Improving your TOK cognitive toolkit #1

It is my contention that the TOK course focuses too much on curriculum that is ‘out there’ and does not enable students to choose and use the right thinking tools to make sense of an increasingly complex and globalized world. I believe that there are many many useful ideas that students can learn and apply that will help them to be much better critical thinkers and to understand things much more deeply. This first session deals with three such ideas. The next session on Wednesday 20th April will deal with three more.


I once saw a comedian with cerebral palsy, who walked out onto a small stage in an inconsequential southern coastal town in the UK. He made his entry with the aid of a crutch and then threw it forcefully to the stage floor. After a skillful pause  he pointed at it and said to the crowd ”There, look – it’s useless without me!”  At the same time as being a jubilant – and humorous – act of defiance in the face of his condition, he spoke with depth about the reciprocal relationship we have with tools and, I think, ideas.

Whilst I aim for the ideas compiled here to be value free and neutral, (more of that later), we want them to be useful, but only through concrete application. These ideas  are not ends in themselves, neither should they be seen as inert. They should be kept well oiled and never left neglected in your cognitive toolkit. They have no life without the people that wield them, no identity whilst idle.

If these are ideas are to give you any intellectual posture with which to face the world, then they must possess a dynamic that has relevance to a multitude of real life situations. If they are to be useful tools then they have to have a function and we need to be clear about what that is. When a photographer recognizes a scene or situation that they want  to record they will deliberate about viewpoint and composition. They will take time to pick the right camera, lens or filter. The true photographer will elevate his or her work to the level of Art through these early decisions around their craft. Similarly we hope that these ideas will provide a repertoire of devices – a set of tools – to appraise the world.

‘Only code is binary’ (more of that later) and so we are not making any claims that these ideas will help you to make hard and fast decisions or to see the world  as it really is. There are no panaceas for way-finding in complexity. I just hope that by transferring and applying some of the thinking herein, you can come to arrive at your own truths.

One thing that I hope these ideas do not become is a series of props to help those that want to feel more comfortable whilst sitting on the fence. Whilst the process of applying these ‘tools’ will often be a way of arbitrating between a multitude of conflicting views and variables, it should no way be seen as a way of justifying a median view. If these ‘cognitive tools’ do not help you to arrive at stances that you can hold with conviction, then I have failed miserably.

How did I decide which ideas to explore?

Criterion 1 – Only ideas that are applicable across all domains

Another criterion I decided to apply when drawing up this collection was one or trans-disciplinary application. In other words I believe that each idea here is relevant to all domains. I didn’t want the reader to be able to ascribe a particular discourse to each idea, nor to be able to compartmentalize any idea to anyone experiential sphere of life. It is true that some of the thinking here grew out of particular university departments, but when that is so, it does not mean that they are not applicable across all fields of human endeavour.

Criterion 2 – Chosen ideas have to be neutral and value free

Complete (or even partial) neutrality is únacheivable. We all have baggage! We all see the world not as it is, but as we are. And we are all socially and culturally constructed. Objectivity within this project is a stretch aim. I am being aspirational here and am committed to give this a go! Indulge and trust me on this – I needed to have this as a benchmark.

To that end I want to make sure that each idea must not serve anyone’s purpose or proffer a distinct world view. Furthermore I tried, at all times, to ensure that no concept discussed was based on any false premises or errant assumptions.

Criterion 3 – The ideas herein should be largely uncontested

Ultimately you, the reader, will be the judge of this! If you think any of the ideas I suggest are useful to you are non-reliable, unfounded or just downright crazy, then please let me know – or better still take the idea apart with a group of good friends over a drink. Prove me wrong – nothing would give me more pleasure! Understand that I am using these criteria to form the project’s purpose. I want the chosen ideas  to be dependable and so have included only those that have evidence to prove their worth.

Criterion  4 – These ideas have to matter

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Intuition May Reveal Where Expertise Resides in the Brain


This is a fascinating article about the neuro-scientific basis of intuition. It asks the fundamental question about consciousness – why is it that some of our cognitive processes are part of our subjective consciousness and others are not? It also demystifies some of the myths about intuition.

Some extracts ….

“Sometimes a solution just appears out of nowhere. You bring your multipage spreadsheet to the finance department, and within seconds the accountant tells you something isn’t quite right without being able to say what. You’re perched on a narrow ledge halfway up Half Dome in Yosemite Valley, 1,000 feet above deck, searching for the continuation of the climb on the granite wall that appears featureless, when your senior climbing partner quickly points to a tiny series of flakes: “Trust me, this is it.” “

“Intuition arises within a circumscribed cognitive domain. It may take years of training to develop, and it does not easily transfer from one domain of expertise to another. Chess mastery is useless when playing bridge. Professionals, who may spend a lifetime honing their skills, are much in demand for their proficiency.”

“What remains unclear is why furious activity in the caudate should remain unconscious while exertions in some part of the cortex give rise to conscious sensation. Finding an answer may illuminate the central challenge—why excitable matter produces feelings at all.”

Read the full article here

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , ,

A logical fallacy tablet

10comsof logic

A useful aid memoir for logical fallacies

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Skepticism vs Open-mindedness



The IB learner profile promotes the idea of open-mindedness; it presents it as a virtue. I have always wondered that, in some ways  the nemesis of this ‘virtue’ is skepticism. Perhaps its better to imagine open-mindedness and skepticism being on some sort of continuum with two twin polarities. The question is whether or not a healthy balance of both poles is a better standpoint than to position at one or other of the extremes. Surely it is better to intelligently moderate the interplay of the two dispositions as we more often do between divergent and convergent thinking?

John Horgan has written an engaging article for Scientific American on the role of skepticism in Science and outlines a cautionary tale of how we should question the array of “latest studies” that make huge claims after what he says are often unconvincing research and trials. More interestingly he discusses claims that the wilder the scientific claims, the more likely we are to hear about them in the media, and, more alarmingly, the more likely they are to be wrong.

He says …. “Tetlock found a correlation between the prominence of experts and their fallibility. The more wrong the experts were, the more visible they were in the media. The reason, he conjectures, is that experts who make dramatic claims are more likely to get air time on CNN or column inches in The Washington Post, even though they are likelier to be wrong.

For comic relief, I tell my students about a maze study, cited by Tetlock, that pitted rats against Yale undergraduates. Sixty percent of the time, researchers placed food on the left side of a fork in the maze; otherwise the food was placed randomly. After figuring out that the food was more often on the left side of the fork, the rats turned left every time and so were right 60 percent of the time. Yale students, discerning illusory patterns of left-right placement, guessed right only 52 percent of the time. Yes, the rats beat the Yalies! The smarter you are, the more likely you may be to “discover” patterns in the world that aren’t actually there.”

Another interesting topic of debate in this piece is around the question “How far are we along the path of knowing everything? How much more is there to know?”. He also discusses radical paradigm shifts and the likelihood of current paradigms being toppled in the near future. A great read – well worth absorbing in whole.

Read the full article on the Scientific American blog here

This great TED-ed film explores the inherent flaws in different types of epidemiological studies and by implication makes the case that the scientific method is quite frail at times. It encourages skepticism when faced with news of the next miracle cure or positive outcomes from the “latest studies”. This very much links to points made in the previously discussed article above.

Michael Shermer says the time for open-mindedness about the World’s major religions is over

Read this truly provocative article by John Horgan

Related resources


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

What are the differences between Scientific, Artistic and Religious knowledge?

See the full article on the Brain Pickings website here

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Consciousness Explained

Post in progress

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Should we have a more utilitarian approach to medical research?


This incredible article sites some examples of “unethical” practice in the realm of medical research. Some seem to have no due regard for the individual human rights of the unknowing “guinea pigs”.

To what extent do the ends justify the means in these cases? What medical research methods do we currently use that we will look back on from the the future and condemn?

See the website and full article here

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment