13 09 memory 500It seems that we just can’t leave the past alone.  We choose what to deny and what to glorify from the life that we leave behind, as most of our moments drift entirely from our memories.  We reshape the past and impose upon its fuzzy outlines new stories of our own to fit our present interests and purposes.  In TOK, the addition of memory as a way of knowing opens up fascinating questions of knowledge.  Discussion of memory is likely to prove magnetic for students who are still building their own sense of identity, and to prove beneficial for appreciation of the methodology of numerous areas of knowledge.

The sheer malleability of memory has long been explored in literature, with tremendous insight into humanity drawn from what memory hides and what version it reveals, and under what circumstances.  How do we draw, between the dots of our life-events, the connecting lines of explanation?  From the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex 2500 years ago to recent novels that have won the Man Booker prize, literature deals with personal knowledge of the past, its intersection with shared knowledge – and the role and significance of memory.

13 09 joining dots

In TOK, we will most obviously deal with psychology as it attempts to study memory, and with history as personal memories contribute to the shared record.  We’ll also consider the oral histories relevant to anthropology and to specific groups as part of indigenous knowledge.  Even in our own topics in TOK, we now have a new component: key moments in the history of each area of knowledge.  Some of the critique we give to choices of those “lines connecting the dots” in history as an area of knowledge could well apply to our own possible TOK choices as we touch on the “important moments” (according to what criteria?) of the development of the natural sciences, say, or the arts.

My own interest, personally, gravitates immediately to the significance of the personal memories we carry and of the collective social memories we create through history.  We don’t leave the past behind.  For resolution of conflicts in personal and international relations, and for creating shared stories that can give us grounds for working together, the way our memories are cast and preserved really matters.

How do we engage our students in reflections on memory? 

How do we engage our students in reflections on memory?  Confronting the uncertainties of memory in its acquisition, retention, and retrieval will almost surely captivate students, but may also be somewhat disturbing.  Myself, I’d be inclined not to start with their own experience and suggest that they may be wrong about what they remember.  For some students, that could feel like an assault.  I’d be inclined to start with stories of other people and other places, so that the general knowledge questions about memory can be brought into their own personal knowledge by students themselves as they become familiar with how memory actually works (and not like a video camera!)

I’d be inclined to use stories taken from elsewhere, possibly entering through history.  In the TOK course companion, I’ve included a couple of discussion activities and questions for reflection that don’t quickly go out of date, but for the sense of immediacy and engagement in the world I’d go first to the media, to the stories of the past being retold that come up so frequently in the news: for instance, governments offer apologies for actions in the past or choose to honour veterans in retrospect for an almost-forgotten war; evidence comes to light of a different version of the past than the one nationally acknowledged; groups dispute the versions of the past that they use to support (or sanitize) their choices in the present.

If it’s useful to you, have a look at a blog post I made for students on August 22 (“KQ: what TOK’s all about”) in the other lobe of this blog. Although the main thrust of the post is to introduce students to knowledge questions, the examples are about history – including a question I left them to think about.

The Teacher Support Material on the Online Curriculum Centre encourages us to enter the ways of knowing predominantly through areas of knowledge, and in the case of history and memory the connection works very well.  I’d start with specific stories as I do in this particular post, draw out the knowledge questions, and then apply those knowledge questions to other shared historical records and students’ own personal memories.  There are a lot of appealing paths into the interconnected ideas of the TOK course, and this is surely one of them.


Eileen Dombrowski, Lena Rotenberg, Mimi Bick.  “Chapter 6: Memory as a Way of Knowing”, Theory of Knowledge course companion.  Oxford University Press, 2013. 

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