In my last post, I was connecting wipe-outs (even if not of Olympic proportions) with the whole process of gaining know-how, and with much of its energy.  I’ve been mulling further….  Isn’t it valuable in a TOK class to encourage students to take their own bellyflops more lightly in terms of failure and more seriously in terms of learning?  The IB learner profile presents being a “risk-taker” as a goal.  But what does this mean in an educational context, and how is it relevant to TOK?


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“Risk-taking” as a concept: TOK definition and implications

For one thing, the term “risk-taker” gives a very clear and quick example for students to think about regarding one of the important concepts of the TOK course: that the terms in which ideas are presented, and the concepts on which discussion is therefore centred, affect how knowledge is sought, gained, and interpreted.   Indeed, in hot public debates, different interest groups compete to have issues discussed in the terms in which they themselves frame them.  (Is the source of oil in Alberta the “tar sands” or the “oil sands”, and what is implied by the difference in choice of words?) In new scientific theories or historical interpretations, thankfully with some removal from the rhetorical screeching of some public media, the concepts that move to the centre influence the way knowledge is constructed. Choosing an easy example such as “risk-taker” focuses student attention on the different directions discussion can take, and action can follow, from accepting particular definitions.

I don’t personally share the admiration often given to some forms of risk-taking.  Personally, I consider climbing unclimbed mountains or sailing unsailed seas often to be egocentric activities undertaken for personal glory; they waste resources, cause others untold worry and trouble, and sometimes (Mt Everest) damage the environment.  Similarly, I consider the risk-taking of the so-called “captains of industry”, sometimes presented with warlike imagery on business pages of newspapers, also to be nothing but pursuit of personal benefit — with the risk (of not making a profit) not to be their risk primarily in any case.  Above all, I think of risk-taking as exactly what I want teenaged students NOT to do!  As a parent and a teacher, I want with all my heart to guide students through their teen years without their wrecking their bodies and minds on impulsive and reckless behaviour.

The IB profile gives a declaration, as if voiced by IB students, of how risk-taking is defined in its educational terms:


We approach uncertainty with forethought and determination; we work independently and cooperatively to explore new ideas and innovative strategies. We are resourceful and resilient in the face of challenges and change.

This is not a common understanding of risk.  But it’s certainly one I’m more inclined to embrace!  In the wide range of what “risk” is considered to be, it’s clear that the definition of the concept sets the terms of discussion, the nature of aims, and the kinds of actions encouraged.  It’s a quick and easy term for demonstrating the implications of definitions adopted.

“Risk-taking” as behaviour appropriate to TOK

In terms of TOK, I return to the risk of bellyflops – the dive that goes a little wrong, so that the diver smacks his or her stomach (ouch!) on the surface of the water.  It stings…sometimes a lot.  But it’s not life-threatening, and it is part of the process of learning to take the plunge more adeptly.

I’d say that TOK is the perfect class in which to encourage students to take the kind of risks that the IB recommends – to be adventurous in exploring ideas in cooperation with others and to try out “innovative strategies” of problem-solving and communication.  In class discussion, students can try out new concepts and think through different perspectives – even if they aren’t initially very adept at doing so.  In the class presentation, they can push both their thinking and their comfort level with different methods of communication.  It’s a class for trying things out.

TOK, after all, is pretty safe.  Although many a TOK teacher has lamented the minimal credit given to the course in terms of IB points, I’ve always thought of that alternative marking as a source of freedom for the course.  While teachers of Higher Level subjects feel the pressure of getting their students to score well, TOK teachers can be a bit more relaxed.  We can guide students to risk fresh ideas and strategies, and to take challenges – knowing that students’ Diplomas and university acceptance are not themselves at risk.  Students might feel that they “failed” in trying out a new way of thinking or method of presentation – but we can help them to frame such risk as part of the process of learning, of gaining know-how, insight into alternative perspectives, and self-knowledge.

A bellyflop can sting – but not for long.  And if students never risk the plunge, they may never learn to dive confidently into ideas, their implications, and consequent action.

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