of the universe over the last 50 years?”

Links Sense perception, the natural sciences, reason, technology

BQ Representing reality

Exploration These amazing images form a great summary of key scientific discoveries of the universe over the past 50 years. They prompt us to consider the question, what role does sense perception play in helping us to understand knowledge in the natural sciences?

Source The Guardian

14. Emotive issue #2

Outline These two articles from differently-aligned publications consider the recent episode of the children’s animated TV series ‘Arthur’, which featured a same-sex marriage, and the effect this had on different audiences in the United States. A first-order KQ might be, “Why did Alabama Public Television refuse to show the marriage episode of Arthur?”

Links Ethics, the human sciences, values

BQ Perspectives

Exploration This real-life situation allows us to explore two different ideas. First, as we also consider in our Christoph Büchel story, how the arts can be used to portray and explore moral issues. But perhaps more interestingly, how different perspectives cause us to regard issues very differently. Students can look at both articles, consider the perspectives behind them, and then bring together several of the issues we look at in the other RLSs from this month. Is it possible to produce ethical objectively (compare to our other 'emotive issue')? Is consensus possible in ethics, or is changing our mind “too cognitively costly”, as Hannah Critchlow argues?

Source National Review & The Atlantic

15. Digital hoarding

Outline The article looks at the way we try to digitally ‘hoard’ experiences, by taking photos or making videos of events, and the effect this may have on our relationship with reality. A first-order KQ might be, “Are we becoming more averse to transience?”

Links The arts, sense perception, emotion, human sciences, technology

BQ Development

Exploration Our final RLS is a nice way to get students to reflect on their own use of digital images, and the way in which they interact with reality. Do they feel the need to record events as they experience them? Do they need to feature in these images (ie in selfies)? What are the implications on the extent to which we draw on our memory in order to produce knowledge? 

Source New Statesman

Quick stories

E1 Artistic release

  • Links to these elements of TOK Imagination, the arts, the human sciences, emotion
  • Related Big Question Purpose & value
  • Questions and consideration points to explore Is the purpose of art to help us understand, or escape from, reality?
  • Source BBC

E2 Deafening silences

  • Links Sense perception
  • BQ Reality check
  • Exploration How complete is the reality we construct via our senses?
  • Source FiveThirtyEight

E3 Bringing alive art?

  • Links The arts, technology
  • BQ Reality check
  • Exploration Can AI technology help us to understand art more effectively?
  • Source Big Think

E4 Album of the world

  • Links History, the arts, sense perception, imagination
  • BQ Representing reality
  • Exploration How do visual sources change our understanding of the past?
  • Source CNN

E5 Anatomy lesson

  • Links The arts, the natural sciences
  • BQ Connections
  • Exploration How profound does our understanding have to be of something in order to represent it artistically?
  • Source The Conversation

April 2019 RLS

1. M87

Outline of the RLS This is one of the biggest science stories of the last few years (decades, perhaps) - the images of the M87 Black Hole, created from the data created by various telescopes positioned around the world. This is the first time we have ever seen such images. First-order questions include: how were the images of the M87 Black Hole created?

Links to TOK The natural sciences, mathematics, sense perception, reason, technology

Related Big Question Development

Questions and consideration points to explore The images of M87 (which are not quite photos; read the articles to find out more about this) were extraordinary, and had a huge impact on scientists and non-scientists alike. First get students to understand what exactly is provided by the amazing images. Then use the RLS to help us consider the role of sense perception in the natural sciences, thinking about such knowledge questions as: do we need to see something in order to know it exists? How essential is the role of sense perception in the natural sciences? 

Sources Time + Guardian + Vox (perhaps the best source) + Washington Post 

2. Digital health

Outline The article looks at research carried out by Oxford University, which suggests that digital technology usage has little or no impact on the mental health of teenagers. First-order knowledge questions might include: what research has Oxford University just carried out on the use of digital technology?

Links Human & natural sciences, reason, intuition, technology

BQ Authority Figures

Exploration This article shows very clearly how reality is not based on what we want to believe, or what we feel should be right - many people would like there to be a link between technology use and mental health, or even strongly intuit that there is. But you have to be led by the evidence - and students can read the article to consider to what extent that evidence exists. Second-order knowledge questions to consider include: does our intuition lead us astray when we produce knowledge? Is our understanding of human behaviour based on assumptions or evidence?

Source New Atlas

3. Defense of the state?

Outline The article focuses on the plans by the new Brazilian government to revise history by re-labelling the 1964 military uprising and subsequent military dictatorship as vital movements that were necessary in the context of the Cold War, and the struggle against a communist threat in the country and the world. 1st order KQs might include: how does the new Brazilian government view the 1964 uprising?

Links History, human sciences (politics), spin

BQ Development

Exploration This is the latest in a long line of examples of how the past gets rewritten when politicians get involved in history. Students can look at the reasons why the new government in Brazil plan to do this, and what they hope to achieve. Think also about the importance of language here, and how events are labelled. Considering the bigger picture, they could explore: why does history get rewritten? What role does history play in the expression of political ideas?

Source Reuters

4. Stubborn opinions

Outline This article focuses on how and why Brexiteer Peter Oborne has changed his mind about the UK’s relationship in Europe, and extends this further to other people who are willing (or not) to reconsider their political views. First order KQs include: what is Brexit?

Links Human sciences (politics), emotion, reason, biases & assumptions

BQ Perspectives

Exploration Brexit is one of the most divisive issues in British politics since the end of World War II, which is why it makes such a great topic to explore. Students could first of all try to figure out why this might be the case, and then assess the positions of both sides - why are people so unwilling to compromise? Then widen consideration to explore questions such as: do people base their political beliefs on emotion or reason? Why do people find it hard to change their opinions (compare and contrast these within the different areas of knowledge)?

Source The Guardian

5. Strong bones

Outline The story looks at the existing evidence about the health benefits (or not) of drinking milk, focusing on the long-held belief that the calcium it provides us strengthens our bones. First-order KQs include: what evidence is there about the effects of milk on our health?

Links Natural sciences, reason, assumptions

BQ Knower/s

Exploration This is a very approachable, and very helpful article that brings up several key TOK concepts, which students could focus in on, such as correlation vs. causation, and methods of generating data in science. Specifically to the article, why is it so difficult it is to arrive at firm conclusions about the effect of milk on our health, and why do we tend to think that those effects are positive? Thinking bigger, how accurate are shared ideas about science? Is the validity of scientific knowledge dependent on the source of its evidence? How does the way scientific ideas are communicated shape its validity?

Source BBC

6. Cultural chameleons

Outline The article challenges the common historical perception of Vikings as being ‘racially pure’ and cultural homogenous, pointing out that the evidence seems to indicate that they were “cultural chameleons adopting local habits, languages and religions.” First-order KQs include: how did the Vikings expand their empire?

Links History, assumption & biases

BQ Purpose & value (how we use historical knowledge) 

Exploration Although this may seem like a rather specific aspect of the past, even this topic is used surprisingly frequently by people to colour the present - ask students to explore how. But more importantly is how history in general is used to construct our contemporary understanding and identity. Obviously it’s important that if we do this, the knowledge we base it on needs to be valid and accurate - but to what extent is this the case, and what are the implications of not doing so?

Source History Today

7. Turned off science

Outline The article considers the opinions of those who hold ‘anti-science’ views, such as the idea that vaccinations are harmful to our health, and the earth is flat. It links this to the way in which science is sometimes communicated with a lack of empathy. First-order KQs include: how is scientific knowledge communicated?

Links Language, the natural sciences, biases & assumptions

BQ Representing reality

Exploration This is an article that invites us not only to question the assumptions made by the ‘anti-science’ community (although they may reject that label), but also our assumptions of them. In other words, encourage your students to explore the motives behind this group of knowers’ beliefs, rather than forming quick judgements about them - is the way scientific knowledge is communicated the reason for their rejection of it? Then they can look at the bigger picture, by exploring: do we assess the validity of scientific knowledge based on the way it is communicated? Are new ideas created by accepting or rejecting existing knowledge?

Source The Guardian

8. Moral bust-up

Outline The article looks at the reaction of the Brunei government to accusations from the European Union that their introduction of Sharia law punishments (such as stoning to death for gay sex) constitutes an infringement on human rights. A first-order KQ would be: what laws have just been re-introduced in Brunei?

Links Ethics, language, religious knowledge systems, reason

BQ Perspectives

Exploration This RLS highlights a cash of two completely different ethical systems - that of Brunei and (some parts of) the Muslim world, and that of Europe and secular approaches to law and order. Get students to consider both approaches to ethics, and thinking specifically about the justification offered by Brunei: that these laws will rarely be carried out. Is this consequentialist approach a valid argument? Should we evaluate ethical ideas based on their outcomes or principles? More generally, what informs the way we construct our ethical frameworks?

Source The Washington Post

9. Imagined atoms

Outline In this short video, Michelle Thaller points out that the way atoms are typically portrayed in diagrams (consisting of spherical electrons orbiting the nucleus) does not match up even closely to reality. First-order KQs include: how are atoms represented visually?

Links Natural sciences, sense perception, the arts

BQ Representing reality

Exploration This article - like the one about M87 - gets us thinking about the relationship between visual information, and our understanding of the natural world. In this case, though, it is our visual representations of the world, rather than the things themselves. Questions students could consider after reading the article include: how much of our scientific knowledge is based on invalid visual representations? How should we simplify scientific ideas in order to represent them? 

Source Big Think

10. Sleight of hand

Outline The article asks a simple question - “Why do we enjoy looking at magic?”, particularly given that we know that ‘magic’ doesn’t exist. It considers areas that overlap with psychology - perception, attention and how we process information. First-order KQs would include: how do ‘magic’ tricks mislead us?

Links Sense perception, intuition, reason, human sciences

BQ Reality check

Exploration The question driving the article is what students should focus on first of all, perhaps something that can be answered via their own experiences. Then they can think more generally, linking their ideas to the lessons that form the basis of our First Big Question (see Beau Lotto, Donald Hoffman, etc.), and exploring what visual illusions reveal about the way we process information about the world, and how much we can and should rely on knowledge provided by our senses.

Source BBC

11. Scientific Americans

Outline The article considers the idea that Americans are misinformed about key science ideas, concluding that despite many polls indicating the reverse, most people are well-informed in this area. It then looks at the relationship between “the relationship between what people know about science and their attitudes about science”. First-order KQs would include: what do opinion polls indicate about scientific knowledge in the United States?

Links The natural & human sciences, reason, emotion

BQ Authority figures

Exploration First of all, get students to understand the basic point of the article - which is, that polls investigating scientific knowledge in the USA are often misleading, and give us the impression that scientific knowledge is lower than it actually is. Try to figure out the reasons why this is (related to the way polls are carried out). Then consider what scientists generally assert - that having less knowledge about science leads to less trust in science - and how accurate this view is. Finally, step back a little, and consider the bigger knowledge questions - can polls and questionnaires inform us about what people know? How does the way we view an area of knowledge inform the way we operate within that area of knowledge?

Source FiveThirtyEight

12. A history of conspiracy theories

Outline These two articles consider conspiracy theories. The Smithsonian article looks at how the media has been obsessed with them since at least the early 18th century, and the FiveThirtyEight article thinks a little more about the reasons behind people’s belief in them. A typical first-order KQs might be: how have conspiracy theories been covered by the press over the last 200 years?

Links Human sciences, reason, emotion, navigating the world

BQ Representing reality

Exploration Consider these sources together. Think first about the extent to which conspiracy theories have always existed via the Smithsonian article - how does that make us rethink what we think of as a modern phenomenon? Secondly, read the FiveThirtyEight article. How does this support the first? And what does it reveal about the reasons why people believe in conspiracy theories (see belief in the paranormal, the ‘socio political aspect’ of conspiracy theories, the social status of believers in conspiracies, and the fact that conspiracies have occurred). Overall, does this confirm or refute the idea that ‘the simplest explanation is always the best explanation’?

Source Smithsonian + FiveThirtyEight

13. Hierarchy of senses

Outline As the article begins - “the world loves a question that sounds stupid, but actually has a profound and interesting answer.” This article looks at the different senses, and considers how we underestimate the knowledge provided by certain of these.A first-order KQ would be: what knowledge do our senses provide us with?

Links Sense perception

BQ Reality check

Exploration We explore the concept of a ‘hierarchy of the senses’ in our first Big Question (see lesson 1.5). The idea here is to question the assumption that we are provided with the most crucial knowledge about the world around us via our sense of sight and sound, which the vast majority of people would say. What knowledge is provided by the sense of smell and taste (inextricably linked)? What do we lose when we lose the sense of touch? Overall, should we view the senses (and ways of knowing) as operating in isolation when considering how we understand the world?

Source The Conversation

14. Attention spans

Outline The article discusses recent findings about the effect of social media use, and the surplus of information being fed to us, on our attention spans, concluding for the first time that they are being shortened. A first-order KQ could be: how has the amount of information we have access to increased over time?

Links The human sciences, technology

BQ Development

Exploration There are two ways to explore this story - first, what it says about the way in which our understanding is changing as a result of social media usage; second, in terms of how the data was collected, and the conclusions that were drawn from it. First students should understand what the article is about, then they could move on to questions such as: is a surplus of data beneficial for the production of knowledge? Has our ability to communicate ideas become more or less effective? How accurately can we learn about psychology from data-driven research?

Source Irish Times

15. Atheism vs. Agnosticism

Outline This story focuses on the assertion of Dartmouth physicist Marcelo Gleiser that labelling yourself an atheist - in other words, stating that something does not exist when you have no evidence either way - is incompatible with a scientific outlook. (What do atheists ‘believe’?)

Links Reason, the natural sciences, religious knowledge systems, faith 

BQ Authority figures (what we should use to base our beliefs on)

Exploration Many people link a scientific approach to knowledge with the rejection of religious phenomena, and so call themselves ‘atheists’, but Geiser’s provocative remarks suggest that that is invalid. What do students think - should all ‘true’ scientists call themselves agnostics? After arriving at a conclusion about this RLS, students could think about the wider question, which is: where should the burden of proof lie - on those proving, or disproving an idea? 

Source Big Think

Quick stories

QS1 Certainty

  • Links to TOK Reason, sense perception, technology
  • Related Big Question Reality Check
  • Questions to explore What (and how) can we know for sure?
  • Source Vox

QS2 Dreams and knowledge

  • Links Imagination, the natural sciences
  • BQ Knower/s
  • Exploration Do dreams provide us with knowledge?
  • Source The Guardian

QS3 Gaps in our historical knowledge

  • Links History, human sciences, ethics
  • BQ Authority figures
  • Exploration Is the possession of basic historical knowledge necessary to navigate the contemporary world effectively?
  • Source BBC

QS4 Ways of seeing

  • Links Technology, language, sense perception
  • BQ Reality check
  • Exploration Can we understand the world without understanding its technology?
  • Source The Guardian

QS5 Crash test dummies

  • Links Technology, Human sciences
  • BQ Perspectives
  • Exploration How do societal hierarchies determine the way knowledge is produced?
  • Source The Guardian

March 2019 RLS

1. We band of brothers

Big Question Perspectives (and others)

AoKs/WoKs/Themes History, biases

First order KQs What happened during the battle of Agincourt?

Second order KQs How does nationalism affect the way we approach history? How does focusing on a single aspect of an event change the way we perceive that event? What determines an ‘expert’ knower of history?

What’s the story about? This article looks at the renovation of a French museum close to where the medieval battle of Agincourt took place. It considers how French and English perceptions of the battle can differ, and how our ‘facts’ about the event have developed over time.

Analysing the story This is a great real-life situation to explore a variety of Big Questions - how our knowledge develops over time (note how we have revised the number of people we think were involved); what it takes to be an expert knower (see the different approaches of academic historians, and ‘ordinary’ knowers); how the way it is represented can alter depending on how it is viewed (see how the French choose to remember the battle). But perhaps the best opportunity for exploration come via a consideration of how people’s sense of identity and nationalism shape the way they view the event - why do we approach history in this way, and what are the implications of doing so?

Source BBC

2. Giving birth to evolution

Big Question Development / Connections

AoKs/WoKs/Themes Imagination, natural sciences

First order KQs What were Einstein’s thoughts on imagination?

Second order KQs What role does imagination play in the production of scientific knowledge? How do scientific hypotheses come into being? How complete a model of knowledge production does the ‘scientific method’ provide? 

What’s the story about? The article considers what processes come before the ‘scientific method’, specifically, how imagination plays a role in helping us to arrive at hypotheses. It also compares the process of knowledge production between science and the arts, concluding that the distinction between the two is invalid.

Analysing the story This is a great article to challenge the idea that science is only created via a strict ‘scientific method’. Which writers and thinkers have suggested that imagination is a crucial part of the way we produce scientific knowledge? Do students agree with them - and how does ‘scientific’ imagination compare to ‘artistic’ imagination? Have we been wrong all along to distinguish between these two areas of knowledge?

Source The Conversation

3. Obligations of accuracy

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs/Themes History, the arts, biases, navigating the world

First order KQs How accurate is the film ‘Green Book’ in depicting events from the past?

Second order KQs Who has responsibility for accurate knowledge - producers or users?

What’s the story about? This is an article we forgot to include last month, looking at whether filmmakers have an obligation to ensure that historical movies are accurate, and concluding that responsibility for historical accuracy begins with the teaching of critical thinking in schools. 

Analysing the story Obviously this article can provide a fantastic foundation for a debate in class: do they believe that filmmakers have a responsibility for historical accuracy? Or does that responsibility lie with the viewer? Connected to this the can also consider the question posed by the writer - “Does historical fiction alter our sense of reality?” Finally, do even the inaccurate historical movies prompt interest and debate over events from the past, ultimately helping us to discover truths and produce useful knowledge?

Source The Guardian

4. Heads or tails?

Big Question Connections

AoKs/WoKs/Themes Mathematics, reason, intuition

First order KQs How do the three most popular theories conceive of probabilities?

Second order KQs To what extent do assumptions underpin our understanding of mathematics? Which ways of knowing do we use to calculate probabilities? Is probability a philosophical concept?

What’s the story about? The article examines how we generate figures of probability, pointing out that there are different possible approaches, suggesting that the concept of probability is not as simple as we think. 

Analysing the story Probabilities play a huge role in how we view the world. Get students to look in the news and find examples of how probabilities are used to help us understand the potential outcomes of events and issues. Next get students to think about how probabilities are generated - from simple ‘coin-tossing’, to more complex calculations of whether someone might be guilty of a crime. How do these link to the ways of knowing? Is there a line where we can’t reasonably talk in terms of probabilities? Finally get students to read through the article. Is probability, ultimately, a philosophical assessment?

Source Aeon

5. Modern master

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs/Themes The arts, sense perception, emotion

First order KQs What themes did Victor Vasarely explore in his art?

Second order KQs Does art inform the way in which we understand the world?

What’s the story about? The story looks at the work of Victor Vasarely, and the influence he had on the art - and non-art - world. It tracks the development of his paintings, and considers the questions he tried to explore. 

Analysing the story This article is a nice way to introduce students to a very influential modern artist, who used fascinating techniques to communicate his ideas. It will help them to get to grips with the tricky question of ‘what is artistic knowledge’ - in Vasarely’s case, as the article puts it, his work was an attempt “to perceive an invisible architecture that underlies reality”. Does he succeed in doing this? Does his art help students to make sense of reality? 

Source BBC

6. Predictive justice

Big Question Connections

AoKs/WoKs/Themes Mathematics, ethics, technology

First order KQs What is the ‘Gangs Matrix’?

Second order KQs Does basing decisions on algorithms create solid ethical knowledge? Should ethical decisions only be made by sentient beings?

What’s the story about? The article looks at how a ‘predictive policing tool’ - a database created by London’s Metropolitan police - is being used to calculate the risks posed by individuals, and determine the actions taken against them by the authorities.

Analysing the story This story is another great example of how we use mathematics to approach ethical decision-making ‘objectively. In theory, the matrix “guides an efficient use of police resources and aids court prosecutions”. However, there’s a great deal of unease about how the matrix is used. Is this because we’re uncomfortable about ethical decision-making not being made by humans (in which case, why)? Or is this because the ‘Gangs Matrix’ is applying mathematical principles in a flawed way? More generally, what do students feel about trying to base ethics on algorithms - something that is happening increasingly around the world? Finally, link this story to no.4 - is our trust in probabilities flawed anyway?

Source Wired

7. More than a muse

Big Question Perspectives

AoKs/WoKs/Themes History, human sciences

First order KQs Who was Aspasia of Miletus?

Second order KQs How do modern sensibilities inform the way we understand history? Is new knowledge discovered via paradigm-shifts in society?

What’s the story about? Armand D'Angour offers a dramatic contention about the origins of Socrates’s ideas, and how this turns our understanding about the basis of Western philosophy on its head.

Analysing the story Get students to read through the article, and understand the central assertion made by D'Angour, concerning the role of Aspasia in motivating Socrates to produce his ideas. In what way is this a “historically sensational conclusion”? To what extent is it one made by our modern-day push-back against a traditionally male-dominated academic discipline? Is this how we make new discoveries in history and the other areas of knowledge - by challenging the societal norms of the time?

Source The Conversation

8. The Scream

Big Question Knower/s

AoKs/WoKs/Themes The arts, human sciences

First order KQs Why is Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ considered a great work of art?

Second order KQs Are the ideas inherent in great works of art universally applicable? Is great art of its time, or does it transcend time?

What’s the story about? The article considers an exhibition of the Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch, and whether the display of his iconic ‘The Scream’ in London has been timed deliberately to coincide with the chaos of ‘Brexit’. 

Analysing the story Although this article comes from The Guardian - which has one or two things to say about Brexit (students could research this), the article nicely demonstrates that artwork can have added resonance and power at particular moments. This artwork perfectly expresses what many people feel right now in the UK. Is this one of the characteristics of great art - that its power can be harnessed at different times? What other examples could students find of this?

Source The Guardian

9. Science vs. the Law

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs/Themes Natural & human sciences, mathematics, reason

First order KQs Did Monsanto products cause cancer amongst its users?

Second order KQs How does the concept of ‘proof’ differ from one area of knowledge to another? Can proof ever be absolute? 

What’s the story about? The story looks at the law-suit brought against Monsanto’s ‘Round-Up’ weed killer, which successfully (judged by the law) accused the product of causing Edwin Hardeman’s cancer. 

Analysing the story Get students to come up with a definition of ‘proof’. They should think about how universal this definition is - in other words, does proof vary from area of knowledge to area of knowledge? Then offer them the article. What does it say about how proof differs in science and the law? What are the implications of this, given that legal proof often (as in this case) relies on scientific proof? Finally, linking this story to (again) our fourth one this month, “Can proof ever be absolute, or is it inherently a statement of probabilities?”

Source Salon

10. Trusting our memory

Big Question Reality Check

AoKs/WoKs/Themes Memory, biases, navigating the world

First order KQs How does memory work?

Second order KQs To what extent should we base our understanding of the world on our memory? 

What’s the story about? This video looks at the reliability (or not) of memory, and the implications of how false memories can be implanted in our minds.

Analysing the story A really nice video featuring key thinkers who are part of the BQ framework (such as Elizabeth Loftus), this can be shown to students as a way of introducing the problems of memory as a way of knowing. The basic question for students to consider is, “if memories are changeable, how much should we trust them?”

Source The Guardian

11. Names to faces

Big Question Knower/s

AoKs/WoKs/Themes History

First order KQs How is Kurt Luther seeking to put a name on every Civil War portrait?

Second order KQs How specialised should the production of knowledge be? Does the democratization of knowledge increases its value?

What’s the story about? The article looks at a truly remarkable project - the attempt by Kurt Luther, of Virginia Tech, to name every unknown person in Civil War era photographs.

Analysing the story The story shows how the way knowledge is pursued changing in history (and other areas of knowledge). Rather than a simple delineation between ‘producer’ and ‘user’, here is an example of how the ‘producer’ is encouraging ‘users’ to be involved in the creation of ideas. Does this also mean that the responsibility for ensuring the validity and accuracy of the knowledge has also changed? Get students to consider how this new approach to knowledge - crowdsourcing and ‘big data’ - is changing AOKs, and the roles of those involved in them.

Source Smithsonian

12. The good place

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs/Themes Emotion, human sciences

First order KQs Which are the happiest nations in the world?

Second order KQs Can we measure emotion quantitatively? 

What’s the story about? The article looks at the annual UN survey on happiness in countries throughout the world, and considers the reasons why countries such as Finland, Denmark, and Norway are so happy, and South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Afghanistan are not.

Analysing the story First, ask students whether it is actually possible to objectively measure happiness (and emotions in general). If so - how? If not - why not? What’s also interesting about this story is the analysis offered to explain the results. Here’s one from Newsweek on how screens are responsible for unhappiness in the USA; here’s one form the BBC on how you can generate your own happiness. Are these articles based on actual evidence?

Source CNN

13. Historical music

Big Question Connections / Development

AoKs/WoKs/Themes History, the arts, sense perception

First order KQs What did music sound like in Ancient Greece?

Second order KQs Can we reconstruct the way people applied sense perception from the past? 

What’s the story about? This amazing video looks at the work of historian and classical musician Armand D’Angour (who features twice in our newsletter this month), who spent years researching music in Ancient Greek, culminating in a live performance featuring reconstructed instruments, and poems by Homer.

Analysing the story There’s lots to consider here. First, of all, the video looks at the craft of the historian, so students could consider the type of evidence that they deal with, and the inferences they have to make. Second, to what extent do we neglect a consideration of sense perception as a way of knowing as we study the past? Listening to these sounds gives you an extraordinary feeling as you realise you’re listening to something that hasn’t been heard for around 2500 years. Link also to story no.7, which also features D’Angour’s ideas.

Source Aeon

14. Quantum revolution

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs/Themes Imagination, sense perception, natural sciences, technology

First order KQs What is ‘quantum sensing’?

Second order KQs Is the nature of reality determined by our senses or our imagination? To what extent does technology define the way we view reality?

What’s the story about? The article looks at how ‘quantum sensing’ will allow us to completely revisualise the world, and transform the work of engineers, architects, and surveyors.

Analysing the story As we see in Big Question 1, we construct our realities based on context, and how we view the world varies according to our experiences, and the limits of our senses. Students should bear that in mind when they look at this article - how will our understanding of reality change when we’re able to see “what lies under your feet, get advanced warning of volcanic eruptions, look around corners or into rooms, and detect initial signs of multiple sclerosis”? Are we set for a revolution in how we understand reality? 

Source BBC

15. Language and food

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs/Themes Language

First order KQs What determines whether a noise becomes a ‘phenome’ in language?

Second order KQs What gives language its meaning?

What’s the story about? This very short article considers the idea that language is determined by diet - that is, the way in which our teeth and jaws have evolved to deal with the food we eat also determines the sounds emanating from our mouths. 

Analysing the story This is an interesting idea - as the article says, students will no doubt “think of language as the product of our thought” rather than being arbitrarily formed by physical needs. What does the writer mean by “everything distinctively human is both material and spiritual”? And do they agree that “our humanity makes its meanings”?

Source The Guardian

Quick stories

QS1 Breathing life into society

  • Big Question Purpose & value
  • AoKs/WoKs/Themes The arts, human sciences 
  • KQs Is the purpose of art to represent or shape individuals and societies?
  • Source Al Jazeera

QS2 Inbuilt compass?

  • Big Question Development
  • AoKs/WoKs/Themes Sense perception, imagination
  • KQs How are scientific hypotheses created?
  • Source The Guardian

QS3 Brexit language

  • Big Question Development
  • AoKs/WoKs/Themes Language
  • KQs How do contemporary events shape the development of language?
  • Source BBC

QS4 Black hole

  • Big Question Representing reality
  • AoKs/WoKs/Themes Natural sciences, sense perception, technology
  • KQs Is science based on empirical or rational knowledge?
  • Source Vox

QS5 Biased knowledge

  • Big Question Knower/s
  • AoKs/WoKs/Themes Reason, human/natural sciences, biases, navigating the world
  • KQs How do our biases help and hinder our navigation of the world?
  • Source BBC

February 2019 RLS

1. Smartphone depression

Big Question Purpose & value

AoKs/WoKs Natural & human sciences, reason

First order KQs Is there a link between smartphone usage and depression?

Second order KQs What is the role of asking questions in the production of knowledge? How can we distinguish valid data from misleading data in the human sciences? Can knowledge in the human sciences ever be produced objectively?

What’s the story about? This detailed article examines the claims of a connection between smartphone use and mental health amongst teenagers. Some experts claim that this new form of technology is causing depression and unhappiness; others say there simply isn’t any convincing evidence that this is the case. 

Analysing the story This article brings up a huge number of issues relevant to us in TOK. Begin by getting students to reflect on their own use of smartphones - how often do they use their phones, can they live without them, do they consider life is richer with them? Then get them to read the article. What evidence are both sides using for their assertions - and which seems more convincing? In what way can correlation easily be confused with causation in this case (link this to stories 5 & 7, which both deal with this problem)? Finally, what does the article show about asking the right questions when you are researching a scientific issue - and what happens when you don’t? 

Source Vox

2. The Wanderer

Big Question Perspectives

AoKs/WoKs The arts, history, human sciences

First order KQs What is the meaning behind Friedrich’s painting, ‘Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog’?

Second order KQs “To what extent is art understand via “the ideological eye of the beholder”? How is ‘great art... innately subjective’?

What’s the story about? This article looks at how art by Caspar David Friedrich - specifically, his ‘Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog’ - has been viewed in a different way, according to the context of the society that looks at it.

Analysing the story This is a fantastic example of how the meaning and power behind a work of art is generated as much by the viewer as by the creator. Get students first of all to look at the painting by Friedrich. Then drip feed them information about the painting - that it was created by someone whose brother died trying to save him from drowning. That it inspired the Romantic movement. That it was an important inspiration for Hitler and Nazism. That it foretold how the ego of Hitler would ultimately be his undoing. How does each piece of information change our view of the artwork? What does this tell us about the viability of ‘judging’ art objectively? Is meaning created by the audience or the artist?

Source History Today

3. Scientific knowledge

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, faith

First order KQs How is knowledge produced ‘scientifically’?

Second order KQs Why should we trust knowledge produced ‘scientifically’? How does the objectiveness of knowledge produced in the natural sciences compare with that of other areas of knowledge?

What’s the story about? This is an animated interview with astrophysicist Adam Becker, who covers many key concepts that interest us in TOK (such as induction and falsification) in an attempt to demonstrate how science works, and why we should trust it.

Analysing the story Use this lovely little video to introduce scientific concepts to your students, or consolidate their knowledge, and perhaps ask them to consider the difference between the knowledge produced via scientific means and that created in other areas of knowledge. Is scientific knowledge more ‘trustworthy’ than other forms of knowledge? Why? Should we put our ‘faith’ in scientists because of the methods they use to create knowledge? Then the ‘scientific’ approach to knowledge to our next story...

Source BBC

4. Flat motives

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs Natural science, reason

First order KQs How widespread is a belief in a ‘flat earth’? 

Second order KQs What is true science? How do you balance scepticism and open-mindedness? How is new scientific knowledge created?

What’s the story about? This is a video that looks at the people around the world who genuinely believe that the earth is flat. Rather than passing judgement, it attempts to understand why they hold this belief. 

Analysing the story This is a good opportunity for students to go beyond the headlines, and try to understand what ‘flat-earthers’ believe, and why. Get students to watch the interviews with the different people, outlining exactly what they believe, and what their motives are for opposing the unanimous consensus of the scientific community and governments around the world. 

Source The Guardian

5. Illusion of causality

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, reason, emotion

First order KQs What is the ‘Illusion of causality’?

Second order KQs Who holds responsibility for the validity of knowledge - the producer, or the user? What are the implications of mistaking correlation for causation? 

What’s the story about? This is an extract from Christie Aschwanden’s new book, “Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery.” It looks at how ‘real’ science, and science used by advertisers, are often two very different things.

Analysing the story Get students to consider sports drinks first of all. How many of them buy them? Why do they buy them? What do they think they know about them? Then ask them to read through the article, focusing on this assertion by Ashwanden: “If you can get an endorsement from an athlete that everybody recognizes, then who needs science?” What are the implications of this when it comes to the way most people understand the world? How vulnerable are they to ‘celebrity endorsements’? This story can also be linked to the Big Think article on causation and correlation (story 7) - to what extent does this fool people into believing marketing hype?

Source FiveThirtyEight

6. Amateur physicians

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, reason, intuition

First order KQs What is ‘alternative’ medicine?

Second order KQs Why should we trust knowledge produced via scientific means? Is there a role for intuition in providing us with scientific knowledge?

What’s the story about? This is an article by an oncologist documenting some of her encounters with patients who are keen to treat their conditions with ‘alternative’ remedies rather than accepted cancer treatments such as chemotherapy.

Analysing the story This story highlights the increasingly (why?) common clash between professional medical practitioners, and the patients who intuitively think that ‘they know best’. Think about the contrasting approach of both these groups (the type of evidence on which they base their knowledge, the extent to which they have an understanding of the topic), and consider the motives behind what they do. As Srivastava puts it: “I can’t guarantee a cure, but I’d recommend evidence-based treatment any day over the magnet that purportedly draws out cancer cells. And while we are there, it’s not my chemotherapy. Your taxes fund my job but I don’t profit from giving you chemo.” 

Source The Guardian

7. Ice cream attacks

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs Human sciences, reason

First order KQs How is ice-cream consumption related to shark attacks?

Second order KQs What is the relationship between causation and correlation? Why do people believe that correlation implies causation? 

What’s the story about? This article looks at the way in which so many people confuse correlation and causation, giving a range of examples to illustrate the scale of the problem.

Analysing the story You can start with the ice-cream/shark example, although there are some much stronger examples here. A little preparation is needed - give your students the examples, and get them to discuss the relationship between them, then offer them the article or video to check what they have considered. They should also think about the implications of mistaking these two concepts - how can it impact on society, and our understanding of the world? Link also to story 5 to explore how this problem defines many people’s approach to science.

Source Big Think

8. The Fall of Rome

Big Question Connections

AoKs/WoKs History, human sciences

First order KQs Does the past repeat itself?

Second order KQs Does drawing parallels between historical and present-day issues and events lead to the production of valid knowledge? Is induction a valid methodology in the human sciences?

What’s the story about? This is an interview with Edward Watts, author of ‘Mortal Republic’, which analyses the decline and collapse of Ancient Rome. Unlike some historians, Watts infers lessons from this, which he applies to modern-day America.

Analysing the story Do Watts’s assertions sound credible, and is it valid to produce knowledge in this way? Or should different eras and societies be viewed like that - as different, separate entities, that can’t be interlinked? In exploring these ideas, perhaps students can also reflect on the purpose of historical knowledge - does it have a purpose? Or is it merely there to inform us about the past, without being applicable to the present?

Source Vox

9. Ideophones

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Language, human sciences, sense perception

First order KQs What are ideophones

Second order KQs Do academic traditions support or stifle the production of knowledge? How should we conceive of the function and form of language?

What’s the story about? This fascinating article looks at the role that ideophones - words that express meaning in an evocative and sensual way - play in how we communicate, and the disagreement about them that has always existed amongst linguists. 

Analysing the story This is a tailor-made article for a TOK class: start with the ‘kiki and bouba’ test, and ask your students what this might indicate about the meaning of words. Then show your students the 10 examples of words from a language they are unlikely to understand (apologies to all our Japanese members out there!), and get them to guess their meaning. They can then build on their hypothesis. Finally, they can dip into the article - why is there a clash between linguists following the tradition of Ferdinand de Saussure, and those who favour the approach of Diedrich Westermann? What was Plato’s take on the issue? And what does it indicate about language being based on much more than just arbitrary symbols?

Source Aeon

10. Scientific credit

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, human sciences, emotion, reason

First order KQs Who invented the periodic table?

Second order KQs What determines the way scientific knowledge is represented and communicated? What drives the development of scientific knowledge? 

What’s the story about? This article looks at the development of the periodic table, and how its creation was due to collaboration (and conflict) between multiple scientists.

Analysing the story This is a fascinating story, and paints a picture of a group of scientists who were often anything but personally disinterested, and motivated purely by a drive to objectively explain the natural world. Get students to muse on how scientific knowledge advances, then ask them to read the article. Does it suggest that scientific advances are made cumulatively, or via paradigm shifts? What does it tell us about the role of individual and societal ambition? Does it give us any insight into what truly drives the development of scientific knowledge? They can also link this to our article from last month on the Periodic Table.

Source Salon

11. AI Art

Big Question Knower/s

AoKs/WoKs The arts, technology, imagination

First order KQs Is art created by AI ‘real’ art?

Second order KQs Is it possible to create ‘new’ knowledge? Is all knowledge shared knowledge? How do artistic ideas progress?

What’s the story about? This article centres around the assertion by the German artist Mario Klingemann, who often uses AI in his work. “Humans are not original. We only reinvent, make connections between things we have seen… machines can create from scratch”.

Analysing the story Get your students to look at the art created by AI first, and ask for their opinions. Then tell them how it was done - does this change their opinion? What do they think about Klingemann’s idea whether they think machines can be creative. Then ask them to read through the story. Is he making a valid point? This should get them on to a consideration of what ‘creative’ actually means - is it something that has to come from scratch? Is such as thing possible? This should set up some great discussions in your classroom!

Source The Guardian

12. Stripes

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences

First order KQs Why do zebras have stripes?

Second order KQs How is scientific knowledge produced? How reliable is the scientific method?

What’s the story about? This story looks at a recent experiment to answer the question about why zebras have evolved their distinctive markings. 

Analysing the story Although we talk constantly about the scientific method, students (and teachers) often struggle to produce a good real-life example of how this works in practice. This is exactly that. Get students to model each step - the problem, the hypothesis, setting up an experiment, gathering data, conclusion, publication. What was their conclusion? Does using the scientific method to arrive at this conclusion make it more certain?

Source The Atlantic (see also PlosOne)

13. Studying love

Big Question Purpose & value

AoKs/WoKs Human & natural sciences, emotion

First order KQs Is love invented or discovered?

Second order KQs What are the main challenges of carrying out research in the human sciences?Can love be studied scientifically? 

What’s the story about? This article looks at the way in which technology has (or hasn’t, depending on your outlook) impacted on the way in which love and relationships work, and how it has allowed us to gather more data about the trickiest of all human behaviour.

Analysing the story This is an interesting issue over how technology has impacted on our gathering of data, and whether it can help us to understand human phenomena more accurately. Get students to think about how love can be researched (for many people, the most important aspect of life), and which areas of knowledge are traditionally interested in exploring it. How has our use of technology allowed researchers to explore it more? Has it led to any significant new discoveries? Is this the purpose of the human sciences - to answer questions such as ‘what is love’?

Source Wired

14. City dwellers?

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Human sciences, history

First order KQs Are we city-dwellers or hunter-gatherers?

Second order KQs Do academic traditions support or stifle the production of knowledge (compare to story 9)? How much ‘new evidence’ does it take to move knowledge on?

What’s the story about? This article looks at the latest research on early human society, and the evidence that suggests that we didn’t develop in a logical, linear fashion from ‘primitive’ hunter-gatherers into ‘sophisticated’ city-dwellers.

Analysing the story This is a very long article, and students will find it challenging to take on. However, it is also a very rewarding source. Get students to analyse the orthodox views of human development, then ask them to consider the new evidence that is being used by revisionists to challenge this theory. Now get them thinking second order - how does new knowledge become established? How does it affect our understanding of something to view it via an academic school of thought? What are the implications of shifting our views about a long-established theory (think about how we view the few remaining present-day hunter-gatherers)?

Source New Humanist

15. Inside Vincent

Big Question Reality check

AoKs/WoKs The arts, sense perception, imagination

First order KQs What themes did Van Gogh explore in his paintings?

Second order KQs How should we look at art? How does art communicate knowledge? 

What’s the story about? This amazing new exhibition of Van Gogh paintings turns them an immersive experience for viewers, creating a situation where attendees ‘enter’ the paintings. 

Analysing the story A easily-digested story, with a short video, this is a nice final story for students to consider this month. Obviously the exhibitors have taken some degree of license with the original paintings - will this allow us to understand Van Gogh’s art more profoundly, or mislead us? Obviously if you are in Paris, this would be best answered by visiting in person!

Source Reuters

Quick stories

QS1 Language and meaning

  • Big Question Connections
  • AoKs/WoKs The arts, indigenous knowledge, language
  • KQs How does language determine meaning and significance?
  • Source Aeon

QS2 Responsibility for knowledge

  • Big Question Authority figures
  • AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, reason
  • KQs Who should have responsibility for the production of accurate knowledge?
  • Source Vox (see also Salon)

QS3 Small science

  • Big Question Knower/s
  • AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences
  • KQs What is the role of personal and shared knowledge in the development of scientific ideas?
  • Source The Atlantic

QS4 Yuck factor

  • Big Question Reality check
  • AoKs/WoKs Ethics, sense perception, reason, emotion, human sciences
  • KQs Are our ethics determined by biological reactions?
  • Source The Atlantic

QS5 Rainbow art

  • Big Question Connections
  • AoKs/WoKs The arts, sense perception, natural sciences
  • KQs How does art seek to challenge our perceptive norms? 
  • Source Smithsonian

January 2019 RLS

1. Written with an agenda

Big Question Perspectives

AoKs/WoKs History

First order KQs What is the lasting legacy of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela?

Second order KQs How do perspectives affect the way we write history? Can objective history be written witten with an agenda?

What’s the story about? This story looks at two different biographies that have recently been written about the controversial Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, former first lady of South Africa, and former wife of iconic Nelson  Mandela.

Analysing the story This is a great example of how different perspectives can lead to different historical conclusions. Students can look at the agenda behind each book, and think about how these have shaped the research and analysis they contain. Then they can consider whether it’s ever possible to approach a historical event or person totally objectively. 

Source The Conversation

2. Heritability

Big Question Development / authority figures

AoKs/WoKs Human & natural sciences

First order KQs Is our behaviour determined by nature or nurture?

Second order KQs Why and how do theories in psychology develop over time? What influences the way in which we approach the natural sciences?

What’s the story about? The article considers the way in which the ‘nature’ side of the long running behavioural debate has recently asserted itself and, in the opinion of many psychologists and experts, is more important in determining how we develop as human beings.

Analysing the story Think about the two big questions, and get students to focus on a couple of key quotes. First, for Development: “Heritability has become fashionable, propelled partly by widespread consumer genetic ancestry testing, but more deeply by that inexorable desire we have to know what makes us who we are”. Secondly, Authority figures: “The problem with the belief in biological innateness is that it ignores so much. This is a problem with science more widely. There is a wilful ignorance of the social sciences, of the wider world and its messiness, cultural variability and social complications, as though these things are peripheral to studying human behaviour rather than central to it.”

Source New Humanist

3. Decision-making

Big Question Knower/s

AoKs/WoKs Reason, imagination

First order KQs What are the “divergent” and “convergent” stages of decision making?

Second order KQs What is the role of imagination in decision-making? Which ways of knowing are key to making effective decisions?

What’s the story about? Steven Johnson discusses the ideas behind his new book, Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most. He discusses the difference between good and bad decisions, and the ways of knowing that lead to each outcome.

Analysing the story This is quite a useful little interview as it highlights how certain ways of knowing - particularly imagination - have a role in informing us about the world, and providing us with the tools to make effective decisions. Do students agree with Johnson? Which ways of knowing do they think are crucial to deciding about the world?

Source The Guardian

4. Thermometers and politics

Big Question Perspectives

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, reason

First order KQs How does Katharine Hayhoe believe we can resolve the climate crisis? 

Second order KQs Is scientific knowledge free from biases? How important is empirical evidence in understanding the world? Do we only truly understand something when it applies to us personally?

What’s the story about? This interview with Katharine Hayhoe discusses the nature of scientific knowledge, and why people are skeptical of the work of climate scientists.

Analysing the story Hayhoe’s key point is that 'A thermometer is not liberal or conservative'. What do students think she means by that, and is it always true? Secondly, why does Hayhoe believe many people are unwilling to accept the idea that human activity is the reason for the changes in the earth’s climate? Assuming she’s right, how can this be resolved?

Source The Guardian

5. Cognitive decoupling

Big Question Connections

AoKs/WoKs Human sciences, religious knowledge systems, reason, faith, imagination

First order KQs What is ‘cognitive decoupling’?

Second order KQs Can religion be explained via the human sciences? What constitutes ‘reality’? How can we tell what knowledge we should question? Are religious knowledge systems ‘beyond reason’?

What’s the story about? In this short article, Nick Perham considers why people believe in God, looking at the way in which it fulfills many of our psychological needs, and how religious thinking impacts on our personal and societal behaviour.

Analysing the story Understanding religion can be tricky, particularly for those who subscribe to no religious faith. Many people have tried to explain it via psychological or evolutionary terms - as Perham begins to do here. Is this a valid way of trying to explain why people believe in God? What are his key arguments? Or do we have to somehow ‘go beyond’ reason when we seek to understand religious knowledge systems?

Source The Independent

6. Voyage of discovery

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs Human sciences, ethics

First order KQs Was Santiago Genoves’s peace project morally acceptable?

Second order KQs Does true understanding only come via empirical experiences? To what extent should ethical considerations impinge on scientific research? Are accidental discoveries more important than planned ones?

What’s the story about? This fascinating article looks at the story of the ‘Peace Project’ voyage, organised in the 1970s, and designed as a long and deliberately conflictive human sciences’ experiment. This article coincides with the release of a film that documents this event.

Analysing the story There are many examples of human science projects that are conceived in a morally dubious way - for example, the Milgram Experiment, and the Stanford Prison Experiment - but this one is rarely mentioned. Get students to think about the ethics of the experiment, then whether the crossing of ethical boundaries leads to the creation of genuine understanding, and to what was learned on the project - and how.

Source The Guardian

7. Memory and language

Big Question Reality check / Connections

AoKs/WoKs Memory, imagination, language

First order KQs How does memory work?

Second order KQs Where is the line between imagination and memory? How does language affect memory?

What’s the story about? This article considers the reliability of memory, and its relationship with other ways of knowing, such as imagination and language.

Analysing the story It may not come as much of a surprise to students that our memory is not 100% reliable, but what could be new to them is its relationship with language and imagination. Get students to read through this very accessible article, and consider how language shapes the way we remember things, and how we use our imagination to embellish and rewrite what’s already happened in the past. How does the audience shape the way we recall things? Finally, do students like the ice-cream analogy?!

Source The Independent

8. Enlightened thinking?

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs Reason, history

First order KQs Is Steven Pinker’s book, Enlightenment Now, flawed?

Second order KQs Do we assume or evaluate the opinions of experts? How do “Mined quotes, cherry-picked data, false dichotomies” affect the way we understand ideas? 

What’s the story about? This article casts a (very) critical eye over the latest book by Steven Pinker - Enlightenment Now - and the evidence used by him to argue his points.

Analysing the story We’ve looked at some of Pinker’s claims in detail (see our BQ6 lessons on his and John Gray’s ideas); this article focuses on what he has written about the Enlightenment. Given that he’s such an influential thinker, it’s a good chance to encourage students to find out about his ideas. Then they can look at the logical fallacies supposedly found within his work - what are they, and do they undermine his ideas? 

Source Salon

9. Skull science

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Natural & human sciences

First order KQs What is ‘skull science’?

Second order KQs How are ideas debunked? To what extent do ideas need to be proved to be believed? Do our prejudices shape our knowledge?

What’s the story about? The story looks at the way a doctoral student, Alice Lee, debunked the widely accepted theory that cranial capacity determined intelligence in the late 19th century.

Analysing the story What does the story show us about the way in which theories are challenged and move on (or, in this case, are abandoned)? How do societal sensibilities (ie attitudes towards race and gender) affect the way we understand the world, and seek to explain it? Does this story support or undermine Kuhn’s ‘paradigm shift’ model of scientific knowledge development?

Source Smithsonian

10. A living organism

Big Question Connections / representing reality 

AoKs/WoKs The arts, natural sciences

First order KQs What are the ‘building blocks’ of art?

Second order KQs Can an understanding of biology help us to ‘get’ art? How do we extract meaning and knowledge from art?

What’s the story about? This story looks at how we view works of art, and whether by conceiving of them as living organisms - as we might a biological entity - our understanding of them is deepened.

Analysing the story Students can start by reflecting on how they look at art (perhaps by using the works mentioned in this story), and then trying to apply what the article suggests - “If you visually break down a work of art into its various components and systems, you will begin to understand how each of its elements functions and how those elements work together in harmony”. Does this lead to a different way of seeing art? 

Source The Atlantic

11. Science and truth

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Natural and human sciences, reason, language

First order KQs What is the definition of ‘truth’?

Second order KQs Can we access ‘truth’ in any of the areas of knowledge? Is science about the search for truth? Does science provide us with truth about the world?

What’s the story about? This is a long and demanding essay, but it’s also a brilliant one, looking in a great about of detail about science, and its relationship with ‘truth’ (whatever that means). 

Analysing the story Students can first think about what scientific knowledge provides us with, and what the word ‘truth’ means. Then students can focus on the three questions that the article explores - 1) Does science aim at truth? 2) Does science tell us the truth? 3) Should we expect science to tell us the truth? What answers does the writer offer, and do these seem convincing?

Source Aeon

12. Life

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs Language, natural sciences

First order KQs What are the characteristics of living things?

Second order KQs What role do words play in granting us access to understanding? To know something, do we need a word for it?

What’s the story about? It turns out the the concept of ‘life’ is one that science is still struggling to process. As the article says, “It understands much of how living creatures work, but not how they came to be. There is no agreement, even, on what life is.” This article looks at how a combination of physics and biology may be the key to unlocking the conundrum.

Analysing the story The key to the article is this passage - “To understand what bothers Davies, consider a hypothetical device: a life meter. Wave it over a sterile rock and the dial stays at zero. Wave it over a purring cat and it swings over to 100. But what if you dunked it in the primordial soup, or held it over a dying person? At what point does complex chemistry become life, and when does life revert to mere matter? Between an atom and an amoeba lies something profound and perplexing.” Why is this ‘profound and perplexing’? How do we resolve this?

Source The Guardian

13. Luck and discovery

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences

First order KQs What contribution did Enrico Fermi make to science ?

Second order KQs What role does chance play in the development of knowledge? Does chance ‘favour a prepared mind’?

What’s the story about? The article looks at the work of Enrico Fermi, and how he made use of “accidental experiments and chance encounters” to produce extraordinary scientific knowledge.

Analysing the story Fermi’s work is a great example of how “science moves in fits and starts, sometimes forward and sometimes backward, sometimes methodically and sometimes quite by accident.” Get students to think first about how knowledge (in the natural sciences, and other areas of knowledge) develops, then get them to read the article. What does this show us about the way knowledge is accumulated? Do we progress? Lots of big questions to consider! 

Source Smithsonian

14. The flow of history

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs History, human sciences

First order KQs What themes does Jill Lepore’s new book deal with?

Second order KQs Are there patterns in history? How does the assumption of progress shape the way we understand the world? Is history always determined by biases?

What’s the story about? Adam Smith reviews Jill Lepore’s new narrative history book about the USA, These Truths: a History of the United States. It also prompts him to reflect on how the telling of US history has developed over time. 

Analysing the story Students should use this article as a way of reviewing one of the biggest assumptions that many people have about the past - both in the USA, and other countries (see also, for example, the Whig interpretation of history) - that society is progressing in a specific direction. Is this a useful paradigm for understanding the world? A necessary one? Or just a misleading way of making sense of the past?

Source History Today

15. The great human enterprise

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, language

First order KQs In what ways are people’s interaction with science increasing over time?

Second order KQs Are the arts and sciences merging? Are the arts and sciences both “the subjective and objective poles of the same great human enterprise”?

What’s the story about? Russell Foster considers how art and science are moving closer together than ever before, and have shared concerns and aims.

Analysing the story Consider that quote mentioned above about the arts and science being “the subjective and objective poles of the same great human enterprise”. What does that mean? Is it accurate? Then, perhaps, students can compare to this story to number 10 - can approaching art ‘scientifically’ deepen our understanding of it?

Source Wired


Quick stories

QS1 Personality types

  • Big Question Authority figures
  • AoKs/WoKs Human sciences
  • KQs Can people’s personalities be categorised?
  • Source  FiveThirtyEight

QS2 Joint endeavour

  • Big Question Knower/s
  • AoKs/WoKs The arts
  • KQs Is the creation of art a personal or shared endeavour?
  • Source Wired

QS3 150 years old

  • Big Question Representing reality
  • AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, language
  • KQs How is scientific knowledge communicated?
  • Source BBC

QS4 Predicting everything

  • Big Question Perspectives
  • AoKs/WoKs Human sciences, reason
  • KQs Can we make objective predictions about the world?
  • Source Aeon

QS5 Sports science

  • Big Question Knower/s
  • AoKs/WoKs Natural science
  • KQs Are the human sciences predicated on the scientific method?
  • Source FiveThirtyEight