Tag Archives: Theory of Knowledge

Reflections on the Group IV IB Science Project

by Ralph Lelii, IB Coordinator and English teacher

In the Theory of Knowledge titles for May 2016, one question asks about the value we assign to knowledge based upon its application in the world, and conversely, to what degree is it diminished absent that. The title is more subtle than at first glance because the terms “application” ” value” and “diminished” need to be carefully delineated. When talking to my students about the prompt, I referenced the possible utility of considering the Group 4 science project in their responses. Continue reading

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A Commitment to Art

by Ralph Lelii, English department

When I attended the TED Conference in Vancouver last March, I was surprised by the number of presentations that involved art and design. It seemed as if every presentation drawn from science and engineering was interspersed with one that emphasized aesthetics, craft, and design. I have been watching the presentations again over the past few weeks so as not to lose them from my working memory, and this has made me aware once again of how powerfully art seems to impact our students. Continue reading

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Thoughts on Work

by Ralph Lelii, English department

I have benefitted in myriad ways from my long association with George School, but perhaps as significant as any has been my ability to travel on many international service trips. I have been to Asia seven times, to India, and to Israel and the West Bank, and these trips enriched my life in ways that are significant and enduring.  In my experience, the spiritual qualities of the human heart and soul are quite universal, but the material and existential conditions and possibilities afforded by different cultural and political environments vary widely. Perhaps my strongest memory will be the consequences that accrue in societies where many citizens must face a life devoid of meaningful work. Continue reading

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Thoughts on the Notion of Duty

By Ralph Lelii, English department

Last week in Theory of Knowledge class, we were exploring a variety of ethical perspectives. I spent an arrangement with my students exploring deontological ethical systems, those that derive from a notion of duty, of absolute principle. It is a word we don’t use much anymore outside of military and police communities, and I think that is somewhat unfortunate. Its etymology is from the Anglo-French duete, and the old French deu, which means what is justly owed or properly given. Continue reading

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Following Through

by Autumn Atkinson ’13

Editor’s note: Autumn will enter her second year at Sarah Lawrence College this fall. She is a member of the George School Class of 2013, a former prefect, Terra leader, and IB Diploma recipient. 

In 2008 I was flipping through the Georgian my mom received as an alumna. I said “Mom, I’m going to George School.” She didn’t think I was serious, but at that moment I decided that I was going to go to George School. I scurried about filling out the forms and writing the essay. Before I was even accepted I knew there were several things I wanted to earn at George School:

  1. A spot on the tennis team
  2. A prefect position
  3. Admittance to a good college
  4. An IB diploma

As I became a George School student and learned how things worked my mind went crazy with ideas. I wanted to be one of the few seniors who were asked to stand up during the Recognition assembly over and over because they earned Honor Roll and Head of Schools list each term at GS. I wanted to be cast in plays, write really good essays, and learn French inside and out. Oh, I was also on my best behavior because I was terrified of getting in trouble.

Admittedly, I was a bit high strung as a freshman.  My teachers were not shy about commenting on my ‘enthusiasm’ in the first midterm reports. In response to the comments I received relating to my Global Interdependence class Mark Wiley, my advisor at the time, told me that if I wanted to do the IB I would have to do better in my history class. When he said this, I was so hurt because I didn’t know how to do better and I knew he was right.

At George School, I was continuously asked to do things that I didn’t know how to do both in and out of the classroom. I had no idea how to talk to my roommate about difficult things, and I didn’t know how anyone could sit quietly through meeting for worship. I was always really nervous about tests, exams, tennis matches, and being late to check-in.  At the end of my sophomore year, I was faced with the reality that I was growing up quickly and the hardest years of my life were quickly approaching. I was terrified.

To my surprise, my third year at George School was the best of them all. My classes were very challenging but rarely dull. I learned so much about time management, perseverance, friendship, and balance.  I worked hard to make the best of situations and to keep focused on what was important.  What I learned out of the classroom was just as important as learning about French Culture or sustainable sources of electricity since life is constantly throwing you obstacles. At first, I had no idea how to do most of my assignments.  Writing a page for my IB Art Journal was overwhelming and critical essay writing—well getting through the Scarlet Letter was a challenge in itself.  One of the biggest hurdles of junior year is the Culminating Paper. There was nothing to prepare me for the amount of mental clarity that was necessary to write a 4,000 word comparative essay on two great works of literature. However, I cannot express how grateful I am that George School requires a paper of this caliber. The experience made twenty-page papers in college seem easy.

Suddenly my class was leading the campus, applying to colleges, and getting antsy about moving on. I struggled a lot my senior year with the thought of leaving George School because of the uncertainty that lay ahead.  Let me be honest—I have no idea how I made it through that year. I stretched myself a little too thin between being an IB Diploma candidate, a West Main Prefect, and a leader of various clubs like Terra. I learned so much that year, but perhaps the most important thing is something Ralph Lelii told me after a TOK class. He said that no one’s voice or thoughts are more or less important than your own.

Before I knew it IB exams were finished, I had committed to Sarah Lawrence College, senior prom was the most fun I’ve ever had at a dance and I have never felt as settled as I did in Commencement Meeting for Worship. Suddenly I was in my white dress walking towards Nancy Starmer to get my Diploma.

I remember feeling elated and proud just twice in my life so far—once when I received my acceptance letter to George School and the other when I received my George School and International Baccalaureate diplomas.


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A Life Worth Living

By Ralph Lelii, English department

Last month in TOK, a senior said in class something to this effect, “I wish I were free to get out and do some real work to try and forestall the coming tragedy of global warming.” He did not say it disrespectfully or aggressively; rather, there was a good deal of inchoate fear and sadness in his voice, I think. I have thought a great deal about it, and it hits home with a particular vengeance when I remember it while my one year old granddaughter is sitting on my lap. At those moments, I also feel sadness and an inchoate fear, for I want the world to be for her what it was for me. Alas, it now seems likely that while there will be a world for her, no one can say with any kind of certainty what it will comprise.

The astonishing miracle that we inhabit this planet at all is a well-worn truth, but still miraculous nonetheless. In his lecture on the evolution of our planet and our species, the historian David Christian talks about the fragile appearance of several “Goldilocks’ Moments,” times in our particular and peculiar evolution when just the right temperature meshed with just the right chemical conditions and life formed and was sustained. He adds ominously that our continued survival requires a continued balance of fragile, interconnected systems, which are under relentless assault. He ends the lecture with a huge photograph of his grandson, claiming that he wants for him a world of sustainable progress and health.

As teachers, I think we tend to construct knowledge and claim its veracity based at least in part upon its truth in our own lives. Part of the nobility of the profession, as I see it, is this connectedness with the past, the ability to link ourselves with those who preceded us by virtue of study and the miracle of language. Until recently, I felt secure in the belief that I had a relatively good, albeit miniscule,  sense of what the world has meant and I wanted my students to know these things, to feel connected all the way back to Socrates in one long, difficult but trenchant intellectual evolution. When I stand before them now, there is still a good deal of faith left in my tank about the world, but its pinions are a bit more wobbly, less self- assured.

Carl Jung wrote once of our species, “The denial of death, its attendant denial and fear of change, is an attempt to bring order to our lives. It is neither evil nor good. It is simply human.” When Chris Odom and Michael Erickson wrote passionately about global change a few weeks ago, I was reminded again of that student’s comment, of my grand-daughters life, and of those of all our children. With what certainty can we now make claims about the future for our students; with what justification can we offer them assurances that the knowledge we turn over to them will matter in twenty years if the world should warm 7 degrees Celsius as some scientific models suggest. I am neither melancholy nor fatalistic about this predicament. We are a clever and resourceful species and we have survived bubonic plagues, endless wars, nuclear proliferation, slavery, and even professional wrestling. But somehow, the stakes seem different now, more metaphysical, and less predictable. At the very least, we should probably talk more explicitly about these fears, about what kinds of knowledge may address them most capably. As I often say to my students, as a bald (ing) man of 59, I own about 20 years of the future if I am lucky. A non-smoking 18 year old girl in my class can expect about 73 more years on this planet.

It seems probable that they might deserve a slightly bigger seat at the table.

Mostly though, I want my grand baby Emma to have a life worth living.

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Why TOK ?

by Ralph Lelii, English department

Because of the elusive nature of Theory of Knowledge (TOK) class, I am taking a few moments to give a brief explanation of the aims, practices and theory of the class.

TOK is not a survey class in philosophy, nor is it group therapy. Its aims are increased clarity and precision of thought, and a heightened awareness of the many levels and chambers of human consciousness. The class has as the primary text the mind of the student, and we acknowledge that after at least eleven years of mandatory schooling, there is a great deal that the young folks in front of us know. TOK is intended to have them look with directed scrutiny at the sources, the meanings, the importance and the limitations of that knowledge.

Theory of Knowledge as an academic discipline requires that we ground our discussions as frequently as possible in real world problems. These form a starting point from which we extrapolate “knowledge questions” which explore the ambiguity, uncertainty, and problems of meaning and interpretation which might lie beneath the surface of our knowledge. Here are a couple of examples that might make the nature of epistemological discourse clear.

Last week, I was channel surfing and I came across a comedy channel that featured stand up comics. I watched for about ten minutes and  a young comic made a vulgar joke about that iconic image of the two people holding hands on 9/11 while they jumped to their death. The audience laughed heartily, and I took this real life situation as the basis for a TOK discussion.

Melding emotion, language ethics and culture, I ask “With what justification can we laugh at humor directed toward the tragic death of two strangers? Can it ever be right to laugh at such things?” Some students immediately answered that “it is a free society which makes it right”; I answered it is in some ways a free society and not in others. We are not free to harass or torture others, nor are we free to steal, so clearly their must be limits to our freedom. If there are such limits, might they apply to our aesthetic judgements and indulgences. If we are free to laugh at anything, are we free to laugh at a website portrayal of the torture of a child? ( I am using free here in the sense that there are no compelling ethical or moral distinctions which would make our laughter wrong.)

Clearly most would answer no, laughing at the torture of a child must always be wrong, but is it the same thing as laughing at the two people jumping to their deaths. I would ask where do we find the answer? Is it pure reason, and if so, how can we test that. Is it our religious values that shape our sense of ethics in this regard? If someone, however, is a secular humanist and atheist, where would they look to make such a decision:

Is it possible that we have innate standards of ethical boundaries and restraints, but if so, why did I find almost an entire audience laughing at something that so many of us find morally repugnant? Is it possible that participation in a group loosens the foundations of our moral precepts, but if so, why were there some people not laughing, clearly offended?

The intention of such discussions is not for me, as the teacher, to deliver them to my moral position. I am clear in my own mind that it is wrong to laugh in that situation, but I am interested not in student agreement with me; rather I want their heightened awareness of how they justify their own beliefs and standards. My assumption is that greater clarity about the source and powers of one’s owns beliefs and motives is a good unto itself, one which benefits not the individual and the larger culture, and it is not necessary to convince students of my opinions.

The notion of freedom in TOK lies in the presumption that students are entitled to freedom from ideological or ethical coercion, to the extent that I am consciously able to control those boundaries. Either every mind counts, or none do.

We move across many academic disciplines with such questions, trying to identify links and assumptions between areas of knowledge and ways of knowing. If a student says one day, we need to cut our carbon footprint, I might sieze on that claim and say, “Yes, that seems a clearly desirable goal. But here is a question. If I fly to China to attend a conference on medieval history, the plane will burn enough fuel to power a small sub Saharan village for a year. Can I say that this use of fuel is good, but someone burning an equal measure to heat their hot tub is indulgent? With what justification? Is my interest in history comparable to someone’s enjoyment of time in a hot tub with friends and family? Where do we turn for the answers, and who has or should have the power to enforce such distinctions?

Each of us who teaches TOK will have our own differences and emphases. This is the model I use, and I don’t presume that it is the best map to follow, but it is mine. I hope I have provided some clarity about the sort of thinking we do in Theory of Knowledge class.

Thanks for reading,


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My ToK Class

By Chesa Sacchi ’14

Editor’s Note: This post was written during the 2012-2013 academic year.

George School offers a class called Theory of Knowledge (ToK). As a ToK student, I am constantly learning new things, and new ways of approaching things I already know. My class, taught by our IB coordinator Ralph Lelii, is a complex and personal inquiry into different ways of knowing and different areas of knowledge. The class is composed almost entirely of questions, which prompts me to turn inward and reflect on new knowledge or on my own preconceived notions. Ralph tells us that we are the textbooks, and I experience this through our rich class discussions every day.

Although it is a class required for IB Diploma candidates, students at George School who aren’t pursuing the IB Diploma have the opportunity to take it as well. Students can take the yearlong course for an IB certificate, or can choose to take it as a term-long religion elective. The ToK course is core to the educational philosophy of the IB Diploma, allowing students and teachers alike the opportunity to critically reflect on ways of knowing (otherwise known as the WoK), areas of knowing (AoK), and real-life knowledge questions that apply to our own lives.

ToK gives me a new way of looking at life. From the TED talks we see in class, to the beautiful videos Ralph shows us, to the elaborate and thoughtful class discussions, every day I learn something new or interesting from Ralph, my classmates, and, most importantly, myself.

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The Origins of IQ

By Ralph Lelii, English department, IB coordinator

In Theory of Knowledge class, I often explore with students the question of “IQ”, its origins, its implications and its legacy and continuing impact in education. It is usually a compelling and provocative topic because many of the students in the class were tested for “IQ” as the criterion for placement in gifted programs. Students who were not tested often have a jaundiced view of the practice, and those who were tested sometimes retain a sense of inherently superior intellectual status.

It is interesting to note the origins of the IQ tests. In the early 1900’s, the French government passed laws requiring the education of all children. They commissioned psychologist Alfred Binet to construct some sort of measurement that might sort out the students who would need special training from those who could move more rapidly through the system. Binet and his colleague Theodore Simon wrote a series of questions that focused on things that had NOT been taught in school such as memory and problem-solving skills. He quickly realized that some children were able to answer more advanced questions that older children were generally able to answer, while other children of the same age were only able to answer questions that younger children could typically answer. Based on this observation, Binet suggested the concept of establishing a mental age, or a measure of intelligence (IQ) based on the average abilities of children of a certain age group (Kerry, History of Psychology). The theoretical premise of this first test is still the basis for current intelligence tests.

Interestingly, Alfred Binet himself did not believe in the predictive, static truth that is often associated with the tests. Binet stressed the limitations of the test, suggesting that intelligence is far too broad a concept to quantify with a single number. Instead, he insisted that intelligence is influenced by a number of factors, changes over time, and can be shaped by environmental forces. I think, however, that the notion of IQ as a fixed intellectual “birth mark” continued throughout the twentieth century, and still persists somewhat today.

In TOK class, we view the students themselves as texts. The goal of the class is to help provide young people with the analytical and philosophical tools to explore why they believe what they believe, what they mean when they say they know something is true, how they can come to live calmly in a world where the amount of knowledge doubles every 14 months. If a student has been assigned an IQ number which is disappointing to them, I have observed that they often stay affected by it, despite the affirmation of parents and teachers and the reassurances of the irrelevance of the test to the larger meanings of their lives.

Until relatively recently, science told us that intelligence was a relatively fixed, heritable trait, and the belief was that the brain was fully developed by the end of adolescence. Current neuroscience tell s us that in fact the brain is still developing into our late twenties, and it retains a significant level of plasticity throughout our lives. What is challenging now, it seems to me, is for educators to try to learn from the newer research while still maintaining some sense of authenticity about their pedagogical and philosophical world view. There is something comforting, I think, about the fixing of intelligence at a particular point, the measurement serving as a kind of predictive insurance. The problem is that the word “intelligence” itself is an epistemological hurricane. What do we mean by it? Often times, it is easy to assume that intelligence is that thing or things that we value in our own mind, or writers or professors we admire. It may be that, but it likely depends on your frame of reference. Is moral acuity a sign of “intelligence”? What of compassion? The Harvard psychologist Daniel Goleman published his book Emotional Intelligence in 1995 in which he argued, among other things, that emotional intelligence, the ability to work with others in a positive fashion, to form alliances and to empathize, may be more predictive of life success than traditional academic notions of intelligence. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s research focuses on our perception of the mind’s ability to grow and our nurturance of it as the basis for intellectual development. For her, the labeling of a child with a static number leads not to more intellectual development and independence but less. Praising students endlessly for their perceived “innate intelligence’ causes less risk taking and results in less, rather than more, self-confidence than encouraging students to work hard at developing intellectual skills over the course of a lifetime.

In TOK class, I urge students to take a broad view of this sexy thing we call intelligence. In technological societies like ours, it seems to be the trait among all others most likely to draw praise and adoration, but it is my view that we really do not have any consensual agreement about its meaning, its permanence or its predictive power. Epistemology is the discipline of inquiry, the process where in questions are far more compelling than answers, and the goal is clarity more than certainty. In this case, we might do well to start by asking in what ways might our myriad attempts to quantify intelligence help us to answer Plato’s eternal question, “How then shall we live?”

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