LPCUWC timetables: past, present, future

Many United World Colleges adopted the academic time-table of Atlantic College at its founding, and adapted it over the years to suit their local constraints and initiatives.  While I have a long-standing interest in solutions across-the-ponds and down the Well of Time, this took on a Chesterton Fence urgency this year.   Administration at the College pushed to overhaul the time-table for the upcoming year: the more we know about the strengths and deficiencies of what has been tried, theoretically the better decisions we ought to be able to make.

With the help of Beta, a long time math teacher here, I recovered and subsequently visualized 3 different major variations of the academic timetable from 2000.  Here I present them along with a brief commentary; at the end are some proposals that were advanced this year.  The final “winning proposal” is largely decided and I’ve included one possible version of it here.

A separate post will detail the across-the-pond comparisons.


The following timetables all share a common representation.  Each Day within an academic cycle — not to be confused with a weekday — is contained in its own column.  Time within a day flows from up to down; each “event” is marked off by a colored block, where the color designates the kind of event.  Here is an example, showing the presence of our “breakfast” block which recurs every day from 8:30 to 9:00 am:

Building up the notation.
Building up the notation.

Class times, forming the majority of the time-table, are marked out as outlines of blocks.  One class is especially colored in to highlight its occurrence through the academic cycle; there is usually a level of symmetry, so what is present for block-A is also representative of that for block-B:

Illustrating the academic blocks.  Class times are indicated as outline-only boxes, with one class (A) highlighted with its duration and appearance through the academic cycle.  Block B is also named here for comparison.
Illustrating the academic blocks. Class times are indicated as outline-only boxes, with one class (A) highlighted with its duration and appearance through the academic cycle. Block B is also named here for comparison.

Durations are indicated once, and again only if they are different.

With the notation understood, we are ready to travel back in time!


Year 2001-02 runs on an irregular 8-day cycle, with separate HL and SL blocks:

2001-02 academic cycle
2001-02 academic cycle

It is irregular in multiple senses:

  • Special blocks are present.  These include slotted time for ToK lecture, common time, and time to meet the tutor.
  • Length of blocks are different.  Classes vary from 45 minutes to 75 minutes, depending on which day of the academic cycle it falls under.
  • Distribution of blocks is uneven along classes.  While the overall time available in each academic cycle is the same, block A (HL) may get its 345 minutes in a different way than block B (HL).

In this timetable, higher level subjects get 5.75-6.25 hours and SL subjects 3.83-4.33 hours per cycle, for an average of (HL) 0.72-0.78 hr per academic day and (SL) 0.48-0.54 hr.  Over the course of 2 years, at ~270 academic days, the total contact time extends to 194-211 hours for HL, and 130-146 hours for SL.  This represents 81-88% of the minimal IB-recommended time for HL, and 87-97% for SL.

Some other noteworthy feature: breakfast is intentionally situated after the first block, to encourage students towards a healthy lifestyle.  While the length of breakfast would change over time, its location between 1st and 2nd block would be preserved across the years.


The next major overhaul, a few years later, gives a slightly more regular time-table:

LPCUWC 2008-09 timetable
LPCUWC 2008-09 timetable

What is preserved:

  • 8 day schedule
  • breakfast and break times / durations
  • ToK lecture as a special block
  • Extension hours at the end of day
  • irregular blocks, irregular placement of blocks for different classes

What is different:

  • Removal of “common time” and “tutor block”
  • creation of a short announcement block on Day 2

Under this timetable, HL subjects get 325-355 minutes (5.41-5.91 hours) and SL subjects 210-240 minutes (3.5-4.0 hrs) in each cycle, or, 0.68-0.74 hrs (HL) and 0.43-0.50 hrs (SL) per academic day.

Not shown in a daily time-table is the yearly calendar, which has also slowly morphed over the years since the earlier calendar.  Since the earlier years, Change of Pace days have been formalized, trial exams became extended, mid-term breaks introduced, and Chinese New Year became a 1-1.5 week holiday.  These cut the available teaching days from ~270 to 240 over 2 years.  The upshot is that the total teaching time now becomes 163-178 hours for HL subjects and 103-120 hours for SL subjects, representing 68-74% and 69-80% of recommended minimal teaching time.

The substantial, but gradual, reduction of face time over these years makes its difficult to teach the entire syllabus within the time allocated, and especially so for the  content-heavy subjects in Groups 4 (sciences) and 5 (math).  Negative comments in the IB school review prompted the (previous) Codrington administration to “do something about it”, and ushered in the new time-table in place since ~2010 and in place today.


In attempting to create more time, the timetable was changed in the following ways.

  • the major change lies compressing an 8-day cycles to a 7-day cycles, by eliminating a slot (thus blocks run from A-G instead of A-H).  The effect of this is to increase contact time by 15%
  • the second major change is abolition of designated SL blocks, and instead placing SL in HL blocks to maximize blocking flexibility
  • the ToK lecture block is removed from a designated slot to an irregular replacement of alternate 3rd block on Day 2.
  • Length of lessons are standardized to 60 minutes.
  • Breakfast is lengthened to 30 minutes
LPCUWC 2013-14
LPCUWC 2013-14

Hearsay is that the earliest implementation in 2009-2010 involved all blocks to be taught, for 5-5.5 hours (HL) and 4-4.5 hours (SL) in each academic cycle.  How this got accepted is beyond me — it would have been a big, big violation of contractual terms to ramp up work by 15% across the board.  In any case, by mid-semester this burnt out both students and teachers, and it was (technically) revised to 4-4.5 hours (HL) and 3-3.5 hours (SL) of contact time — one block within each cycle is left free, and the choice of the block is at the teacher’s discretion.

When time I arrived in 2012, the legal contract states 4.5 hours for each HL cycle, but the social contract is to teach 5-5.5 hours.  The corresponding theoretical value for SL is 3.5, but norm being 4-4.5 hr/cycle.  This gives rise to the timetable illustrated.

Under the social contract, the contact time is now 0.71-0.79 hrs (HL) and 0.57-0.64 hrs (SL) per cycle.  With 240 teaching days over two years this gives rise to 170-189 hrs for HL, and 136-153 hrs for SL.  This represents 71-79% (HL) and 91->100% (SL) of the recommended time, and with the exception of a few course, most subjects can finish their syllabi in time.

And the present…

This year the administration made a strong push to revamp the entire time-table for next academic year.  While the focus is on the non-academic time-table (including student welfare and CAS activities), the administration also proposed to change the academic time-table, with the intentions

  • to introduce a group block, where a block is marked off for a subject group (e.g., Group 3 Humanities), in order to “encourage collaboration, flexibility, and teaching innovation”, and
  • to introduce ToK as its own block, and
  • to incorporate Global Issues Forum (GIF) as part of the academic time-table,
  • increasing student flexibility,
  • while not further reducing teaching time.

Some discussions were had at the staff & college levels, and the final schedule was subsequently announced:

LPCUWC 14-15, with group blocks
LPCUWC 14-15, with group blocks

The schedule is effectively reverting to an 8-day-8-block cycle, with a special block substituting each of the 5 “H” blocks that would have appeared.  The different subject groups would split the three group blocks, presumably alternating between Group 1 and 2 (languages), group 3 (humanities) and 5 (math), and group 4 (science) and 6 (arts).  ToK will once again have its own block, as would GIF.  (The final format may be re-shuffled, since as laid out GIF will only be of 1-hr duration — not long enough for a presentation and discussion — and distribution of morning/end blocks are uneven.)

The group block is an interesting concept, and one that we as a teaching staff have not really wrapped our head around yet.  In the sciences we have proposed using this for starting the (new curriculum) internal assessment process, introducing the Group 4 project, some spreadsheet workshops at the beginning of the year, and for year-group wide testing.  Much of the specifics would depend on when the Group block appears on the calendar, since splitting it between two groups means that it comes around every 3 weeks or so, and the Period of Peak Utility may have passed.  And what could be delivered would certainly be constraint by the fact that the whole year-group can only be fit in the lecture theater, and skills workshop — requiring interactivity and troubleshooting — may be impossible to run efficiently.

In any case, the reversion to an 8-day cycle brings back the same concerns of missing contact time as with the previous time-table.  When we were having the discussions, the effects were partially mitigated by (i) compressing Change-of-Pace days into afternoon-only half-days, releasing 10 additional teaching days, and (ii) reducing Y2 trial exams duration by 3 days; however, the abolition of CoP days raised many concerns and was restored.

The final accounting could be done only with the full calendar, but my back-of-the-envelope numbers say 245 total teaching days for the 2014-2016 cohort.  At 0.63-0.69 hrs (HL) and 0.50-0.56 hrs (SL) / cycle, this comes to 154-169 hours (HL) and 123-137 hours (SL), or, 64-70% (HL) and 82-91% (SL) respectively.  This is lower than the 2008-09 figures, because the 08-09 time-table has designated SL-blocks which effectively subsidizes time for HL classes.  Removing this “time subsidy” is the direct cause of the reduction in class lengths (from 65/75 min. to 60 min.) and thus overall contact time.  Even if group blocks perfectly substitutes for a class, this will still be the lowest HL contact time of any timetable from any IB schools I’ve seen.

In the next post we’ll look at a comparison of schedules from Costa Rica, Pearson, USA, Mahindra, and Nordic UWC.  There’s a great deal of diversity there! 

IB chem 2016-22: topic changes

This is a 3-part commentary on the new syllabus, which begins examination in May 2016, and is thus relevant to the first years coming in Sept 2014.  These are meant for IB chemistry teachers, and especially for those who have taught the 2009 syllabus.  The first part speaks about the philosophical differences, the second (this part) is a topic-by-topic comparison, and the last part talks about the changes in Internal Assessments.  All opinions are entirely mine, and I am not affiliated with IBO.  As a personal project with no editorial help, there is bound to be errors and omissions; your comments would be most welcomed.

Overall structure

The overall structure of the syllabus is preserved but with varied proportions.

2009/2016 guides time allocation
2009/2016 guides time allocation
  • The lab component stays the same, with Group 4 project intact.  However, there is now a list of prescribed experiments (examined in paper 3).  The internal assessment undergoes a historical change-over, from a portfolio of experiments to a 10-hour IA — in-line with other groups — using new criteria.  This will be examined in more detail in the next post.
  • The options are reduced from “7-choose-2” to “4-choose-1”, with overall hours reduced from 45 to 25.
  • Core and HL material now incorporate material from the removed options.  Most obvious is the inclusion of spectroscopic techniques, but environmental and organic also saw themselves into the core/HL material as well.

I am very happy about the addition of spectroscopy as a mandatory topic.  Spectroscopy is bedrock to modern chemistry, but it is neither something that students are able or willing to learn on their own.  In the past I have made analytical chemistry a compulsory option, but students would privately opt out: now we assert that this is important and they all need to know it.

Topic Formatting

While the 2009-2015 syllabus topics comprised solely of assessment statements, the 2016 syllabus is much richer in content but omits the assessment statements.  This omission was intentional, as examiners feel that the presence of assessment statements restricts the question they can pose in exams.  The content of each topic is instead split into sections such as “understanding”, “skills”, “applications”, “theory of knowledge”, and “cross-curriculum links”.  I love this decision.  The assessment statements encourages a piece-meal, insulated “study for exam” mindset, whereas the current approach is both richer and more holistic.

What is missing from the guide, however, are the hours recommendations.  The 2009-guide recommend teaching hours by the sub-topic, for example, 1 hour for the reactions of organic alcohols.  The 2016-guide, on the other hand, simply gives the teaching hour by a topic: there would simply be a recommendation of 11 hours for “organic chemistry”.

For teachers new to the IB, the new syllabus, broad and holistic as it is, would be much harder to start teaching with.  However, since there is substantial parallel between the 2009 and 2016 guides, I would recommend planning lessons with both guides on the first go-around, since the assessment statements provide concrete tasks that your students need to be able to do; they would also be able to look at the old sub-topic hour recommendations and extrapolate to the new syllabus.  You can consult the map in the next section to find the mapping.

Topic changes

While there are limited changes to the material included — chemistry is a mature discipline — the topics are often numbered differently.  There is a general push in combining multiple sub-topics into a new one; for example, what used to be “3.2 physical properties in periodic table” and “3.3 chemical properties in the periodic table” is now simply “3.2 periodic trends”.  Sometimes this gives better clarity to the syllabus, but sometimes I feel it overshot (for example, both core kinetics and equilibrium have exactly one sub-topic, which is no help at all when it comes to teachers structuring their year plan).

Sitting down with both guides side-by-side, I charted the mapping of each topic, and annotated the addition and removal of material.  I then cross-referenced this against the list by David Allen.  This post will get elaborated on as I gain a fuller understanding of the new syllabus.  You can download a printable copy (designed to print on an A3 page) as a PDF here.

Full 2009-2016 syllabus topic comparison
Full 2009-2016 syllabus topic comparison.  (Click on the image for a full size viewing)

Each topic sits in its own box, with a horizontal line demarcating where the HL material begins.  On the left are the topic numbers / titles from the 2009 guide (over a blue background ); on the left are the topic numbers / titles from the 2016 guide (over a green background).  The numbers next to the the units, with a pink background, are the hours.  These hours are extracted for the old guide, and extrapolated by me to the new sub-topics after mapping each units.  (That is, the hours for the new sub-topics are not official.)

Blue arrows show mapping of a 2009 sub-topic to a 2016 sub-topic, at the same level (e.g., HL->HL).  Red arrows indicate where a previously HL topic is relocated to a SL topic, whereas green arrows denote a SL -> HL transfer.  Dashed lines show partial mapping.

Important notes on the new sub-topics are given in red font under each title:

Let’s look at the changes in each topic one at a time, in bullet-points, followed by my comments in square brackets.

1: Stoichiometric relationship


  • The topic is renamed from quantitative chemistry to stoichiometric relationships.  [I think this is just cosmetic.]
  • A sub-topic of the 1.1 particulate nature of matter is added.  [This makes explicit something that we all taught, or expect students to know as prior background.  I like this, especially the mentioning of mixed states of matter.]
  • Within the concepts in 1.1 some are newly explicit, including the distinction between homogenous and heterogenous phases.
  • Within 1.1 is a mentioning of atom economy.  [While links in stoichiometry right away to environmental concerns, I suspect that this will have to be tackled after finished with the rest of stoichiometry.  It certainly would take a fair bit of time to grasp.]
  • Mole concept is mapped directly, with a special emphasis of ozone pointed out as an application.
  • the rest of stoichiometry is simply smushed into one sub-topic.
  • An associated change with the gas laws is hidden in the revised data booklet: what used to be incorrectly called STP is correctly referred to as SATP (Standard Ambient Temperature and Pressure).  This is a much welcomed correction, and would prevent student confusions about the different “standard” encountered in gas laws and thermodynamics.

2: Atomic structure


  • Concepts regarding the nucleus is condensed into a single section 2.1.  This includes mass spectra.
  • While mass spectra is included, the instrumentation is not; no more vaporization-ionization-etc.  I like this cut: sector mass spectrometers declined in importance since the 90’s, and is now eclipsed by time-of-flight / quadrupole instruments.  (If I were designing the curriculum, I’d probably introduce ESI-ToF as a principle for how mass spec work: it’s intuitive and relevant.)
  • Electron arrangement (i.e., “2.8.2”) is entirely out, replaced by uniformly using only electron configuration (i.e., [He]2s1) in both SL and HL.  This change is needed to buttress some other changes in the syllabus (in bonding, then with aromatic compounds), and would remove the confusion of notation for HL students.
  • Trends in ionization energy and conversion between energy and frequency of light is relocated as a HL-only section 12.1.

3: Periodicity


  • Physical and chemical properties, previous separated into different sections, is condensed into one 3.2 periodic trends.
  • Within 3.2 are properties of row 3 oxides, previously a portion of HL topic (13.1)
  • The other half of ex-13.1, the row 3 chlorides, are removed entirely.
  • Note that Allen’s post, he comments that “similarities and differences between elements in the same group” is out; this contradicts the guide in that a key understanding is “vertical and horizontal trends in the periodic table”.
  • The first-row d-block elements have been officially expanded into two topics, 13.1 & 13.2.  In 13.2 is the formal treatment of colored complex and their origins; this is implicit in the 2009 syllabus, and covered in Brown & Ford.
  • Transition elements is now redefined to include scandium (Sc).

4: Structure and bonding


  • For structure and bonding, the major change is distributing physical properties (ex-4.5) into each bonding topic.
  • There is no removal of content, only addition.
  • Covalent bonding used to be a behemoth topic, and is now broken into the nature of bonding (4.2) and structures (4.3).
  • 4.3, covalent structures, now include resonance structures, previously an HL topic.  This was previously prepared by including electron configuration as part of topic 3, and path the way for aromatic structures in organic.
  • The family of carbon allotropes is expanded to include graphene.  This keeps up with the times, even though I would have add carbon nanotube and expand on this as a discourse of topology…
  • HL section 14.1 is a grab-bag of concepts, several aspects being put together from previous 14.1/2.  The most note-worthy addition is the assignment of formal charges.
  • I am unhappy about the inclusion of the obviously wrong statement “strength of dispersion forces < dipole-dipole forces < hydrogen bonds” in the syllabus.
  • Some clarification of terminology:
  1. instantaneous induced dipole-induced dipole is explicitly referred to as London forces (synonymous with dispersion forces), and
  2. Van de Waal’s forces is redefined as all of London (induced dipoleinduced dipole), Debye (permanent dipoleinduced dipole), and Keesom forces (permanent dipolepermanent dipole).
  3. Coordinate bonds exclusively used in place of dative bond
  4. Electron domains now used in place of negative charge centers.
  • If you have been looking at the graphics, you would have noticed the addition of ozone as an application here.  Someone really like ozone… in this section, the role of CFC is especially highlighted.

5: Energetics


  • There is rearrangements but no major changes in the SL syllabus.
  • As with many other topics, there are now explicit applications specified… and as with many other topics, it’s ozone that is specified.  I am personally ambivalent about so much emphasis on ozone.  On one hand it’s a a nice story linking chemistry and society — where for once humanity did the right thing — on the other hand the chemistry of ozone in the stratosphere is far more complex than can be understood at the IB level.
  • Drugs is explicitly specified as an application as well.  I am very tempted to include a ligand-receptor simulation as an investigation.
  • HL topic 15.1 is a combination of what used to be 15.1 and 15.2.
  • In addition, however, 15.1 also adds solvation to the variety of standard enthalpies.  I think this is a wonderful addition and supports a more accurate view of what “dissolve” means.
  • Even though 15.2 is a mere consolidation of entropy and spontaneity, with no addition of material, it would probably need to be taught differently.  In the 2009-syllabus, Gibbs free energy is treated as an afterthought, a dead end that leads nowhere.  In the 2016-syllabus ΔG is back in its rightful place, central to physical chemistry: there is now link to equilibrium (ΔG = -RT lnK) and electrode potentials (ΔG = -nFE), so students would need a better grasp of the concept than before.

6: Chemical kinetics


  • My reading of the syllabus is that there is nothing added or taken away, in both HL and SL syllabus.  This confuses me because there is 2 extra hours allocated to the SL syllabus.  (Allen mentioned that potential energy profiles are added, but I think that it has always been in.)
  • I wish the integrated rate laws would be back in, but I think it’s wishful thinking considering the general deterioration of mathematical / arithmetic prowess.  Without integrated rate laws, there is absolutely no reason to acquire a time-series in practical investigations — but the IB ask questions about time-series anyway.

7: Equilibrium


  • Woohoo!  Reaction quotient Q is in!  The existing way of dealing with changes in equilibrium was making predictions with La Chatelier’s principle, which is fine in a general hand-waving way but falls apart in numerous occasions.
  • Liquid-vapor equilibrium is explicitly removed.  Since it is just an extension of intermolecular forces / enthalpy of vaporization, however, I am not sure if it is entirely removed.
  • In 17.1, the equilibrium law (previously 17.2) now includes the relationship between ΔG with equilibrium constant K.  I love this change — it nudges students to a coherent, holistic view of thermodynamics, kinetics, and equilibrium.

8: Acids and bases


  • Lewis acids and bases are moved from SL to an HL section (18.1).
  • Salt hydrolysis (ex-18.3) is removed from the syllabus entirely.
  • Allen mentioned that buffers are removed; my reading of the guide is that it’s moved to topic 18.3.
  • Titrations, indicators, and graphical representations are consolidated into 18.3
  • The term pH curves will replace titration curves.
  • pOH is removed from SL (?), and temperature dependence of Kw is now an HL-only topic (in 18.2)
  • New is 8.5, acid deposition.  This used to be in Opt E, Environmental chemistry; the entire option is broken down and rolled into the core syllabus.
  • Amphiprotic and amphoteric species are explicitly defined in this unit (previously spread over ex-13.1 and 8).

9: Redox processes


  • No content is removed from either SL or HL syllabus.
  • The general clumping of topic happens again here; 9.1 contains all the foundation of redox (previously 9.1-9.3), and 9.2 contains both voltaic / electrolytic cells.
  • New to redox is the explicit inclusion of Winkler titration for the determination of dissolved oxygen.  This is another environmental connection.  (This is a specific example of a redox titration; presumably permanganate titration, having showed up in May 2013 paper 2, will also be included amongst other redox titrations.)
  • Fuel cells is included as one of the applications for redox chemistry.  I think this used to be in the Technology / Chemical Industry option.
  • New to the HL syllabus is the connection between Gibbs free energy and standard electrode potential.  Since ΔG is previously connected up to K, students would now be able to see the connection between redox and equilibrium as well (and thus be able to make sense of the equilibrium signs in the standard electrode potential data tables).
  • For HL there is an explicit mentioning of electrochemical cells in series.  I don’t feel strongly about its inclusion, one way or another.  Often questions on this just become another disconnected intellectual exercise

10: Organic chemistry


  • There is major rearrangement in this unit.  Topic 10/20 in the 2016-syllabus is an amalgam of what used to be 10/20/Opt G.  Together with the change in topic structuring, I am not very certain that I have picked out all the changes.
  • Nomenclature of nitrogen containing functional groups are out; that is, no nomenclature of amines, amides, or nitriles.  Nomenclature of alkynes are in, and nomenclature of esters are now in the core syllabus (previously HL-only).
  • Benzene is included in the core functional group chemistry; electrophilic substitution is in the HL syllabus (previously Opt G).
  • Reduction of carbonyls (e.g., with LiAlH4, NaBH4) are now in.  This is a nice complement to the staple oxidation of alcohols.
  • Markonikov (presumably also anti-Markonikov?) addition is now in.
  • SN1/SN2 is moved from SL to HL.
  • Elimination and condensation, according to Allen, is no longer in either SL/HL syllabus.
  • In stereoisomerism (prev 20.6, now 20.3), the E/Z nomenclature is introduced.  (But not R/S for optical isomers.)  The E/Z notation, together with the cis/trans notation, would displace the term “geometric isomerism”.
  • An understated change is the number of steps present in a synthetic route: it used to be 2, and is now 4 in the new syllabus.  This requires students to really have understood their organic transformations.

11: Measurements and data processing


  • Here is the biggest change in this syllabus: spectroscopy is back in the core.  Wonderful!  The 2016-syllabus adds a section 11.3 to the core measurement topic, and includes the interpretation of mass spec, IR, and NMR.
  • These used to be in Opt A, but the emphasis here is on the interpretation of spectra and seemingly all mentioning of instrumentation is out (along with theory of IR spectroscopy).
  • Explicit in 11.3 is also the Index of Hydrogen Deficiency (IHD), which was an implicit skill in 2009-syllabus Opt A.
  • For SL, the treatment of NMR spectra is restricted to integration and chemical shift; HL students would also make use of multiplicity (but not coupling constants).
  • X-ray crystallography is also briefly introduced in the HL-extension 21.1.

The introduction of spectroscopy in the core would allow for more interesting spectroscopy questions, which is somewhat hamstrung when it was an option question (requiring a “fair” distribution with other option topics).

I haven’t thought through the options yet, though Opt B (biochemistry) looks largely similar to the current Opt B.

All in all, in terms of chemistry, the 2016-syllabus is deeper and tightly connects different topics, and would be instrumental in building better budding chemists.  It also provides substantial help in connecting with other subjects (and ToK).  I’m excited to teach it!

In the next part we look at the new internal assessment, completely overhauled, changes which I am far less enthusiastic about…

Edit 5 May 2014: updated with pointers to new terminology, from a list compiled by Catrin Brown.

A Guide to the ToK Presentation (v0.48)

[learn_more caption=”Note to Teachers”]

This is a post written for students, intended to guide them through the Theory of Knowledge (ToK) presentation assessment.  The broad, open-ended nature of ToK presentations present a perpetual difficulty for both teachers and students (and given a number of inconsistencies in the official material, this might apply to the curriculum developers as well!), and often a presentation would be excellent — just not in the ToK presentation context.

This guide proposes a sequence of steps for the development of a ToK presentation, with the primary intention of helping students focus onto what will definitely be assessment-worthy real-life situations and knowledge issues.  It is similar to the “unpacking” recommended by IBO, but with a more defined scope.  In doing so, I made the trade-off of restricting RLS/KI that would also be suitable (for some of you).  Thus you may wish to use this in your class as a step-on-the-way and not the final destination.

Here at LPCUWC, we have one hour of general lecture about the ToK presentation assessment, and I then have 3 additional classes to coach the students.  I start with one session first on the Superset Method, then choosing a real-life situation, and finally introduce the Wheelie-of-Stickies brainstorming — the students (should) complete that in their own time over summer.

I developed this method in Fall 2012, tested it with my students, and shared the manuscript with a number of teachers & examiners on the OCC.  Since then I have incorporated suggestions and comments received, and (re-)visited the official sources in rewriting this from ground up as a guide for students.   This targets the 2015 curriculum, but in the description of assessment, I’m (for now) staying with the 2008 curriculum that applies this year (2013-2014). I’m not too fond of the “global impressions” marking espoused in the new curriculum (it’s fluffy enough with four criteria!), so the separate criteria may remain as a scaffold for how assessors may judge presentations.

Until the version number reaches 1.0, this is a draft that I will be actively adding to, and should be considered a work-in-progress.  Regardless of its draft status, your comments as teachers or examiners are appreciated.  Jon


[learn_more caption=”Note to Students”]

This is a post written for you, as a student in the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma program, specifically addressing the Theory of Knowledge (ToK) presentation.  As a teacher/assessor, I noted that developing the presentation is challenging for many students, because of the sense that (i) “everything goes” (both content and delivery), that (ii) instructions are often offered in broad / obtuse terms (“It is imperative therefore that the real-life situation which the student chooses to base their presentation on is substantive and allows for effective exploration of a knowledge question raised by that situation”), and that (iii) different sources suggests something different, or even contradictory to one another.

This guide you’re reading is opinionated.  It proposes a sequence of steps for the development of a ToK presentation, with the primary intention of helping students focus onto what will definitely be assessment-worthy real-life situations and knowledge issues, delivered in a way that will definitely be suitable for assessment.  In doing so, I made the trade-off of restricting RLS/KI/delivery that would also be suitable.  (An example: you may have heard that you could do, “lectures, skits, simulations, games, dramatized readings, interviews or debates” for your presentation.  I’ll ask you to only do lectures, and explain why I found the others don’t really work as well.)  Your teacher may thus wish to use this as a step-on-the-way and not the final destination.

I developed this method with my students in Fall 2012, and shared the manuscript with a number of teachers & examiners worldwide.  Since then I have incorporated suggestions and comments received, and (re-)visited the official sources in rewriting this from ground up as a guide for students.   This targets the 2015 curriculum, but in the description of assessment, I’m (for now) staying with the 2008 curriculum that applies this year (2013-2014).

Until the version number reaches 1.0, this is a draft that I will be actively adding to, and should be considered a work-in-progress.  Regardless of its draft status, this is ultimately a guide for you, and your comments and questions as students will make this guide better.  Jon


As the ToK course comes to a close, you will soon be demonstrating what you learnt through an essay and a presentation.  The essay and the presentation are designed to be different not only in format, but also for you to showcase a different set of thinking skills.

This guide will show you a way of approaching the presentation, along with suggestions I’ve learnt from assessing and working with students on ToK presentations.  Let’s put it upfront that this is an opinionated guide, and not the way.  Preparing a ToK presentation is like painting a portrait: there are infinite approaches to this creative — and fundamentally personal — task.  By following this structured guide, you can approach the task in a flowing, logical sequence, and that you show us the set of thinking skills we need to assess.  Going back to the analogy of ToK presentation as portrait, this guide leads you to a 3-point lighted traditional portrait.  It’s not the be-all-end-all, but you can be assured that you won’t have painted a tree either.  It hurts to see excellent students put extraordinary efforts in a presentation that just misses the point.

Scattered throughout the paragraphs are little quizzes.  Included within are misunderstandings that students tend to unknowingly commit; do them to be assured that you are on the right track.  The guide, quizzes, or any automated system, can go only so far; they are poor substitute for the living guidance and opinions of your teachers, so be sure that you touch base with them early and often.

[learn_more caption=”Try this now”] [WpProQuiz 2][/learn_more]

When you come across pictures that are wrapped in a box with dots underneath, it means that it comes as a progression.  Click on > to cycle through the pictures.  Try it now.

There are 4 major sections to this guide.  Section 1, How It Works, describes the basic parameters for the presentation together with my recommendations.  Section 2, The Superset Method, the longest and most important section, describes how to choose a good Real Life Situation and extract a Knowledge Issue from it.  Section 3, Wheelie of Stickies, is a method to systematically think through the Knowledge Issue you’ve identified.  Section 4, The Two Realms, shows a systematic organization that compliments the systematic thinking.

If you work through the guide, completing all the tasks required of you, by the end you will have all the essential components for your actual ToK presentation, structured into a ready-to-decorate framework.  The process, excluding time you need to read, learn, and think deeply about the topic, should take about 4 hours.  Let’s get started now.

How It Works

The key point of the ToK presentation is for you to showcase how you can think through a concrete event at an abstract level.  You can work alone, in which you are limited to 10 minutes, or in a group (of up to 3), in which case 10 minutes is added for each additional member.  At LPCUWC, you will have an audience of ~20 co-years and 2 ToK teachers; additionally, all the presentations will be filmed.  There is an additional 5 minutes of question-and-answer period at the end.

Available time for ToK presentations of different group size
Available time for ToK presentations of different group size

While watching your presentations, your ToK teachers takes notes and independently try to assess just how well you showed your thinking through a concrete event at an abstract level.  This is a big and fluffy task.  To make it more fair and consistent, we assess the presentation based on 4 criteria, each with 5 possible levels (for a maximal possible score of 4×5=20).  The score is then summed.  The score derives directly from your performance, and there is no “bell curve” or other goofy magic applied.

[learn_more caption=”ToK grades in the IB”]The summed score, out of 20, contributes to 1/3 of your IB ToK grade.  The remaining 2/3 comes from the essay on prescribed title.

Officially, presentations also have a letter grade attached.  The grade boundaries are found in the IBO Subject Report, and have not changed for the past years.  For the ToK presentations, they are:

  • A: 19–20
  • B: 16–18
  • C: 13–15
  • D: 9–12
  • E: 0–8

The assessment criteria are as follows (click to expand):

A. Identification of Knowledge Issue

Did the presentation identify a relevant knowledge issue involved, implicit or embedded in a real-life situation?  The best presentations identify a knowledge issue that was clearly relevant to the real-life situation under consideration.

B. Treatment of Knowledge Issues

Did the presentation show a good understanding of knowledge issues, in the context of the real-life situation?  The best presentations shows a good understanding of knowledge issues.

C. Knower's Perspective

Did the presentation, particularly in the use of arguments and examples, show an individual approach and demonstrate the significance of the topic?  The best presentations, in its distinctively personal use of arguments and examples or otherwise, showed clear personal involvement and fully demonstrated the significance of the topic.

D. Connections

Did the presentation give a balanced account of how the topic could be approached from different perspectives?  Did the presentation show how the positions taken on the knowledge issues would have implications in related areas?  The emphasis is on quality and not quantity.  The best presentations gave a clear account of how the question could be approached from different perspectives and considered their implications in related areasi

Once again you would see that the emphasis is not on how polished or beautiful the visuals are, how creative the acting was, or how the rhetoric moved us to tears.  The emphasis is on your thinking.  You should also be able to see the importance of a good knowledge issue, the topic of the next section: a poor knowledge issue (criteria A) is impossible to treat well (criteria B), and entails, at best, a grade in the D/E range.

Some practical advice: work in groups of two.  Three or more and you may find it difficult to coördinate time to work together.  The case against working alone is two-fold.  First, all presentations start with an exposition of the background and needs a summary, which would take up at least 3 minutes.  This leaves you with 7 minutes to show how you think (which, again, is what you’re here for!)  Working in pair gives you 17 minutes, giving you space for a fuller and richer treatment.  But more importantly, working alone restricts you to your own experiences and perspective.  Which leads me to…

Time available, after taking into account the need for introducing the situation and summarizing.
Time available, after taking into account the need for introducing the situation and summarizing.

Pick a partner who you trusts, respects, and who preferably thinks differently than you.  In my experience, you can work with people you don’t like, but it’s much harder to work with people you disdain.  But you should work with someone; we all have but one life, limited cultural exposure, and selected intellectual strengths.  A friend with different strengths and experience can point out your blind-spots and liberate you from your invisible cage.

As a personal example: I have poor grasp on literary analysis or any subtleties of language,, and have almost no historical perspective.  But at the same time, thinking vividly in graphs and pictures, and understanding numbers and statistics, come naturally to me.  For the most part we don’t know what we don’t know.  It would be easiest for me to pick a partner who’s exactly like me, because we would be on the same wavelength; but we would just be making an echo chamber.  Our perspectives would remain restricted & narrow, and the presentation would suffer for it.  I would benefit from working with someone who have a finer understanding of the Group 1,2,3 subjects, who can constructively challenge my status quo.

Make your group read this guide.  Sections 2, 3, and 4 prescribes a method of working.  Your partner would benefit from knowing the game plan ahead of time.

Start early.  Having the Knowledge Issue early allow you to read broadly around the topic, and the “canning time” can let you see connections that are not immediately obvious.

Read broadly.  With the advent of the internet, finding bite-sized synopsis is easy.  But websites are often pale imitations of deep, well-considered scholarship, in the same way that humming “di-di-di-du” in the shower is no replacement for Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony live with an orchestra.  A particularly sinister aspect to Googling 25 trillion websites is that it’s easy to pinpoint support for what you “had a hunch all along”.  To grow you need to be challenged!

[box type=”bio”]Checkpoint 1

This is the first of a series of check-point.  Make sure you fulfill the criteria before moving on.  By now you should be able to:

State the kind of thinking your ToK presentation is designed to demonstrate

Recall and state the basic info about the ToK presentation (structure, duration, group size)

In terms of your ToK presentation, you should have:

Formed a group (preferably a group of 2, with diverse strength)

Communicated with your group that you’re reading (and possibly following) this guide

The check boxes are not saved when you close the window, but you can download a printable check-list here.

[insert link for downloadable check-list] [/box] [learn_more caption=”Further Reading”]Official ToK Curriculum (first examination 2008)

Official ToK Curriculum (first examination 2015)[/learn_more]


Getting Started

While the emphasis of the presentation is on the Knowledge Issue, good choice of a real life situation is critically important and needs to be done first.  The Knowledge Issue then arises organically from the Real Life Situation.   In this guide we will, therefore, teach you first how to choose a (particular kind of) real life situation, and then go from that situation to derive a (particular kind of) knowledge issue.

One Sentence, Two Names

Before we get started, let me show you a range of proposals.  Think about whether they are real-life situations, and then click on the title to see how an assessor might think about them.

1. Is man eating man right?

As an assessor: “where is the situation?  How is this grounded in real-life?”

2. Cannibalism

As an assessor: “What keys this into real life?  How is this a situation?  This can be made much better by being more specific.”

3. Portrayal of cannibalism in Hannibal (2001 movie)

As an assessor: “This is fictional.  With fictional accounts, everything goes.  Also we, as teachers, want to know that you can bring what you’ve learnt into analysing real and useful things!”

4. Portrayal of cannibalism in Alive (1993 movie)

As an assessor: “This is better than the Hannibal case, because it is based on a real situation.  But could be better by simply referring to the real situation itself — note that this does not preclude you from using visuals/clips from the movie to support your presentation!”

5. Cannibalism in the 1972 Andes Flight accident

As an assessor: “This is squarely a real-life situation shorthand, from which fruitful knowledge issues can be extracted (e.g., How do we know whether it is right to eat any particular thing?)  The students may have a hard time showing that they have a personal connection to the situation/issue — but then, this would be a particular strong topic for a student with diet-restrictions (e.g., veganism).  The topic itself could be improved: see later.”

6. Is human meat nutritious?

As an assessor: “Besides not really a real life situation, the topic is clearly a technical one, with a technical resolution.  This is not germane to any knowledge issues.”

7. A cookbook with homo sapiens meat in the recipe was published.

Whether this is a real-life situation depends on how you make use of the sentence.  If your focus is on the ideas that are contained, I would offer similar comments to that I did for topic 3 (i.e., fictional and thus unsuitable).  However, if you focus on the actions of the publishing house (a real entity), this would be a suitable real-life situation.

I hope you can now identify clearly what are not suitable proposals: it’s the vague, the fictional, and the technical.  I recommend the “One Sentence, Two Names” rule as a general rule of thumb:

Make sure that your proposal contains two real names (people, places), and that it fits in one sentence.

Two (or more) real names” ensure that you have a concrete real-life situation, and in our preceding examples, automatically rules out topics 1, 2, 3, 6 — all of which are common pitfalls.  One sentence maintains that the situation should be straight-forward.  Remember: the emphasis is on the knowledge issue.  If your real-life situation has so many OMG twists-and-turns that it takes all of 20 minutes to explain, then you won’t have time to devote on the knowledge issue!

To apply this method to topic 5, I would expand on the shorthand for the incident, and rephrase it as Nando Parrado (amongst others) was stranded with no rations on the Andes after a flight accident, and ate meat of the dead passengers to survive.  This rephrasing first explains the situation more concretely even to those who know nothing about “1972 Andes Flight Accident”, and it also avoids the labeling of “cannibalism”.  This phrasing also leads sequentially to the establishment of a Knowledge Issue via the Superset Method.

[learn_more caption=”Note for Teachers”]Some of you may consider topics other than 5 also valid (esp. with 3 and 4, what I name as the “fictional cases”, or 2, the “vague cases”).  My reading of the IBO Guides is that this is inconsistently interpreted at times, and whether 2, 3, or 4 are acceptable would be up to your teaching team as well as the moderator.  The one-sentence form of topic 5, on the other hand, is unambiguously a real-life situation, and I try to guide students on the interpretation-free path.[/learn_more]

You may worry about the aesthetics: the rephrased real-life situation just isn’t as tidy.  That is to be expected, and totally OK.  If you are still worried about what to put as the topic of your slide — use the knowledge issue, or introduce a shorthand version.

Now do this quiz to be sure you can identify the unsuitable proposals, and the basics of how they can be made better.  We will come back to choose from equally suitable proposals to one that works better than its peers.

[insert real life situation ID quiz here]

Real life situations can be mined from many sources.  You can find them by browsing current events in newspaper, or from your personal life.  It is perfectly valid a real life situation to bring up your Project Week visit in the context of altruistic tourism.  Click here and try to shape six stories into the “One Sentence, Two Names” format.  I’ll wait for you.

[box type=”bio”]Checkpoint 2

By now you should be able to:

Identify whether a particular proposal for a “Real Life Situation” is fictional, too vague, or too technical.

State the 2 requirements in the “One Sentence, Two Names” method, and explain the reasons for choosing these constraints

Apply the “One Sentence, Two Names” format to news or personal stories

In terms of your ToK presentation, you should have:

Prepared at least 6 potentially suitable Real-Life Situation, written in the “One Sentence, Two Names” format.


Proposals can be suitable but sterile.  Now that you see real-life situations are not hard to come by, you should be more selective and pick the ones that would work best for you.  This is personal, and you’ll need to play and compare for yourself.  Some guidelines:

  • Make it personal: you should pick one that you feel connected to.  (You will want to defend this connection in your presentation later.)
  • Ask yourself if you could see elements of emotions / logic… (Ways of Knowing) in it
  • Is this a topic that an economist, a law professor, a natural scientist etc would all have something insightful and different to say?  (Areas of Knowledge)
  • As an extension of the last point, I’ve found that the most fruitful situations almost always shade into the moral realm.

The best real-life situations are ones that connects to you, also connects to knowledge issues that can be explored in depth and be applied to other real-life situations.  The next section, the Superset Method, shows you how to open up knowledge issues.  I recommend you work on that section before circling back to choose a real-life situation for your ToK presentation.

The Superset Method

In mathematics, “sets” describe the relationship between different collection of object/concepts.  In the following diagram, A is the superset to B and C because it “contains” all of B and C.

A few real life examples of supersets:

The concept of “culture” includes such aspects as the language, cuisine, and dress.
Polling, looking, and experimenting are all examples of how one would gather data.

Of course, these can be nested inside one another iteratively…

States, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and organized religion are all examples of institution (i.e., “institution” is the superset of “state”, “NGO”, and “organized religion”). Sets can contain other sets: in this case, Tibetan buddhism, the Catholic Church, and Islam are all examples of organized religion.

Verbally we may say that a mammal is an animal; a flute is an example of a woodwind instrument, which is itself an example of a musical instrument.  Superset / subset describes this “is a” / “an example of” / “contained within” relationship, and we would say “mammal is a subset of animal”, or with the same meaning, “animal is the superset of mammals”.  Can you describe the relationship between a chair and furniture using the words subset and superset?  Try a few of the examples below; expand to check your answers.

Chairs; furniture

“Chairs” are subset of “furniture”; “furniture” is the superset of “chairs”.

Asian country; Indonesia

“Indonesia” is a subset of “asian countries”; “Asian countries” is a superset of “Indonesia”.

Calvin and Hobbes; comic

“Calvin and Hobbes” is a subset of “comics”; “comics” is the superset of “Calvin and Hobbes”.

pasta; pizza

This one is slightly tricky.  “Pasta” is neither the superset nor the subset of “Pizza”.  Just because they are conceptually related — both being Italian cuisine — doesn’t mean they are contained within one another.

Italian (the people); Italian (the language)

These are neither the superset nor subset of Italy.  One refers to the people; one refers to the language.  The language may be a property of the people, but it’s not contained within.  Can you think of a subset and a superset for each of Italian (the people) and Italian (the language)?

Italian (the people); Italy

This one is probably the trickiest, and causes most confusion.  “Italians” are neither the superset nor the subset of Italy.  One refers to the people; one refers to the land.  Just because one is physically contained inside doesn’t mean the concepts share a “contained within” relationship.

driving; operating a vehicle

“Driving” is a subset of “operating a vehicle”.  What we focus on is the relationship of ideas, which does not necessarily need to a noun, but can also be a verb.

Now try this quiz to check your mastery of the superset / subset concept.

[insert super/subset quiz here.  Include one-to-many, many-to-one, and many-to-many relationships.]

Now that you understood what supersets are, we’ll see how this is related to your ToK presentation.  Recall the purpose of the ToK presentation: it allows you to demonstrate your ability to think through a concrete event (real life situation) at an abstract level (knowledge issue).  A superset is, by definition, broader and more abstract than the subset.  See where we’re going?

Knowledge issues can be generated by casting the one-sentence real life situation in their supersets.

Let’s me illustrate the approach with an example.  My real life situation is this: Jack Nicholson only discovered, as an adult, that his “mother” was actually his grandmother, and his “sister” his real biological mother.  (By then both of them passed away.)  A possible “One Sentence, Two Names” version might be:

Knowledge of his biological mother/sister was concealed from young Jack Nicholson by his family.

I’ve used the different colors to indicate the portions that I’ve identified as a subset.  What could their supersets be?

  • young Jack Nicholson –[is a]–> child
  • His family–[are]–> adults –[are]–> authority figures
  • Knowledge of his biological mother/sister –[is a]–> uncomfortable secret –[is]–> information
  • hiding the relationship –[is]–> withholding information

Our proposal for a knowledge issue may then be

Is it right for authority figures to hide information from children so as to protect them?

Because the knowledge issue was grown out from its subset, it for sure covers the real-life issue; because of it being a superset, it is more abstract and capable of addressing so much more.  By flying upwind, and thinking through the knowledge issue (instead of the narrow right and wrong of the specific situation), we are trying to solve entire genres of related questions; what we generate is timeless and universal.  By teaching your audience how to think through this knowledge question, they could then use the same model to intelligently answer,

  • Is it right for the Catholic Church to forbid sex education in teens?
  • What should parents say to the children when they divorce?
  • Historically, children were told they were brought here by storks.  Was that right?

All of these questions, when you ask “this is a type of what?”, gives the same structure as the original situation.  (Hold this thought in mind: in your presentation, you will need to show these additional examples.)  The art here is to choose a suitable scope that is not too narrow (Jack Nicholson –[is a]–> boy; sister  –[is a]–> parent) nor too broad (Jack Nicholson –[is a]–> creature; sister –[is a]–> creature).

[learn_more caption=”What to do when supersets fail”]

Even though the Superset Method usually works to generate a suitable topic, it does not always.  For example, our real-life issue could be that of a young woman Jane being kidnapped and then forcibly human trafficked; expanding it (Jane –[is a]–> young woman –[is a]–> person; trafficking –[is a]–> form of exploitation) vertically just doesn’t work.  In this particular case, one may choose to expand it horizontally by bringing in other similar real-life situations.  For example, one may bring in the cases of:

  • Alexandra, a Russian woman who voluntarily signed herself off to Spain, knowing that there is a chance of being human trafficked — and had her passport taken from her, and kept in terrible conditions for meager pay. (h/t Carmen)
  • South Asian construction workers being lured to Dubai with opportunity and wages, only to find their passports withheld, apparently in debt, and working in practically slavery conditions.

One can then generate a knowledge issue horizontally, by asking if certain kinds of exploitation is worse than others.  To fully tackle this question, one would need to consider multiple perspective, such as the culture, values, responsibility, and personal harm to the workers; it has significance, because answering the question allows us to prioritize efforts in eliminating the worse offenders.

These “horizontal” knowledge issues are amongst a larger class of knowledge issues that simply cannot be generated by the superset method, but are perfectly valid knowledge issues.  Compared to the superset-generated knowledge issues, these require more finesse and good judgment to make up.  If you want to try your hands with them, make sure you run through your knowledge issue with your teacher.


By thinking in terms of supersets (i.e., asking “this is a type of what?”), we avoid a common tendency to narrowly focus on the first issues that comes to mind (e.g., honesty), and the subsequent framing of the knowledge issue in vague terms (Is honesty always good?)

Earlier on you’ve worked on casting a list of 6 real life situations into the “one sentence, two names” format.  Take out the list, and now (i) identify the parts within the sentence.  (Coloring may help.), (ii) write down a superset for each part, and (iii) write down a superset to the supersets you’ve jotted down in step (ii).

[one_half] To connect the supersets together, you will need some question words:

  • Who
  • What
  • How
  • Why
  • When
  • Where
  • Is it
  • To what extent
  • Should we
  • …and so on
[/one_half] [one_half_last]As well as a link to vocabulary and concepts you’ve learnt in your Theory of Knowledge course, such as:

  • to know
  • bias
  • evidence
  • opinion
  • belief
  • context
  • argument
  • culture
  • experience
  • certainty
  • values

Try each of them out and see which one(s) conveys what you mean.  You do not always need to include an explicit link to the ToK concepts: often the question words can be expanded to, “How do you know that… [question]”.

If you have been following with the exercises, you would now have a selection of 6 pairs of real-life situation / knowledge issues to choose from.  That’s a great start.  You / your group should now work together, from the lists or otherwise, to generate a real-life situation / knowledge issue that you’re prepared to develop into the real ToK presentation.

[box type=”bio”]Checkpoint 3

By now you should be able to:

Identify whether a pair of concepts are superset / subset, or unrelated to one another

State the Superset method, and explain how it relates to the thinking needed to be demonstrated in the ToK presentation

Apply the Superset method to real-life situations casted in the “One Sentence, Two Names” format

In terms of your ToK presentation, you should have:

Unfolded the above 6 “One Sentence, Two Names” real life situations into their (multi-layered) supersets,

For each set, identified the layer of abstraction that would be most fruitful to work on,

Joined these supersets together to form coherent Knowledge Issues.

As a group, identify 2–3 lead candidates RLS/KI that you all want to work on


One Last Check of the Knowledge Issue

As one of the IBO guide said, “It is common for students to make a good selection for their real-life situation but then to arrive at a very superficial knowledge question. Sometimes the question the student identifies is not even a knowledge question at all.”   Before we move onto polishing the knowledge issue, make sure that what you propose does not fall into one of the following classes:

  • Problems with narrow, technical answers are not knowledge issues: “How to prevent human trafficking”, “How can negotiations between consumers and corporations be facilitated”, “Are lethal injections painful?”  This distinguishes Knowledge Issues from a subject-specific questions, and a ToK presentation from, say, a geography presentation.
  • Problems with common-sense answers are not usually good knowledge issues: “Should gambling be encouraged?”, “Should child soldiers be legalized in all countries?”
  • Related to above two categories, close-ended questions are usually not good Knowledge Issues.
  • Problems with broad answers are worthy knowledge issues, but very hard to do justice in a 10-20 minutes presentation: “What is love?” “Is nationalism good?”

Finally, think back to all that you have been exposed to in your ToK course: areas of knowledge, ways of knowing, beliefs, certainty, culture, evidence, experience, explanation, interpretation, intuition, justification, truth, values… can your knowledge issue tie into most of these?

Polishing the Knowledge Issue

You now have a knowledge issue that you’re happy with.  Don’t be too married to that yet – polish it.  The knowledge issue is the focus of your whole presentation.  Make it simple and make it sharp.

Going back to the Jack Nicholson example, we could have written,

  • Is it entirely appropriate for authority figures to withhold information selectively from children, so that they are protected from potential harmful effects?  If so, when do they ought to do so and when should they do the otherwise? —[JN.1]

It’s not wrong, but it’s unnecessarily verbose.  (Long words grants security.)  Thinking practically: you want your audience to be able to hold the theme in their heads.  Thinking aesthetically: simplicity is elegance.  Don’t use 3-syllables words when a 1-syllable word would do.

Be careful of the connotations your words have.  We could have simplify this to,

  • When is it right for authority figures to hide information from children? —[JN.2]

Hide, in this case, have a negative connotation.  It feels very differently if we have asked,

  • Should authority figures protect children from too much information? —[JN.3]

Strive to be neutral, so you’re not hemmed in a position even before you start.  In this case we could have gone with,

  • When is it right for authority to withhold information from children? —[JN.4]

It’s neutral, but I personally find this anemic, and prefer to setup the conflict,

  • When is it right for authority to hide information from children to protect them? —[JN.5]

This is connected to the ToK world by its implicit interpretation of, “How do we know when it’s right […]”.  As I mentioned earlier, identifying a good knowledge issue is critically important, but one that will likely require iterative editing.  Some things to look for when you’re editing:

  1. Are there multiple questions in your knowledge issue?  If yes, it usually indicates that either (a) the scope is too broad, (b) there are too many disconnected elements, or (c) the phrasing is redundant.  [JN.1] is an exhibit of redundancy: there is no reason to first ask for existence (“is it”), and then degree (“if so, when”).  “When” is fine — zero/non-existence is simply a particular setting for degree.
  2. Realistically, do you have time to look at other instances that falls inside the same superset?  If not, your topic is too broad.  As an example, we could have come up with “What should authority figures do?” — but “do” includes so many things that we cannot possibly talk about it sensibly in 1000 minutes.
  3. Can your knowledge issue bring forth “other applications” that have an element of surprise?  If not, your scope might be too narrow.  We try to solve a hard problem not because it’s hard, but because it’s valuable, that it can shed light on things your audience didn’t even consider.

Now polish your identified knowledge issue.

By now you should have a focused, cleanly worded, and sharp knowledge issue.  Congratulations — you have prepared a solid stage.  In the next part, we’ll grow a “Wheel of Stickies” around the knowledge issue and use it to ensure that we’ve looked at the knowledge issue from different perspectives (Areas of Knowledge) and using evidence of different natures (Ways of Knowing).

[box type=”bio”]Checkpoint 4

By now you should be able to:

Identify whether a particular Knowledge Issue proposal is unsuitable for the presentation (too narrow, too technical, too broad, or too shallow / cannot be scrutinized from multiple perspectives)

Simplify and sharpen knowledge issues

In terms of your ToK presentation, you should have:

ensure that the 2–3 lead candidate Knowledge Issues are appropriate

sharpened the 2–3 lead candidate Knowledge Issues

agree to one Real Life Situation / Knowledge Issue pair that you will work on for the actual presentation

read broadly around the agreed Knowledge Issue (see suggestions under Further Readings below)

[/box] [learn_more caption=”Further readings”]

The IBO Knowledge Issues Matrix.  This contains guidance as well as examples of good and bad knowledge issues.

Once you have decided on a Knowledge Issue, you should read broadly about it.  Again, websites are pale imitations of scholarly work.  Use the libraries you have available to you.  Browse the online catalogs, but also walk the aisles and let serendipity work its magic.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a scholarly resource available online.  Some of the articles may be too technical for non-professional philosophers (like you and I) to fully digest, but you should nonetheless try.  Even if you are not getting the entire gist, note down key arguments and perspectives that was considered.  Each of the entry has a reference list, which is a good jumping off point for more readings on your own.


Mining Connections

The previous parts described how to identify a real-life situation (“One Sentence, Two Names”), and how to extract a knowledge issue from that (“Superset!”).  In this section you will learn to develop the knowledge issue comprehensively using the “wheelie of stickies” method.  For this you will ideally have

  • 2 colors of stickies / post-its (3″ yellow ones work fine)
  • post-it flags of 4 colors (optional; can replace with color markers)
  • chalkboard+chalk, or whiteboard+marker
  • camera (optional)

You must have a real-life situation and knowledge issue identified.  Before working on the real presentation — in which you will showcase what you learnt in your ToK course — you should have a good handle on your ToK course.  Check your handle by browsing through the vocabulary list available here: you should be able to explain every term. If not, you have some reading to do.

As with the previous sections, instead of working with a hypothetical situation, I’ll show you how this worked using Paula and Fabiana’s preparation as example   Their real-life situation and knowledge issue is:

The Wheelie Stickies method is a simple 4-step procedure that generally takes about 1.5–2 hours to complete:

[insert illustrations for each of these steps]

Step 1: Begin by jotting on the stickies anything you can think of relevant to the topicPaste them on the board.

For example, Fabiana and Paula had these (and others) scattered on the board at this point:

  • “I am Bolivian” (Fabi is Bolivian, one of the cultures affected by the UN declaration)
  • Cocaine can be extracted from coca leaves
  • some drugs with high social cost (alcohol, cigarettes) is legalized
  • Coca leaves are not addictive
  • “Mexico is affected by the drug trade” (Paula is from Mexico, a country torn by the drug trade)
  • Coca leaves are used by miners to sustain 24 hour work-shifts
  • Coca leaves have medicinal uses
  • Coca leaves are traditionally considered to be a gift from Pacha Mamma, the Mother Earth goddess.
  • The knowledge issue encompasses practices like (female) circumcision in Africa, polygamy in ME, cousin marriages (with attendant diseases) in S Asia, or cannibalism in Polynesia.
[box type=”warning”]

Do Not “Fight a Corner”

Many students believe their task is be persuasion.  It’s not.  The ToK presentation is for you to show us that you can be open-minded and consider a broad, abstract knowledge issue from multiple perspective.  “Open-minded” and “defending a position” are mutually incompatible.

Before you can let go of pre-existing notions and personal biases, you need to recognize that they exist.  This is where the partner-with-different-background and guidance from your teacher comes in.


Each of these are related points that may or may not be used in the presentation.  The idea is to get this on paper so that

  1. You do not need to hold it in your head
  2. Your partner/teacher can see the train of thought
  3. …you can use it for the next step!

Step 2: Setup the ToK dimensions (AoK, WoK), and arrange-tag the stickies.


  1. In the middle of the board, write “How would __ think about this?”, and have all the Areas of Knowledge (AoKs) radiating out from it.  Write “ethics philosopher”, “natural scientists” etc.
  2. Pluck and place the stickies in a relevant spot.  E.g., “coca leaves are shown to not be addictive” is placed in the natural scientist quadrant.
[box type=”warning”]

Difference between “Thinking like a Historian” and “The history of”

Note that “how a historian think” is not the same as “the history of”.  Thinking as a historian about coca leaves may involve thinking about the origins of a source document, placing an event in context, or corroborating different sources.  The history of coca leaves is a description of how coca leaves were used.  The first is what we want to see you do.

As a further example, “thinking like a scientist” is not the same as “the science of”.  Thinking like a scientist about coca leaves may involve examining the nature of the evidence used to support the arguments, in particular, looking for flaws in their reproducibility or statistical power.  The science of coca leaves might just be a description of the what molecules are involved, which neuroreceptors are targeted, and so on.

The latter (“the X of ___”) is usually nice background to have, but they are not what we’re looking for.  This is a very common pitfall that you need to avoid.


It’s not always going to be clean — some stickies may seem to fit in multiple categories, and others may seem to fit in none.  That’s OK — life is always a mess of exception and corner cases.  You may want to devise different ways to handle the exceptions.  Next…

On the side of the board, make a legend for the Ways of Knowing (WoKs).  You had 4 flags of different color: each of these flag is going to be used to “tag” a particular sticky as something known through a particular way of knowing.  I recommend a convention of…

  • red: emotions
  • blue: perception
  • green: reason
  • yellow: language

Now tag each sticky with a flag.

As with the previous AoK exercise, you may find there to be one sticky with multiple tags, and stickies with no tags.  Stickies with multiple tags are often the rule rather than the exception, but stickies with no tag need attention.  After all, we know a fact through one or more means.

[tabs slidertype=”simple” fx=”slide”] [tab]



Step 3: Fill in the gap.

This is the reason why we go through the above steps.  Most complex issues can be approached differently.  Look at the wheel: is it lop-sided?  Most alarmingly, are there AoKs that are entirely unpopulated?  This shows that maybe you’ve been over-focussed on some aspect but ignored others.

The same applies to the tags: are there WoK that are completely unused?  If there is, is there a good reason why?

What we have done in this step is to convert the “unknown unknown” into the “known unknown”.  We discover the gap in our thinking (some justified, some not), and can now attempt to fill it in.  Focussed literature search (digital or library-wise) or speaking with your teacher would be highly helpful here.

As an example, Paula and Fabi discovered that “linguistic”/”language” is completely unoccupied.  That alerted them to think and search for how language can bias the thinking of the issue.  (The fruit of their search: the UN placed coca leaves in the Narcotics Act.  The definition of narcotics is a mind-altering substance.  Scientific studies have shown that the chewing of coca leaves does not alter the mind: in this case, the very word assumes what science disproved!)

Step 4: Abstract the specifics.

Most of the considerations laid out would have been specific to your real-life situation.  What are they representative of?  In other words, what are their supersets?  We need to abstract the specific considerations.  For example,

  • “Coca leaves do not cause health problems” is a kind of short term harm evaluation (to the individual)
  • “Coca leaves are not addictive” is a kind of long term harm evaluation (to the individual)
  • “Coca leaves help grueling labor” is a kind of practical benefits to the user

At this point, you should have a large, sprawling, and complete set of notes about the real-life situation as well as the KI.  If you have a camera, it’s a good idea to take a picture now.  The intellectual hard-lifting is done.  All that remains is to thoughtfully communicate this to your audience, the subject of the last part in this series.

[learn_more caption=”Alternative, space-saving layout”]

Don’t have access to a board?  Prefer to type than write?  That’s OK – the physical implementation is secondary.  Brea D., for example, started with an Evernote document, which she printed, “tagged” with color pencils, and cut into little strips.  These tagged strips are what she organizes:


The Two Layered Presentation

[Write this section] [cautionary note about fighting corners; making sure the understanding of the theories are actually right!  Ensure connections, similarities/differences; download videos instead of jumping out to browsers] [Prepare and record a sample Jack Nicholson ToK presentation, edit, and upload to youtube.]

Biorock program on Gili Trawangan

There is a difficult to reproduce glitch in the interface between Flickr and WordPress.  If pictures appear distorted (highly compressed vertically), please refresh the page.  Apologies.  Jon

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #FF9b9b;”]I[/dropcap]n June 2013 I attended a Biorock / reef conservation program on Gili Trawangan, Indonesia.  This is a recap of the experience, serving both as a record for friends and myself, and also a help to the decision-making if you’re thinking about joining the program.

Gili Trawangan is one of the three gili (Indonesian for small island) situated between Bali and Lombok.  To get there, one would usually fly in from Jakarta (about 1.5 hour) to Denpasar (on Bali) or Praja (on Lombok), and travel by boat afterwards.  I arrived in Lombok and find traveling to Trawangan straight-forward.

[tabs slidertype=”simple” fx=”fade”] [tab]
Map: Gili Trawangan in Asia
Gili Trawangan within Asia
[/tab] [tab]
Map: Gilis in Bali/Lombok
The gilis: three small islands between Bali and Lombok.
[/tab] [/tabs]

Gili Trawangan is about 7.5 km in circumference and easily walked around in 1.5 hour.  It is entirely tourism-oriented, with a main strip well-equipped with ATMs, places to eat, and places to stay.  While bahasa (the Indonesian language) and sasak (indigenous language of Lombok) are spoken, one can easily get by with only English and little or no knowledge of bahasa.  It is a quaint island with no automobiles or dogs, but many bikes, cimodo (horse drawn carts), and tailless cats. [tabs slidertype=”simple” fx=”slide”] [tab]

Pier of Gili Trawangan.  No one seems to use the pier.
Pier of Gili Trawangan. No one seems to use the pier.


From the hill-top: Gili Meno, Air, and Lombok in the distance
From the hill-top: Gili Meno, Air, and Lombok in the distance


Gili cats often have kinked or no tail
Gili cats often have kinked or no tail


Cimodos; along with bicycles, the only locomotion on the island
Cimodos; along with bicycles, the only locomotion on the island


Coast of Gili Trawangan (North)
Coast of Gili Trawangan (North)


Gili Trawangan's one of two locomotion options
Gili Trawangan’s one of two locomotion options


There are some 15 or so dive sites around the three Gilis, some deep, but most shallower than 18 m and thus accessible by open water divers.  Visibility is generally good at 10–15 meters, with regular sighting of turtles and occasionally sharks.  The diving is good, and there are at least a dozen dive shops offering instruction in PADI / SSI qualifications and in multiple languages.  The shops are all in price agreements, but they do have different history and reputations. [tabs slidertype=”simple” fx=”slide”] [tab]

Leslie with turtle

[/tab][tab]Swimming with a green turtle at 24 m

[/tab][tab]Warty sea-slug


[/tab][tab]Brain (massive) coral

[/tab][tab]Green turtle at armslength

[/tab][tab]White sea cucumber

[/tab][tab]A colourful sponge

[/tab][tab]Stinging hydroid.  A cousin of jellyfish, it lives up to its name.

[/tab][tab]Nudibranchs are able to steal the weapons (nematocyst) from fire coral and plop them on their own back

[/tab][tab]Lion fish hiding behind a rock to avoid the strong current


The Program

Biorock is a simple (on paper) technology developed by Goreau and late Hilbertz for reef restoration.  By passing a low-voltage current through a metal framework, the alkaline micro-environment helps deposit a layer of limestone (calcium carbonate) onto the frame, upon which coral can grow at a vastly accelerated pace (200–600%) and can better tolerate adverse conditions.  The technology has been deployed in many countries, and there are bi-annual November workshops led by Goreau which teach the theory and practice.  Since 2008, the workshops have been held on Gili Trawangan, organized by Ms Delphine Robbe.

[box type=”shadow”]Watch a 10-minute documentary about Biorocks by Adrienne Gittus here.[/box]

Delphine heads the Gili Eco Trust, an organization that promotes and mandates sustainable practices on and around the Gilis.  (You can hear her speak about what she does at a TED talk in the box below.)  With ten years of experience and some 60 biorocks deployed and maintained, Delphine is also one of the worlds’  leading experts when it comes to the Biorock technology.  She teaches this 2-weeks conservation/biorock program every few months.

[learn_more caption=”Delphine Robbe TED talk: Restoring the Gili Islands’ Coral Reef”] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtFeiVFdIRI][/learn_more]

Over our two weeks Delphine was assisted by Siân Williams, a PADI instructor certified to teach the Biorock specialty herself.  The course runs out from Trawangan Dive, one of the oldest (and certainly one of the largest) dive shops on the island.

With 7 participants, we were one of the largest group since the program had been running.  Most of our group was in their early/mid-20s, and I surprisingly find myself the senior citizen amongst the group.  Scuba experience runs the spread from freshly certified open water divers to experienced Advanced Open Water divers and dive master trainees.  Two were going to stay on the island to volunteer for the Gili Eco Trust, and three, including myself, were previously involved in marine conservation.  Between the group there were 2 French, 2 Brits, a Tunisian/French, a Belgian, and a Chinese/Canadian.  Most of the instruction was in English, but with half the group being francophone (Delphine is also French), a non-negligible part of the communication was in French.  Our group got along well, which contributed to the experience.

(At this point, some background about me should help make sense of my interpretation of the experience.  I’m a chemist by training and an Advanced Open Water diver.  I co-lead a coral monitoring program in Hong Kong, where we train up our 16-18 years old students from non-divers to doing Reef Check and Coral Watch.  I’ve been curious about the Biorock method for several years, and read everything I could lay my hands on in the past few years.  I thus joined the program as a novice diver with strong scientific background and modest exposure to marine conservation / identification.  My goal was to evaluate biorock as a technology, and be able to build a biorock in Hong Kong in subsequent years — if it is as promising as the literature suggests.)

PADI specialty courses usually come with structured and well-produced learning manuals.  As a “distinctive specialty”, the learning manual that comes along is distinctly shoddy, consisting of a typo-riddled 20-pages text document.  The main content is split between introduction to marine conservation (7 pages) and the biorock process (4 pages).  Everything in the manual is one hop away from the Marine Conservation and Biorock wikipedia articles.  The only page I find of value was the last page: a diagram and some technical specifications for the construction / maintenance of biorocks.

Delphine supplements the manual with a pair of books passed along between the group: Coral Reef and Climate Change, and a new CRC press monograph on biorock (Innovative Methods of Marine Ecosystem Restoration).  Both of these were excellent books.  The former is a complete course on marine conservation.  The latter contains much of the evidence used to support claims of biorock usefulness (e.g., that coral growth is accelerated 200-600% on electrified framework than passive substrate), and comes with a CD filled with pictures of biorock success cases.

Trawangan Dive previously communicated the course to run for 14 mornings with theory and 2 dives on each day (i.e., 28 total).  Without Siân and Delphine on site before the course, the shop could not tell me what the course was about.  The confusion would persist after the course started, with different staff / instructors thinking that the course includes different things, and we were never quite sure what dives / boats do we go on the next day (or even later on the same day).   Having missed two dives from a cold, I did around 12 dives (4 shore + 8 boat) through these two weeks.

While I thought it was a biorock course, the 2 weeks should definitely not be thought of as that, but instead a marine conservation learning-volunteering program.  The split in time is roughly 20% on coral reef background, 40% on biorock-related processes, and 40% on service/awareness raising (click on the title to expand the details):

Coral reef background

  • coral ID (3 dives + 2 theory session),
  • coral gardening,
  •  coral watch (1 dive)


  • biorock theory (2 dives + 2 theory session),
  • coral collection + attachment (4 dives)
  • biorock cathode frame building (2 days),
  • biorock cathode welding (1 day),
  • biorock sinking
  • biorock maintenance (scrubbing) (1 dive),


  • Gili Eco Trust (1 theory session)
  • Dive against debris (1 dive),
  • Untying/retying/deploy buoy line (2 days)
  • Visit to Tanjung Luar market (2 days)

Coral Reef Background

The course began with a basic introduction to the “stationary creatures” found underwater, identifying and distinguishing between algae, sponges, anemone, and soft/hard coral.  The focus was a narrow one, with the explicit purpose to learn enough to know what was growing on the existing biorocks (in particular, what species are not desirable to have on them).  It contains neither the depth of a coral identification course, nor the breadth of a Reefcheck course (e.g., no fish/substrate ID was done).

[tabs slidertype=”simple”] [tab]
Algae of some kind
Algae of some kind
Newly attached coral fragments on dragon biorock.  Sponge growth.  Closeup.
Newly attached coral fragments on the dragon biorock. Sponge growth. Closeup.
Ascidians, hard, and soft coral
Ascidians, hard, and soft coral
Anemone & soft coral
[/tab] [/tabs]

From there, we did some “coral gardening” — restoring flipped-over coral, removing tangled fishing lines, picking off coral predators like crown-of-thorns and drupella.

Siân removing some polyp-eating drupilla snails from a coral
Siân removing some polyp-eating drupilla snails from a coral


During the biorock portion, we learnt about the biorocks’ history on the Gili islands, basic background about how biorocks work, and their construction.  We visited several existing biorocks, and determining whether the circuit is still “on” based on visual signs underwater.

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Motorcycle biorock
Motorcycle biorock


Star pufferfish inside biorock
Star pufferfish inside biorock. At night large numbers of fish seeks refuge inside the biorocks.


Dragon biorock
Dragon biorock


Biorock cleaning: scrubbing away the algae
Biorock cleaning: scrubbing away the algae


A shallow depth biorock with prolific coral growth
A shallow depth biorock with prolific coral growth


Newly attached coral fragments
Newly attached coral fragments

Several dives were “collection and attachment” dives.  In these dives, we descend with baskets to collect wave/anchor-broken coral fragments (e.g., until 110 bar), get back on the boat, and dive again near a biorock in order to zip-tie them.  This seeds growth on the framework.

The main time-consuming portion of the biorock comes in the construction of a cathode.  These are built out from metal rebars bent into shapes, first tied together with metal cables, and then welded for strength.  The group decided on a whale-shark, and we’d huff-and-puff for two days to get the basic shape ready.  The welding was partly done by us, and mostly completed by a professional welder.

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Genetic material of Jamie-the-Whaleshark: 15 mm rebar (uncuttable), and 8 mm rebar
Genetic material of Jamie-the-Whaleshark: 15 mm rebar (uncuttable), and 8 mm rebar
Jamie-the-whaleshark in gestation
Jamie-the-whaleshark in gestation
Siân bending rebar with a log
Siân bending rebar with a log
Rama and Arabella fitting a fine mesh to Jamie's tongue, which would soon carry a Gili Eco Trust implant
Rama and Arabella fitting a fine mesh to Jamie’s tongue, which would soon carry a Gili Eco Trust implant
Arabella welding Jamie
Arabella welding Jamie
Jamie-the-Whaleshark finished and awaiting complete welding
Jamie-the-Whaleshark finished and awaiting complete welding
10 people carrying the frame down to the beach
10 people carrying the frame down to the beach
Fins are attached to the frame.  The first stretch is just lifting.
Fins are attached to the frame. The first stretch is just lifting.
Walking Jamie into the sea
Walking Jamie into the sea
Leslie attaching a coral fragment to Jamie-the-Whaleshark
Leslie attaching a coral fragment to Jamie-the-Whaleshark
Attaching coral fragments to Jamie-the-Whaleshark.  Note the strong current.
Attaching coral fragments to Jamie-the-Whaleshark. Note the strong current.
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The giant structure was then carried down the beach and into the water.  This is probably the most memorable experience of the two weeks: 9 people carrying an honking unwieldy piece of metal, sloshed about by strong surge, shoved unceasingly by current, tripping over rocks (and breaking coral), kicking up so much sand that there is arms-length visibility… well, we made it after all, and the newly christened Jamie-the-Whaleshark now sits snuggly outside Gili Divers.

Some more challenging “seeding” is required.  The current at the site runs strong, especially in the afternoon, when it runs in excess of 2 knots (> 1.0 meters/sec).  We were finning hard just to stay at the same place, and I was astonished by how fast we consume air from the tank given the shallow depth.

The last piece of the biorock maintenance comes in the form of cleaning it of undesirable growth of algae and sponges, which can crowd out reef-building hard coral.  This is easily done by scrubbing it with a stiff brush, whereupon the coating creatures go away leaving behind a strong limestone structure.

In the scrubbing, one interesting observation is the parallel deposition of brucite (magnesium hydroxide) as well as limestone (calcium carbonate).  Apparently at higher current (e.g., closer to the anode), brucite is formed preferentially over limestone.  This is a problem because the formed substrate is mechanically fragile and easily falls apart.

Biorock: more exposed brucite.
Fragile brucite broken from gentle tapping.

The technically critical part of the electrical setup comes in laying the cable and connecting up the anode.  We talked through this, including some tips and tricks won through hard experience.  We, however, did not do anything on that part, since we simply re-used an existing anode.  The ocean is a hostile place for man-made structures; from the perspective of trying to setup a biorock from ground up, the lack of this hands-on part gives me the jeebies.


The last component of the program, which time-wise was equal to the biorock section, were service/awareness-raising/volunteering activities.

We spent 2 days visiting the Tanjung Luar fish market (well, an hour at the market, but with 10 hours round-trip travel time and an overnight stay in Mataram).  We arrived just before Ramadan, and the market was bustling busy, and we saw manta ray and sharks slaughtered for their gills and fins respectively.  (There were dolphins too — those are now illegal and less in the open.)  As a vegetarian for compassionate reasons, I find the sight and smell nauseating (doesn’t help that I also gets car-sick from the long windy ride).  It’s thoroughly unpleasant, and I suppose that’s the point: the hygienic clear cartilage comes from endangered species, in a totally unnecessary bloody act that causes immediate suffering (to the animal) and irrevocable harm to our children’s generation.

[tabs slidertype=”simple” fx=”slide”] [tab]
Tanjung Luar: teeming with activity
Tanjung Luar: teeming with activity
Tanjung Luar: fetching buckets of sea water
Tanjung Luar: fetching buckets of sea water
Tanjung Luar: bullshark hauled in
Tanjung Luar: bullshark hauled in. My first and only bullshark sighting.
Tanjung Luar: sharks
Tanjung Luar: more sharks
Tanjung Luar: There were three manta rays on this day.
Tanjung Luar: There were three manta rays on this day.
Tanjung Luar: dead manta ray, with gills cut away.  The first manta I laid eyes on.
Tanjung Luar: dead manta ray, with gills cut away. The first manta I laid eyes on.
Tanjung Luar: another shot of the gill plates.  The demand is fuelled by its supposed usage in traditional Chinese medicine (claims seems to be a recent invention?)
Tanjung Luar: another shot of the gill plates. The demand is fuelled by its supposed usage in traditional Chinese medicine (claims seems to be a recent invention?)
[/tab] [/tabs]

We then did a Dive Against Debris, a fancy name for a Project Aware initiative where we collected the garbage, sorted them systematically, and reported the data for monitoring.

We also did a Coral Watch dive at Halik’s Beach (8 meters).  Coral Warch is an international organization for monitoring coral bleaching, which is itself a proxy for coral health.  The protocol consists of comparing coloured slates with coral heads, recording the darkest and lightest observed colours, and reporting back onto the co-ordinating website.

Siân doing a coral watch
Siân demonstrating a coral watch

The last (and my least favourite) part of the experience was untying hundreds of buoys tightly tied onto several hundred meters of line, and re-tying them back on in a slightly different fashion.  The first task was 4 hours with a set of pliers between 4 of us; the second was two afternoons (~6 hours) with the full team.  And I didn’t even know why we are doing this.

Arabella, Rama (& Sam), and I spent a morning untying the little buoys from the rope...
Arabella, Rama (& Sam), and I untying the little buoys from the rope…

This turns out to be for lining the beach areas.  While the dive shop boats have permanent mooring at their site, local boats do not and have to drop anchor (which damages the reef).  The buoy line was to signal to them that this is a no-anchor area.

The tying of the buoy line was fun, if a little hairy in the middle.  See, while the village elders and Gili Eco Trust agreed on the line being deployed, not everyone was on-board or notified.  A dive shop (Gili Scuba) found out that there was going to be a line, which means they would need to pull up their engine while going over it.  So they got on their kayak and started waving and shouting angrily at us in the water, with some fucking choice words thrown in for no good fucking reasons.  Not cool.

At the end of the day…

At LPCUWC, we organize a Project Week to Malaysia for our coral monitoring students.  We have 5 days.  In each of those days we start at 8 am, dive thrice (debriefing and learning in between), and come back to shore to do 2 more hours of theory; we call it a day at 8 pm.  It’s intense.  I came with that expectation, that this was to be 14 half-days of a structured course, with theory and two dives every day. I am ultimately happy and grateful for the intrinsic rewards, but the extrinsic expectations were misplaced.

This is a marine conservation introduction/service program, with a biorock building component.  I would recommend this experience if you are interested in marine conservation, have little background, and is open to learn more and the full spectrum of activities.  Conservation is a long term, profit-free, and often thankless task; it is invaluable to get to pick the brain of someone who’s dedicated and in this for the long haul.  I find the advice and war stories from Delphine (about conservation and biorock) as much learning as the “official” curriculum.

You should probably not be doing this if you’re a novice diver only interested in squeezing as much affordable diving in as you can — at US$ 600, the program is a shade cheaper than doing a Divemaster (US$ 830), but you do 14 dives instead of 50+ dives.  You also should probably not be using your rare 2-weeks annual holiday on this: while most are leisurely half days, not having a schedule ahead of time means that you can’t plan activities around the program.

Personally I did not learn as much as I hoped to (see misplaced expectations above), and I blame that on MamaPolyp Linda and Triggerfish Selwyn (co-leaders of Coral Monitoring) who trained me too well.  While I remain shaky about building biorocks from scratch (due to the lack of hands-on with anode wiring), I now have a much fuller perspective about Biorocks that is impossible to acquire otherwise.

There are two things I mean by this italicized phrase.  The first is simply being viscerally convinced by being with a flourishing biorock reef, covered with sprawling coral, and teeming with fish using it as a habitat.  This is particular cool on night dives!

The second is a more accurate calibration of my scientific skepticism.  The lay perspective is that science is all about the facts.  Scientists suffers from a less innocent understanding, and distinguish between “facts” and the true picture.  Reported facts are often distorted, decorated, hidden in a closet, or conditional.  Spending time with Delphine, actual biorocks, and a careful reading of the biorock monograph gave me a better sense of the scope and limits, all of which are difficult to assess otherwise.

Lastly, I enjoyed the variety of experience on the program (which you could see from the pictures), and it makes me care enough to write and reflect upon the experience.  I enjoyed the camaraderie with my peers (hat tip to Charles, Arabella, Rama, Tina, Lea, and Leslie), and it was lovely knowing Delphine, Siân, Adrienne, and the DM/instructors/staff at Trawangan Dive.  I will probably be back to Gili Trawangan as a dive master trainee next year, and I look forward to seeing Jamie-the-Whaleshark all grown up!

Jamie-the-Whaleshark Biorock with Basket
Jamie-the-Whaleshark Biorock with Basket

Clocks of History (Chinese Dynasty edition)

This was something I worked on-and-off in Spring/Summer 2012.  I won’t have time to finish this until much later.  It sitting on my drive does no one good.  If you’re interested in the project, I’ll be happy to get in touch with you to set the idea free.

History is usually represented as a sequential time-line, stretching from the beginning on the left to the end on the right.  As a picture-thinker I have a hard time visualizing and placing in events.  Our visual width is usually not enough to take in the entire span, and if it is zoomed in, I quickly lost sense of the scale and reference to events outside the current view.

When I see a zoomed in view, I get the relationship between the events within the “scene”. I can tell that M precedes N and P. However, unless the history is already intimately familiar to me, I have only a faint idea of where and how far A and G are relative to the field of view.

I would be surprised that Richard the Lionheart is as far away from Shakespeare as Shakespeare is from us, or that Cleopatra is temporally closer to the moon landing than the construction of the pyramids (h/t wonderfuldog on Reddit).

This becomes even more of a problem when different sources or systems of time is used.  In particular, I had absolutely no sense of whether the Tang (唐) dynasty co-exists with Jesus, St Augustine, or Thomas Moore.  (The answer is “none of the above”.)  I really wanted to make sense of this once and for all.

The solution, I thought, was to roll time into a clock, so that each point in time sits at a unique spatial location.  (I first came across a mentioning of this in a lecture by a Catholic priest around 2004, whose name I have long forgotten.)  The challenge was then two-fold:

  1. establishing a useful scale, and
  2. preparing it allaccurately.
I did say bones, didn’t I?

Since history had no beginning or end, the choice of a scale (and thus ends) is necessarily arbitrary.  I sketched out all reasonable combinations: scale of 100-500 yr / “hour” against sliding the end-times from 2000 to 2200.  For the history I’m interested in (where meaningful oral / written records exists), a scale of 300 yr/hr ending at 2100AD worked best.

The outstanding problem is to chart things accurately (and not break too much sweat about it).  I wrote some simple Processing code that sketches out a backbone of the a tab-delimited text file of (i) spot events, and (ii) events with duration.

(The code is nothing to write home about.  It simply converts time into polar coordinates, and draw arcs on the frame.  It really should do more to help the next steps, but that’s what I don’t have time for!)

I could then bring the backbone into Illustrator to spice it up, and overlay different timelines together.  The final output for Chinese dynasties against European civilizations is shown here.  (With the usual disclaimer that periods are fuzzy around the beginning or end; dynasties and periods often languish and blend into the next.)

[gview file=”http://www.jon.hk/WP/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/ChineseDynasties.pdf”]

The final output surprised me on a few things:

  • The brevity of the Qin (秦) dynasty — after uniting a China which had been at war for 600 years (!), this dynasty only lasted for a paltry 19 years.
  • The chaos that was historical Europe.  It turned out to be extraordinarily difficult to sketch out detail timelines for Europe, since borders, names, faith, factions, and races are all continuously shifting and war was perpetual.  It seems to be more fruitful to speak of defining (localized) events rather than (large scale) patterns, but I’m no historian.  (On that note: pundits jeer at the selection of the European Union as a Nobel Peace prize recipient, but one would be hard-pressed to find a (Western) Europe in peace for 60+ years.  Taking the long view, the period of peace we dwell in is truly remarkable.)
  • The even longevity of Chinese empires.  The “registered” dynasties all have lengths within the same magnitude, and there does not seem to be a hastening of pace as time marches on.  I’m mystified onwhy should lifetimes NOT be power law distributed, given that mass riots are power law distributed (note to self: citation needed).

The future of the project: what I’d like is to move the entire work-flow into Processing, and use Processing.js to make this an interactive application that readers can zoom-in/out, filter, and get access to more details via tool-tips.  A poor man’s Simile Timeline, but with a meaningful beginning and end.  If you want to help out, or take the idea and run with it, give me a shout and I can get the (ugly, elementary) Processing code to you.

Pictorial Guide to Thin Layer Chromatography, feat. Lego

In the several years that I tutored at the 1st-year help center, I’ve always had students who find thin-layer chromatography mystifying.  Most of these students don’t “get” what the plates are doing, or the role of the eluent.  For whatever reason, the physical analogy of things getting washed away and gripping the ground (or the inability to do so) seems to help in guiding the thought process.  I drew this up should you, as either instructor or student, would find this helpful.  Lo!  Behold the whimsical…

As usual, clicking on the figure opens a larger version for viewing.  A PDF version for print is available here. I’m not too happy with the final output – I feel as if the spatially-suggested connection between the analogy and the phenomena to be explained is not clear enough.  Suggestions to make this more useful / analogy more clear is appreciated.

Update (17 Dec 2011 Revision R3): The addition of the imagine/now consider label seems to clear up the analogy-phenomena.  I thank Loïc Samuel for the suggestion.

Interpreting Proton NMR – Overview

A bird’s eye view of 1H NMR spectra interpretation in comic form.  Here we first dissect the visual mess into the three major components implicit in every peak, and then systematically approach each component to show the connection between spectral information and molecular parameters.  Click on the image to expand; for printing, a resolution-independent PDF is available here.

Side-note: a number of people have been looking for this to be published in the last year.  If you’re one of them… I’m sorry for the tardiness!  NMR is the flagship of organic structure identification, revealing much more information than techniques like IR; the corollary is that interpreting NMR is a bigger and more nuanced topic than comparable techniques (on both interpretation and theoretical grounds).  I’ve been going back-and-forth the drawing board to select the right amount of content to include in this overview, and what to reserve for others.  Hopefully this final version is a good compromise.  I encourage and appreciate your comments and questions, and will make updates to the spread with your feedback.

Side-note 2:  Do you speak another language and would like to see this translated?  Contact me and we’ll try to work something out.

Update (R4, 15 Dec 2011):  Updated with corrections.  I thank Shaun MacLean (U of Manitoba) and James Ashenhurst (Mastering Organic Chemistry) for their helpful suggestions.

Pretty Picture of Messy Membranes

I’ve been reading the biophysics literature on lipids in preparation for the defense, particularly in connection to phase transitions, transient pores, and lipid ion channels.  If you’re at all interested in membrane transport, you’ll find Heimburg 2010 and Salgado 2011 fascinating.

I’ve long known that lipid membranes are messy, but I had not came across a clean distribution profile of the messiness until today.  The original, however, was in 7 shades of gray that even my eyes can’t tell what was going on.  After sketching out for myself what it would look like (and some iterations of cleaning up) we ended with a pretty sweet poster of lipid EDP:

If you’re looking to print this out, you should do that from the PDF print linked below.

[one_third][learn_more caption=”PDF”] Download[/learn_more][/one_third]

How Does “SmartShade” Cosmetics Work?

[dropcap]Q[/dropcap] from RainbootedRobot: Almay makes a foundation called “SmartShade” that is supposed to magically change to match your skin tone. It comes out of the tube looking white with little black specks in it, but as you rub it into your skin, it turns to a fleshy colour. What kind of sorcery is this?

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]: This is a very interesting question!  As a background for readers of the unfair gender, foundations are skin coloured cosmetic applied to the face to create an even, uniform colour to the complexion — usually to cover flaws.  That is…

What foundations do
What foundations do

The problem is, if the color of the foundation doesn’t match the skin, then you get the Miscolored Girl Syndrome.

Miscolored Girl Syndrome

What this “SmartShade” is supposed to do is to match any skin tone – like magic.  But how does this work?

What Consumers think it does

Since this is so wonderful, it must be patented, and your gentle friendly chemist went on a patent search.  In a patent called “Makeup compositions and Methods“, it was claimed that the new invention includes

[one_half_last][quote]Emulsion makeup compositions for keratinous surfaces which change color upon application, emulsion makeup compositions that match a variety of skin or hair shades in more than one skin tone category […][/quote][/one_half_last]

This patent was filed by Revlon, the parent company of Almay, and the date and content are both consistent.  Ladies and gents, we’ve got a match, so let’s dig in and see how the magic works.

To understand the magic, it has to be compared with non-magic.  In normal foundations the pigment (which gives the color) is blended with the rest of the ingredients into a paste:

Normal foundations have pigments all blended in.

…but NOT in SmartShade.  Using pretty interesting chemistry, the hydrophilic pigments are blended into a hydrophobic carrier to give an emulsion – this is like making oil-droplets in water, but reverse (water droplets in oil).  The technological challenge was to keep them like this all the while it’s traveling from the factory to the shelf to the makeup bag.

Smart shade's "water in oil" formulation

When you put it on, the hydrophilic pigments goes, SWOOOSH, right to your skin and spreads out evenly.  It looks as if it’s switching colors to match the skin tone.

“But, but – ,” I hear you protest, “That’s smoke and mirrors!  It’s not what I thought it claims to do!”  Yes, and it really is only smoke and mirrors and the manufacturers know it.  Let me quote from the patent — straight from the horse’s mouth:

[one_half_last] [quote]In the case of a composition applied to skin such as foundation makeup, the development of the color directly on the skin from a non-skin matching color to a skin matching color gives the consumer the impression that the composition is “smart” and capable of changing color to exactly match her skin tone.[/quote][/one_half_last]

It’s not doing any matching.  Which explains why these “smart” foundations comes in different colors, and reviews about its color-matching abilities are rather mixed.  Is Almay going to be the subject of a class action?  Probably not – their marketing materials are misleading, but very carefully so.  Phrases like
[quote]The lightweight formula starts out white and adjusts to right.[/quote]

is indeed itself adjustable to right.

Got a science question?  You can post requests to me, or ask one of the panelists at the AskScience.

Pictorial Guide to Interpreting Infrared Spectra

Having taught spectroscopy for several years, I find that students commonly have a hard time prioritizing IR bands in their spectra interpretation.  After several false starts and long years of procrastination, here’s a pictorial guide that I hope would be clear, accurate, and helpful for learning to interpret IR spectra.  If you wish to use this for print, the PDF version would give better resolution and can be found here.

[one_half_last][box]In Portuguese, translated by Vitor Ribeiro.[/box][/one_half_last]

[one_half_last][box]In German, translated by Robert Herzog.[/box][/one_half_last]

[one_half_last][box]In Spanish, translated by Henry Hughes (UNGS Argentina)[/box][/one_half_last]

[one_half_last][box] Can you “speak chemistry” in a language other than English? Let me know if you can (and want to) help translate this image.[/box][/one_half_last]