Teens and the Theory of Knowledge

The power of not knowing

THEY SAY THAT knowledge is power but in the internet connected world of the 21st century, knowledge is so plentiful and abundant that if knowledge really does equate with power we should all be much more powerful than we were just a few years ago. It would seem though, that this is not the case.
Globally, over 2,200 international schools deliver the IB Diploma, one component of which is a compulsory subject called Theory of Knowledge (ToK). If this subject can be encapsulated in a single statement it would be something like: “Beyond the Cartesian assertion ‘I think therefore I am.’ Nothing is absolutely certain.”
In many ways, ToK plays a dirty trick on our teenage students. At a time in their lives when they have only just emerged as individuals in their own right and are starting to form their own opinions about the world around them, instead of repeating what their parents or teachers have told them, ToK pulls the rug out from under their intellectual feet.
Teenagers ooze certainty, as any parent will know if they have ever got into an argument with one. They often see the world in black and white, good and bad, true and false. ToK attempts to point out, amongst many things, the following:
• History is written by the winning side.
• Science is not actually about facts – it’s about theories that are impossible to prove.
• Mathematics is only as good as the assumptions that you start with.
• Art can be anything you want it to be.
• The same words mean different things to different people and the language that you speak places limits on how you think.
• You can’t place 100 percent trust in your own memory.
• Much of what you think you can see with your eyes is actually made up by your brain.
So, in the light of that lot (and that’s just the tip of a very big iceberg), where can we find certainty? It’s a rotten trick to pull on an adolescent as they begin to realize that all their certainty was based on things that they thought were true but which, by about midway through the course, they begin to doubt.
At about this time, they start getting comfortable with saying things like: “Well, I don’t know for sure, but this is what I think.” Such words are music to my ears! They are a prelude to what a ToK student actually thinks, to what original thoughts are actually going on inside their brain. What a far cry this is from earlier years where students were encouraged to learn facts which they must then regurgitate in an examination. Finally, the students are actually beginning to think for themselves.
This is one reason why IB Diploma students do so much better when they get to university than their peers with other qualifications. According to data held by the National Student Clearinghouse in the US, IB students are “38 percent more likely to graduate from university with a degree than other students in higher-education institutions.”
So, teaching students that it’s okay to say “I don’t know” can be quite empowering.

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