Why do TOK? Encouraging students to see TOK as an Experience

A Dialogue with a Fish-Out-of-Water

Imagine asking a fish what it is like to live in water?

  • What do you think the fish would say?

Hard to work out?

Well, it might go something like this:

Imaginary Dialogue

Fish: “Water? What is water? What are you talking about?”

Pretty simple and understandable. However, with this response, maybe you would patiently explain to the fish that it lives in water, HsO, a substance, a liquid, and so on. In response, the fish would probably just keep staring at you, wondering what you were talking about.

The point is that having existed every second of its life in water, why would it think there was ‘water’? In other words, it would just assume that this was ‘existence’ with no reason to recognise or acknowledge this aspect of existence.

So how would you get the fish to reflect on what it was like to live in water? Well, perhaps the best way would be to take it out of the water in order to give it something with which to compare living in water.

If you took the fish out of water, suddenly, the feel of water, the impact of water on viewing the surrounding environment, the difference in the sounds, as well as the necessity of water to live (oxygen) would become apparent. In the air, it would have a very different experience (and the fish would start to suffocate, which I am not advocating as a learning experience for your students!).

What does this mean?

At the beginning of their exploration of knowledge in TOK (most) students are like the fish-in-water. Obviously, we have the experience of others who have told us about some of the issues that are explored in TOK, but not in a structured, systematic manner. Consequently, students have the capacity to experience different situations and draw conclusions from them, with a clear purpose and guidance. Regardless, they will have numerous assumptions in their understanding of the world. TOK asks students to appreciate alternative perspectives, by experiencing the ‘fish-out-of-water’ moment. In other words, TOK asks them to take intellectual risks. (Remember the IB Learner Profile)

For some of this course, they will feel like fish in water, and in other parts of the course they will feel like the fish out of water. Both are important – using what they already understand to explore what they do not understand. This is a challenge and one that TOK is designed to help them with.

Using this idea to help them appreciate what they are doing when they are ‘fish-out-of-water’ provides a continuity and a sense of security. These are essential to build up their understanding of the TOK project. Maybe it is even worth a classroom  poster – ‘Think Fish’!