How do I choose a Real Life Situation for a TOK presentation? by John Sprague

Real Life Situations are not a huge stumbling block for students; in my experience many things work fine.  When students go wrong with RLSs it is when they choose something hypothetical, or a circumstance, or general issue rather than something specific.  So students might find developing a clear analysis from “the gun debate” or from “the writing of History textbooks”.  In the first case there’s so much involved it would be a real challenge to keep a focused discussion going.

It would be better to find something like a specific opinion/editorial piece in a newspaper, or a particular speech by a politician. In the second case, (and I’ve seen many of these) the RLS is about how IF someone from some particular country wrote a history textbook it would be different from someone from some other country.  In other words it’s based on an imagined case and therefore doesn’t really count as ‘real-life’.  It would be better here to of course find a couple of textbooks or passages from text books written by people from different countries which say different things. Sometimes students will use events they have found in a work of fiction, like films or books.  This too is imagined (it’s fiction!) and they would be better served by something similar really happening to someone in real life.

RLSs are usually a good place to start when you start the process: find something that interests you, something that jumped out at you and made you think, “that reminds me of TOK.”  Look through your notes from class, or your “TOK journal” if you have one.  There will be a lot of great examples of RLSs there, and you should then try to find something like it to develop on your own. Avoid using the examples provided by textbooks.  Too many other students are doing exactly the same thing and if you use it too, you won’t stand out.

Once you have decided on your RLS you must now extract a KQ from it.  This means that you must identify some question about knowledge that is related to the situation.  The situation itself might not be directly engaged in knowledge like the writing of a text book would be, but it is enough for you to see a connection.

You might, for instance, have read about how the Rosetta Mission sent a probe to land on an asteroid and wondered, “how the heck did they know how to do THAT?!” or how the New Horizons spacecraft can get fired into space and nine years later meet up with Pluto (see image above), some 5 billion km away when you can’t even find your classes at the beginning of the year?!

You might have then started thinking about what you learned in physics about trajectories and all the mathematics required to work them out.  Suddenly now you are in the neighbourhood of a good KQ, having to do with the interplay between Mathematics and Physics. What is it about Maths that makes is such a fantastic tool for working out how to send our spaceships all round the solar system? All you need to do now to formulate a good KQ from it.

  • Check out the full article in the April 2016 edition of IB Review
  • John Sprague is a teacher of philosophy and TOK at Tanglin Trust School in Singapore and has been Director of IB at Sevenoaks School and Deputy Director of IB at Kings College School Wimbledon.  He is a TOK workshop leader and on the Senior examining team for the TOK Presentation.  He is Lead Editor of the IB Review published by Philip Allen for Hodder Education.


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