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Driving your Course with Real Life Situations

If ‘knowledge questions’ are the heart of TOK, real life situations could be said to be the course’s soul. Using up-to-date, engaging, and significant RLSs to drive your lessons is crucial to ensure your students are kept switched on, and able to demonstrate what the presentation specifically assesses: that TOK concepts can have a ‘practical application’ in the real world.
In our exemplar lesson, we show how to embed various RLSs in a lesson, both outside RLSs (ie ones that exist independently of the students), as well as ones drawn from the students’ own experiences (in this lesson, how they draw on memory in order to produce knowledge). This can provide a model for the type and number of RLSs that work well in a lesson. In addition, below is a list of characteristics of effective RLS.
Note: you can’t expect to tick all these boxes with every RLS you use (indeed, once in a while it’s necessary to draw on RLSs that might be criticised for being rather cliched in the essay or presentation, such as Copernicus’s paradigm shift of scientific thinking, or the mathematical axiom of 1 + 1, or the way our analysis of the causes of the Cold War has been revised over time).

Effective RLS

Effective real-life situations
Here are our ‘7 Rs’ of effective real-life situations. Great RLSs...
  1. 1.
    ...are real. This may sound obvious, but students are often tempted to rely on hypothetical, fictional, or anecdotal examples. It’s important that you lead by example, and use situations which take place in a specific time, place, and involve knower/s. This is one way in which TOK is very unlike philosophy (to which it is often erroneously compared) - hypothetical ‘thought experiments’ play no role in providing us with the justification for arguments.
  2. 2.
    ...are relevant to TOK. Not only should you be able to quickly identify a question from a RLS, you should also be able to use the language of TOK - in other words, the AOKs and themes - in order to articulate those questions. Again, if you have to struggle to link it to TOK, then the likelihood is that it won’t work.
  3. 3.
    ...require further questions. All RLSs should prompts us to ask second order questions about knowledge. Although it takes a little practice to identify KQs, ultimately the acid test of a RLS’s validity is how easily you can do this. If you have to work really hard, then it may be that it won’t work in this context.
  4. 4.
    ...have a far-reaching scope. RLSs can take place on any level - personal, local, global - but they must touch on universal themes or topics, and be applicable to other situations, rather than being highly specialised and specific. So if they are personal real-life situations, they should be ones we can all recognise (ie the use a student has made of a way of knowing); if they deal with a local issue, this should be one that we can apply to other places.
  5. 5.
    …have a reliable provenance. There are great media sources, and there are ones that are not. As one of the key aims of TOK is to hone students’ critical thinking, this is a key element to get right. We have provided a list of recommended sources within the ‘Setting up the TOK course’ section, which is a good starting point. But acknowledging from the outset that all sources have an agenda, and are therefore biased, is a great way of highlighting the need to never take information at face value.
  6. 6.
    ...are recent. You should be trying as much as possible to show the relevance of TOK to your students, enabling them to show this to the examiner, and there’s no clearer way of doing this than basing your exploration of TOK on up-to-date RLSs. Sure, there is a place in the course for thinking about why Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection can’t be replicated, or how experiments carried out at the end of the 1920s in the Hawthorne Factory illustrate the ‘observer effect’, but the majority of the RLSs you use during the course - and the ones you encourage your students to consider - should come from much more recent dates, ideally, the last 12 months. This is also one of the best ways of keeping your students engaged.
  7. 7.
    ...are relatable. Students need a ‘way in’ to each RLS they explore, and this is made easier if it has a relatable context, for example in terms of culture, academic tradition or language. Yes, we are trying to make them think ‘open-mindedly’, but once students have taken ownership of the RLS, by understanding it and identifying one or more KQs, it can be compared and contrasted to other RLSs that might exist within a more distinct context.

Sample RLSs

The following RLSs all manage to match up to these characteristics. We include the link where they are described by a reputable media source.
A Vox article, showing you the mathematics behind Covid-19, and why this is essential to understanding the pandemic (links to mathematics).
A New Statesman article, which looks at how and why the real time statistics site ‘Worldometer’ became such a popular site, and the reliability of the data it provides (links to mathematics, the human sciences, and technology).
A Now and Then video, looking at the extent to which we can - and should - apply objectivity to our study of the past (links to history).
A Guardian article,considering how the pandemic is affecting our susceptibility to rumour and superstition, and whether ‘evidence-based’ belief is making a come-back (links to the natural sciences and knowledge and the knower).
A Conversation article, that explores what the legal basis of emojis are - and whether they can be used as evidence in court (links to the human sciences, language, and technology).
A BBC video, looking at a Florida-based pastor, who believes that faith can heal the Coronavirus (links to knowledge and the knower and religion).
A Washington Post article, looking at a new biography of George Washington - not written with a ‘male gaze’ (links to history).
A Wired article on the impact of a new running shoe - the Nike Vaporfly - on both the athletic and moral world (links to technology).
A Guardian article that explores how indigenous stewardship of land offers a better way to manage carbon emissions (links to the natural sciences and indigenous societies).
A Guardian article, looking at the Mexican reaction to a new work of art by Fabián Cháirez, which depicts a naked Zapata, astride a white horse (links to the arts).