Real-life situations

The TOK oral presentation requires that students focus on a ‘real-life situation’ that raises one or more ‘knowledge issues’ and then analyze how those questions might be considered, with explicit reference to appropriate Areas of Knowledge and  Ways of Knowing.

Here are a few ideas for ‘real-life situations’ that raise knowledge issues. Suggest additions to the list in the comments.

  • How do I know whether to trust what the doctor says?
  • How do I know whether to trust what the government says?
  • Which political candidate should I support?
  • How do I decide which product I should buy?
  • How do people decide whether they should smoke cigarettes (or drink alcohol, or use drugs)?
  • Should some drugs be illegal?
  • Should prostitution be illegal?
  • Should the government regulate pornography, or make it illegal altogether; or not?
  • Should prisons attempt to rehabilitate criminals?
  • Is it wrong to download songs or videos or books from the internet without paying for them?
  • Additions:
  • Should dogfights be illegal? [other animal-rights situations would also work]

Please add your own ideas in comments to this post, but in your comment please clearly distinguish (as I have not above) a real-life situation and corresponding knowledge issue for each of your suggestions.

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9 comments to Real-life situations

  • Mr. MacKnight

    From the IBO’s OCC, where TOK teachers discuss various things, here are a few more ideas:

    •Fur farming in Finland. “On Wednesday evening YLE’s A-Studio current affairs programme showed material, which had been shot at about 30 fur farms last year, mostly in Ostrobothnia. Many of the animals depicted had serious injuries of various types that had been neglected and become infected. One’s tail and part of its hind quarters appeared to have been chopped off.” Some of this disturbing footage can be seen at the A-Studio web site (YLE TV Broadcasting). Look for the picture of the furry animal in a cage and click on the photo.

    •Some of the suggestions from earlier in this thread, while potentially sources of excellent presentations, seem to fall between the “two stools” simply because of the way they have been couched. For example, “how do I know whether to trust what the doctor says?” would best perhaps be re-formulated in terms of a real visit to a doctor, or a real article about trust in doctors (RLS) and a more widely applicable question concerning non-specialists and their attitudes to professional knowledge and authority (KI). “Should the market be regulated?” might be developed by looking at the relationship between the recent credit crunch (RLS) and a question to do with the tension in human sciences such as economics between the description of reality and advocacy of change (KI), positive and normative, etc.

    •Each of the past two school years has begun with a great RLS that I have used to kick off the first day of class. This year was the Caster Semenya case (How do we know a person is a man or woman?). There is always some great/absurd thinking-out-loud initial suggestions (check under her skirt, get her pregnant, etc.) which immediately present the concept of counter examples. Ultimately, though, students settle on chromosomes. Of course, it’s not that simple: Last year, the Chinese Women’s Gymnastic Gold Medal team offered themselves up as a timely TOK topic for the start of the year. The controversy was about their age, specifically were they all, in fact, at least 16 years old. Link:,8599,1832312,00.html. Students again offer lots of suggestions from the standard “check their age against average height and weight” to the wonderfully absurd “cut them in half and count the rings.” Being in Taiwan, there’s always a healthy skepticism about the value of the passports the Chinese government offered as “proof of age”.

    •I now see “topic” as the KI rather than the RLS.

    •Exorcism. Is love real? Persistent Vegetative State. How music effects our emotions. Profiling Terrorists.

    •Was X war justified? Was X court-ruling justified? Will a human evolutionary leap occur anytime soon? Should science and technology be steered / regulated? Should the market be regulated? What role do fairy-tales play in our culture? Are the number and the intensity of natural calamities actually growing? Are the reasons clear? Can cloning solve the food demands of the future? Is Earth itself a living being? Should dogfights be illegal? Gambling: fun pastime or dangerous addiction?

  • Mr. MacKnight

    I came across this exchange from 1952 between Winston Churchill and one of his ministers regarding UFOs (“unidentified flying objects”) or “flying saucers”:


    What does all this stuff about flying saucers amount to? What can it mean? What is the truth? Let me have a report at your convenience.


    28.July 1952

    The various reports about unidentified flying objects, described by the Press as “flying saucers”, were the subject of a full Intelligence study in 1951. The conclusions reached (based upon William of Occam’s Razor) were that all the incidents reported could be explained by one or other of the following causes:-

    (a) Known astronomical or meteorological phenomena
    (b) Mistaken identification of conventional aircraft, balloons, birds, etc.
    (c) Optical illusions and psychological delusions
    (d) Deliberate hoaxes.

    2. The Americans, who carried out a similar investigation in 1948/9, reached a similar conclusion.

    3. Nothing has happened since 1951 to make the Air Staff change their opinion, and, to judge from recent Press statements, the same is true in America.

    4. I am sending a copy of this to Lord Cherwell.

    9th August, 1952.


    There might be a good topic here about why people persist in believing in such things—conspiracy theories, UFOs, paranormal events, etc.—when a rational analysis shows them to be untrue or extremely unlikely.

  • Mr. MacKnight

    This review of a book about the sexual abuse of children raises questions about the scientific method and how scientific theories are received when they contradict commonly-held assumptions.

  • SiHui

    For the real-life situation, “Is it wrong to download songs or videos or books from the internet without paying for them?”, I propose a corresponding knowledge issue: “Should money be used as a way to gain access?”

    • Mr. MacKnight

      SiHui, I’m confused by the idea of ‘gaining access’. What do you mean, exactly? If I’m at an amusement park and want to ride the roller-coaster, I have to pay. Is that what you mean? Or is listening to someone’s recording different from riding on someone’s roller coaster? Can you explain your thinking a bit?

  • SiHui

    Should money be used to gain access to knowledge/information/contentment/happiness… I struggle to find a word to encapsulate the category of things that money cannot buy.

    • Mr. MacKnight

      Ah! I think you are trying to describe something that some philosophers have called a “natural right”. E.g., few would argue that riding on a roller coaster is a natural right, but some would argue that having fresh air to breathe or clean water to drink is a natural right. You could do some research on this concept and then think about whether, for example, music might be considered a natural right. If it is, then another question would follow: is access to digital music a natural right? Or would, say, the right to sing or hum satisfy one’s natural right to music?

      As I understand your idea, these are the sorts of issues you would get into.

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