Public schools (and arguably private schools as well; I wouldn't know) teach students what to think, not how to think.

On LessWrong, this insight is so trivial not to bear repeating. Unfortunately, I think many people have adopted it as an immutable fact about the world that will be corrected post-Singularity, rather than a totally unacceptable state of affairs which we should be doing something about now. The consensus seems to be that a class teaching the basic principles of thinking would be a huge step towards raising the sanity waterline, but that it will never happen. Well, my school has one. It's called Theory of Knowledge, and it's offered at 2,307 schools worldwide as part of the IB Diploma Program.

The IB Diploma, for those of you who haven't heard of it, is a internationally recognized high school program. It requires students to pass tests in 6 subject areas, jump through a number of other hoops, and take an additional class called Theory of Knowledge.

For the record, I'm not convinced the IB Diploma Program is a good thing. It doesn't really solve any of the problems with public schools, it shares the frustrating focus on standardized testing and password-guessing instead of real learning, etc. But I think Theory of Knowledge is a huge opportunity to spread the ideas of rationality.

What kinds of people sign up for the IB Diploma? It is considered more rigorous than A-levels in Britain, and dramatically more rigorous than standard classes in the United States (I would consider it approximately equal to taking 5 or 6 AP classes a year). Most kids engaged in this program are intelligent, motivated and interested in the world around them. They seem, (through my informal survey method of talking to lots of them) to have a higher click factor than average.

The problem is that currently, Theory of Knowledge is a waste of time. There isn't much in the way of standards for a curriculum, and in the entire last semester we covered less content than I learn from any given top-level LessWrong post. We debated the nature of truth for 4 months; most people do not come up with interesting answers to this on their own initiative, so the conversation went in circles around "There's no such thing as truth!" "Now, that's just stupid." the whole time. When I mention LessWrong to my friends, I generally explain it as "What ToK would be like, if ToK was actually good."

At my school, we regularly have speakers come in and discuss various topics during ToK, mostly because the regular instructor doesn't have any idea what to say. The only qualifications seem to be a pulse and some knowledge of English (we've had presenters who aren't fluent). If LessWrong posters wanted to call up the IB school nearest you and offer to present on rationality, I'm almost certain people would agree. This seems like a good opportunity to practice speaking/presenting in a low-stakes situation, and a great way to expose smart, motivated kids to rationality.

I think a good presentation would focus on the meaning of evidence, what we mean by "rationality", and making beliefs pay rent, all topics we've touched on without saying anything meaningful. We've also discussed Popper's falsificationism, and about half your audience will already be familiar with Bayes' theorem through statistics classes but not as a model of inductive reasoning in general.

If you'd be interested in this but don't know where to start in terms of preparing a presentation, Liron's presentation "You Are A Brain" seems like a good place to start. Designing a presentation along these lines might also be a good activity for a meetup group.

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I just sent them an email, volunteering to do a presentation for Richwoods HS, which is the only school close enough to me. Let's see what happens.

Apparently contacting IBO directly doesn't work for this. They told me I should contact the school directly. After some searching, I was able to find the email of the IB Coordinator for that school.

Did this ever end up working out?
As far as i can remember I never heard from them.
Awesome job of translating ideas in to action!

See also here.

I feel it would be useful to develop a standard hour long into to LessWrong. People who have done talks could help by providing feedback on what went down well.

I've only ever done things along the lines of "intro to LessWrong" for serious academic folks, and I've found it very difficult. The worst one was trying to explain why "probability is in the mind" was not an ontological confusion. An hour can really only scratch the surface of any of the relevant topics, especially if you want people to take something away from it other than a vague skepticism about the whole project. I believe Eliezer has had much more luck with targeted presentations, like about specifically how to make rational decisions in a business context. Surely he would have a lot to say about this.
Wish I could up-vote this twice. Anyone care to volunteer for this? If so, please contact me.
Does a contest for a presentation video+slides+notes sound like a good idea?
Trivially yes.
Boy, I'd love to be part of a team that put this together, but I'm less than confident in my abilities as teacher. ... I dunno, though, I'll toss something together, see what happens.
Here is one presentation for young people

ToK was my favorite class in high school, thanks to having an amazing teacher, one of two teachers in the school to complete a Ph. D. I've heard it said that, if you put Michael Vassar in an empt concrete room, he would soon start pontificating on the influence of the Enlightenment on putting people in empty rooms. I think the same is true of this guy.

We read parts of Man is the Measure and a 60s philosophy textbook , discussed the nature of causality, picked apart Max Weber's Verstehen argument, and reflected on the panopticon. We then did segments on each area of knowledge, with lively debates, discussions, and presentations.

It's still the case that ToK was subservient to our other classes. In March, the class turned into time to polish our Extended Essays (the 4000 word paper required of all candidates), some class time was spent starting a yearly tradition of painting the wall with the names of the candidates, and we had a party in place of a winter final.

I wanted to jump in and say that I liked ToK purely for the social bonding rather than the learning, and that the material covered was rather disjoint from LessWrong, but upon reflection, neither is true. My opinion on suburbi... (read more)

I participated in the IB diploma program in 1997, in Texas. My experience was better than KPier's in several ways. I think having a skilled and experienced teacher makes all the difference. Mine wasn't a LessWrong style rationalist, but she had experience with teaching philosophy, so we got past initial naive intuitions on most of the class topics relatively soon, and I witnessed basic changes in attitude toward the nature of language and knowledge in both me and several of my classmates.

In retrospect, I think the best thing that could have been added would have been a discussion up front about how not to be confused about words. Some combo of the material in Disputing Definitions and Conceptual Analysis and Moral Theory. After that, something to undermine reliance on introspection and intuition more generally, perhaps in the context of presenting basic cognitive biases.

Oooh, pick me!

I do the IB, finishing this November. It's true that ToK is a complete waste of time in general. I didn't learn anything from it. I spent pretty much the whole course thinking "Less Wrong has already thought of this problem, and solved it."

I gave my speech on the morality of abortion, using such concepts as the least convenient possible world, Shut Up and Multiply, playing rationalist taboo, and so on. I got perfect marks, which indicates that even though ToK teaches you nothing, it can grade you usefully.

I'm actually talking to the ToK teacher about giving a seminar to the year 11 students some time. I feel that in an hour or a bit more, you could really usefully go through the fundamentals of rationality.

If you were to go talk to the ToK class, it would be useful to know something of the curriculum. The two basic concepts are Ways of Knowing and Areas of Knowledge. The ways of knowing are intuition, sense perception, reason, and language. You could talk about each of those easily, just quoting from Less Wrong canon. (I quoted LukeProg on intuition in my essay, as it happens.) Areas of knowledge are like english, human sciences, natural sciences, and art. In the IB you have to do one subject from each of the six subject areas, so the students are likely to be well rounded. Also, they're smart kids on average, so you could talk at a fairly high level.

We debated the nature of truth for 4 months; most people do not come up with interesting answers to this on their own initiative, so the conversation went in circles around "There's no such thing as truth!" "Now, that's just stupid." the whole time.

I'm surprised that nobody decided to look up "truth" on Wikipedia. I would have thought that kids growing up today would do that kind of thing reflexively, maybe even on their cell phones during class... Was looking up other people's ideas explicitly discouraged by the teacher?

Actually, now that you mention it it surprises me too. Using cell phones during class isn't allowed, but I'm not sure why no one tried after class... possibly because the discussion was so uninteresting that they didn't even feel motivated to learn more?
I agree with you, as a teacher. Students of ages 11-16 often don't even know how to find the answer to a simple question online, for example 'between what frequencies is EM radiation visible?'
7Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 13y
That surprises me. Definitely in my high school we had a lot of web-research assignments, and by grade 12 we were expected to cite 'high-quality' sources like journal articles and the web pages of major (and thus respectable, I guess) organizations. Although I still use Wikipedia for a lot of my casual personal research, I never found those assignments hard. ...Then again, like I'm starting to realize, I may have encountered sample bias in high school, considering that I was in mostly AP classes.
Just to clarify, I work in a very low-performing school (bottom 10% of UK). In many schools, children will be much more able. However, it still surprises me that people who spend hours a day online can't use google.
4Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 13y
True. The school I attended was situated in a very wealthy neighborhood, and was well-known for its academics...and classes were segregated into "enriched", "regular", and "applied". I spent most of my time in the enriched stream, and barely ever interacted with the "applied" kids, since they weren't usually the ones doing band or drama club.

At my school, we regularly have speakers come in and discuss various topics during ToK, mostly because the regular instructor doesn't have any idea what to say.

This sounds really easy to fix. Most instructors are used to having a curriculum handed to them in textbook form. A list of good articles (whether from Less Wrong or elsewhere) would fill that role. Read a post as homework, discuss in class, repeat. Throw in an occasional writing assignment for writing practice and grading. This would be dramatically more valuable than most high school classes, and easy to run.

I think it's a bit more complicated than that. You'd need in-class readings and lots of exercises to supplement discussion. You'd need to plan out what material the students should know by the end of each section and prepare section summaries for the teacher, maybe to lecture with. And so on and so forth.

Indeed, Kahneman himself tried to write a rationality textbook for high school. He failed because of the planning fallacy. The story is at the beginning of this course. Search for "planning fallacy".

"Most instructors are used to having a curriculum handed to them in textbook form." What evidence do you have to back up this assertion? This is most definitely not my (or my colleagues) experience over the last 15 years. Limiting a ToK class to one source would be utterly disastrous and totally against the entire aims of the programme.
I didn't mean to suggest that limiting a course to one source is a good idea or commonly practiced. Rather, what I meant was that a course needs at least one good source of relevant material that won't run out, as a base to which other things are added. In my experience, almost all courses have something like that, and instructors supplement the main textbook to varying degrees.
I can't think of a better way to take all the fun out of the Sequences.

I had similar experiences in ToK, and I think your idea of giving rationality talks to ToK students is a great one.

What kinds of people sign up for the IB Diploma? It is considered more rigorous than A-levels in Britain, and dramatically more rigorous than standard classes in the United States (I would consider it approximately equal to taking 5 or 6 AP classes a year). Most kids engaged in this program are intelligent, motivated and interested in the world around them. They seem, (through my informal survey method of talking to lots of them) to have a higher click factor than average.

Your description of the types of students who sign up for the IB Diploma Programme (IBDP) is probably accurate for schools where the IBDP is not compulsory or expected, but I think it is too favorable for non-selective schools where most students do the IBDP.

For instance, at my former secondary school, 152 out of 154 seniors did the IBDP, with 150 students receiving an IB Diploma. This is an international school in Hong Kong, and the students are not especially bright since the school has non-selective admissions. There are of course students who are "intelligent, motivated and interested in the world around them", but I would apply this description to a minority - not a majority - of the IBDP students at the school.

(I would have failed the "motivated" criterion - I had no love for half the subjects I took, and did little homework apart from the required IB coursework in these subjects.)

Pleasant coincidence: I've had exactly the same thoughts and have been communicating them to some heads of education in my old school. I doubt they're going to go for it; also, I'd rather become a stronger rationalist first before I evangelize certain aspects of Less Wrong.

The IB can seem quite bureaucratic at times. At least, they try to be. My understanding is that teachers go through a collective standardization process via IB-led conferences. It's not very effective. At my school, there were four ToK teachers who taught four wildly different curricula, and it reflected in our grades. It helps to have a teacher who really gets what it's all about as they'd be more open to getting material from Less Wrong.

Contacting the IB themselves can feel like a pipdream; but, since they really have no way of enforcing curricula content on the teacher level (at least in my school) then it's the teachers that may need convincing more than their superiors.

Element of note: ToK did suck. The class I was in contained more opinion voicing rather than analyzing, and a majority found it painful, or didn't say anything at all.


This seems like a great idea. My partner was an IB student, and had a good relationship with her teacher. I'll talk to her about this today and if she's down with it, we'll do this this fall.

Let us know how this goes.

I'd like to see some more discussion from people familiar with IB about which specific LessWrong topics/posts would be most appropriate, engaging, and helpful to the type of people attending the ToK class. I'm more likely to actually contact a school about doing a presentation if I had an idea about what information to present. I often find that I'm interested in things that others don't care about (or vice versa), or I find things obvious that others don't (or vice versa).

I'm actually a good public speaker and really enjoy teaching people who are interested in learning...

Move to main?

Edit: Moved.

I vote yes.

Tangentially, "Theory of Knowledge" (and not "Overcoming Bias" or "Less Wrong") is now the first phrase I try when I want to convey to an uninitiated person the general nature of the meeting I am going to. One of its advantages is that it conveys the braininess of the topic matter.



I started reading Overcoming Bias at age 15 or so and I think exposure to its person/idea cluster has had a massive impact on my intellectual development. Somewhat notably, I thought a lot of Eliezer's points about rationality were obvious--not sure if that would apply to young people in general.
I wish I had found this years ago. I feel like I'm trying to overcome years and years of faulty ideas and teachings.
-1[anonymous]13y wasn't around in the late 19th century.

I did the IB diploma program too. Except I live in Spain, so I had to follow both the Spanish education system and the IB diploma at the same time. We actually had three different philosophy subjects in two years: Philosophy, History of Philosophy and TOK. All three were absolute shit. Well, we did actually learn about the history of philosophy: we had to memorize every detail about ancient philosophers' thoughts, from the presocratics (Thales, Pythagoras...) to Nietzsche (nothing beyond 1900 though). We didn't actually learn much about actual philosophy ... (read more)

1Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 13y
This strikes me as an important thing to do. Good luck with it! (Incidentally, is there a demand for Less Wrong material in French? I expect I'm fluent enough to translate some of the articles.)
I believe the less wrong translation project could use more of both French and Spanish translators, but I'm not really involved in it so I'm not sure.
Don't count much on it though. It's only a future project. It depends on how my next years in university go.

I was part of an IB program in a rural Indiana high school. Our ToK course was primarily a sounding board for Christian fundamentalism. We learned "about" other philosophical theories of knowledge, but all under the obvious-but-not-overtly-stated pretense that the Bible dictates truth and anyone who doesn't have faith that Bible is true will necessarily develop an evil/harmful, incorrect theory or worldview. The same general pattern dominated our sociology and history classes (all taught by the same person, who despite having more advanced degree... (read more)

I'm a graduate of an IB school, and even took a few IB-level courses, just not the full course.

I also took a ToK class, but our school offered AP and IB varieties, and I went with AP, not having the full-IB prerequisites.

I find that what really matters is the teacher teaching the coursework, not the class itself. OTOH, having a class about ToK in the first place is at least a step in the right direction.

Regardless, as an alumni (and still friends with a few of the teachers there), I may have a bit of an in to do some sort of presentation. Likely based off of Liron's YAAB.


For the record, I'm not convinced the IB Diploma Program is a good thing. It doesn't really solve any of the problems with public schools, it shares the frustrating focus on standardized testing and password-guessing instead of real learning, etc.

I graduated from IB back in 2000 (with 43 out of 45 on my diploma), and I disagree here. The thing about IB's tests (and the Extended Essay) is that they're incredibly comprehensive. There's just no way to do well on them except by actually learning the stuff.

My time was before the current era of standardized t... (read more)

From my perspective, the problem with the IB program is not its tests, but that it requires a fairly high level of understanding across every one of many subjects. It does not permit compensating for average ability at one subject with mastery of another, or even of every other one.

In this respect it is quite cookie-cutter: a renaissance person is good at everything and that is what is expected of IB students, but in the real world, it is possible to find vocations, even radically cross-disciplinary ones, that fall short of using every sub-category of skill.

Not everyone has to be able to apply economic models to biological systems undergoing transformations that differ over time in an original computer-program and write an essay on it worthy of winning a literature award and give a prize acceptance speech in French on how the philosophy of science has been previously limited by particular psychological roadblocks but the sociological function of winning this award will change that, once the musical written, directed, and starred-in by the genius to commemorate the occasion takes over Broadway.

A tiny bit of specialization isn't a bad thing.

If there were a Broadway musical based on that second-to-last paragraph, I would be first in line.
I would have to disagree with you. I took both AP and IB tests in Economics and Spanish, and to me the IB test was more about the amount of stuff you could write down in the time limit than about understanding. Since the test questions are virtually the same from year to year, it is easy to study the test rather than the subject, and I certainly didn't feel like preparing for the tests taught me anything in the anticipation-constraining sense. (I got a 7 on both, so I don't think this is entirely attributable to incompetence) That said, the IB program is definitely more rigorous and meaningful than a typical public school experience, and saying it isn't up to the standards of LessWrong isn't really a criticism. I don't mean to be too harsh.

I can't speak for ToK students specifically, since I myself did not take the IB course in high school, but I'll note that the greatest skills I've learned from this community have been a) how to state arguments clearly and effectively, e.g. not getting confused by words, and b) understanding how politics mindkills. I would love to present the Blue/Green sky dilemma, see what came of it... but only after introducing the meaning of truth and perhaps even the Litanies.

Upvote for providing a reasonable and relatively easy step toward solving a once-thought-to-be-intractable problem.

At my school TOK took place before the normal classes for the day did, it was clearly an afterthought. Everyone was half asleep, debates did not happen.

It is a good start, and it's becoming more critical as normal people have to sift through more and more orphaned factoids each day. When I was going through school, the most important question to ask was supposed to be "Why?" It's becoming more apparent to me that a more useful question to teach students is "How do you know?"

That can be covered in some depth in an IB class, but just being in the habit of asking that from the age of 5 is going to do more good than a structured curriculum once you're 16.

It might be of help to include elements of rationality within each course, in addition to a ToK course on it's own. For example, in physics it might be useful to teach theories that turned out to be incorrect, and to analyze how and why it seemed correct at one point of time, and by collecting more evidence etc. it turned out incorrect.

Perhaps this is too difficult to include in current curriculums, so it can be included in the ToK course as additional discussions? Kind of an application or case study of Bayes' theorem (it could be prone to hindsight bias, so this has to be taken into consideration, not to make the errors in the theory seem so obvious)

The IB courses try to integrate ToK into all the various other subjects, in the form of short in class discussions. For example, in Economics it points out that a deterioration of Terms of Trade isn't necessarily a bad thing, and then questions the use of language in restricting knowledge from passing outside the educated. Or in Physics, we talk about the various theories that attempted to explain things and failed. So we kinda do that. However, it's only really taken as seriously as the students want it to be. In Economics, we never really talk about it, but it's in the textbook. In Physics, we mention it briefly, and then maybe argue about it because we're argumentative.
IB already does a bit of this in the sciences. For example, the physics curriculum includes the evolution of the various models of the atom and the experiments that supported them (like the Geiger–Marsden experiment). The biology curriculum did this a bit as well, with its coverage of cell theory and evolution.

There are 2 such schools in San Jose. Anyone else in the area interested?

Possibly, we will discuss this when we meetup.
Did anything come of the discussion? I would like to know, since there's a school in San Bruno I would love to give a talk at.
Nope :(

Theory of Knowledge was perhaps the most useful class I ever took.

Oh, what did I do during it? I sat in the back and read the Sequences.

Im a sophomore in IB at the moment, and i've heard a lot about ToK. I'm pretty excited about it, many of the older students say it changed the way they view things, and that our school's ToK teacher is exceptional. Apparently at the beginning of the first class of the year, the first thing the student's are asked is 'how do you know 2 plus 2 equals 4?'. And in the IB MYP, not all the kids are that motivated, but they're 'filtered out' before the diploma program. I attend a IB world school here in Canada and i live in an area with relatively high immigration rates, so there's a lot of competition since immigrants (like my parents) are obsessed with education.

Welcome to LessWrong! A lot of the content on this site has helped me answer the questions ToK asks. What is Evidence is a good place to start.
Theres also and if you just want to skip to the back of the book for 2+2=4. Thought personally I wouldn't suggest it.
Please verify formatting after posting and fix it when necessary.

I looked at the IB web page and it appears to be "critical thinking" as opposed to direct instruction in logic or other more-practical reasoning skills. The first problem is that there is lack of agreement about what critical thinking is (Lloyd and Bahr, 2010). Another problem is whether critical thinking skills are generalizable. What I know of critical thinking assessment is that there is emphasis on high-level approach to problems and a lack or complete absence of formal logic, math, statistics, or other specific skills that might help peop... (read more)

I agree that emphasis on critical thinking and analytical skills should be an essential element of any programme but from my admittedly limited experience the IB approach does not go as far in this direction as one might desire. Caveats; 1) the IB ToK element is better than the nothing most curricula I am familiar with have and shows the good intentions of those setting up the course, so this is not a 'it's no good' but a 'could do better' comment and 2) not having gone to a school which taught IB, my experience has been limited to the handful of students ... (read more)

My school doesn't offer IB, but there's an ToK equivalent under our CIE (Cambridge International Examinations) course called Thinking Skills. It's a bit more focused than ToK - it doesn't try to teach students how to think, but instead focuses more on specific thinking techniques. For example, there's an emphasis on deconstructing arguments, analysing essays, and identifying logical reasoning. While that's not quite as useful as what well-applied ToK sounds like, it's probably a bit more realistic in terms of ability to convey information to pupils - it's ... (read more)

The Role of ToK is NOT to "try to teach students how to think".

Timing is a bit off for the U.S., but this is an excellent idea.

Back in high school I was part of an outreach program where we prepared a presentation on science or computers and went out to elementary school classrooms. All the teachers were very cooperative, and they liked having a special event.

Theory of Knowledge can (and should be) great. The fact that many schools force apathetic teachers to "teach" it is where the problem lies. All IB teachers are REQUIRED to integrate ToK into their subjects and almost none do. Most IB teachers do not have the first clue what ToK is and they are not motivated to find out.

I have noticed that few commenters here seem to be aware of the actual aims and objectives of the course (based on their comments here). Perhaps reading page 5 of the ToK guide would be pertinent for those who think ToK is "... (read more)

A link to said guide would be helpful, if such is available online. EDIT: Is this what you're talking about? If so, I'm actually very excited. I see a great deal of consonance between the objectives of ToK and the objectives of this site. Perhaps we should turn ToK into a feeding pool for the Bayesian Conspiracy... >:3
It's where you place the blame.
The IBO is very clear about what ToK should be. The blame lies at the feet of institutions who don't value ToK and treat it as a barely acknowledged addition to the diploma.
Deciding where to focus the blame doesn't solve problems or explain their origin (it could do so incidentally, but that's not blame-assignment's primary concern).
Sure. But without identification of where the problem lies how can we even begin to address the issue? It appears that students are coming out of the Diploma programme without a basic understanding of what ToK is, let alone a good grounding in it. The IBO could not be any clearer on what ToK is, what the aims and objectives are and how it should be approached. As an IB teacher (of 15 years) and examiner I can confidently say that the problems identified in this thread have two points of origin: 1) Schools don't care about the implementation of ToK in relation to the major subject areas and 2)in general teachers don't know (and don't care to find out) how to teach it.
Vladimir, I normally really like your comments, but I'm voting this one down because it's a straight contradiction without any explanation backing it up. (I'm letting you know to make it clear that it's not widehead voting you down in some kind of retributive action.)
(It's not a contradiction. The statement was clearly about placing the blame, which is even explicitly acknowledged in the next comment. I wanted to clarify that widehead's statement was specifically about blame, which I think is a wrong thing to focus on.)
(Fair enough, I retract the downvote. Also: why are we whispering?)
It's good to tune down meta discussion, I think. I often write two-part comments where the second part is in parentheses to specify its role.