TOK: The 12 concepts

You may not have noticed but TOK has changed. The main difference is that the framework of the TOK curriculum has shifted to become "concept-based."  This means that the focus of the course is now on "big ideas."  These big ideas are transdisciplinary in nature and help us to understand "why" we are learning the content.

The following page looks at the 12 concepts on which the TOK course is built.  Some of the concepts link more directly to psychology than others, but helping students to see how these concepts are relevant in psychology will help to support the transfer of their understandings and make TOK a more relevant and integrated part of their DP learning.

TOK: The 12 concepts

Certainty           Culture            Evidence     Explanation          Interpretation    Justification

Objectivity        Perspective      Power          Responsibility      Truth                  Values


Unlike other areas of knowledge, certainty is not something that psychology does really well.  Psychology looks at trends in behaviour within populations. 

In addition, the measurement of behaviour is problematic.  We try to increase the certainty of our findings by carefully operationalizing our variables, but there is often the problem that the constructs are not easily measured - eg. one's level of homophobia, one's marital satisfaction, or one's level of stress.

When trying to determine the level of certainty of our findings, we have to consider the balance between internal and ecological validity.  Internal validity increases our ability to be certain that the IV had an effect on the DV.  Ecological validity increases our certainty that the findings will predict how people will behave in their natural environment.

We also increase certainty through the process of replication. Needless to say, there is a replication crisis in psychology.....

Potential activities: Measuring cognition, Defining resilience, Defining love, Discussing uncertainty 


The sociocultural approach is one of the lenses through which we examine human behaviour - so in this sense, we have a great link here to TOK.

But remember, TOK is interested in how culture affects our knowledge of the world around us.  This links to schema theory, but also ways of knowing, as we see in studies by Kearins (1981) or Luhrmann (2015).

The study of cultural dimensions is great for this.  For example, how uncertainty bias or power distance affects one's approach to knowledge.

In addition, enculturation is also important here.  The process of learning cultural norms - such as gender norms or responsibility to one's family/in-group.

Potential activities: Dimensions and minorities, Globalization of eating disorders, Thai health promotion ads 


This is the easy one for us!  It is the foundation of our curriculum.  Students are constantly being asked to evaluate the evidence. 

But when looking at evidence, it is not just about evaluation, students should be able to explain why we would use a certain type of evidence.

In our course, students look at different research methods: experimental, observations, interviews, correlational studies, case studies, and questionnaires/surveys.  In addition to this, psychologists use different techniques for data collection, including the use of brain imaging technology and virtual reality.

However, it is also important that students consider the value of anecdotal vs empirical research.  As psychologists, we are also highly reliant on self-reported data - both with regard to one's behaviour as well as introspection about one's mental state. 

A final example is the use of quantitative vs qualitative data. Students often argue that quantitative data is somehow superior to qualitative data.  This is definitely a TOK question...

Potential activities: Enculturation library analysis, Credibility and qualitative research, Test: Biological factors in obesity 


Explanations are our attempt to understand why people behave the way that they do.  Explanations may be based on local culture (you got sick because you slept with your window open), errors in logic (attribution theory, illusory correlations), or empirical evidence.

We look most directly at this concept when we examine theories - such as social identity theory. In addition to theories, psychologists use models.  These models address complex behaviours such as anxiety disorders (Hirsch and Matthew's Model of Protracted Worry) and cognitive processes (the Working Memory Model).

When looking at how we explain behave, psychologists use both reductionist and holistic approaches. It is important that students see the value of both of these approaches and how they enrich our explanation of behaviour.  Often students see reductionism as a limitation and holism as a strength - but that is an oversimplification of the approaches.

Potential activities: Is the internet changing our brains?, Online dating, Preschool proposal 


The way we interpret psychological research and knowledge is essential to teaching and learning.  What are the implications of a study? 

One of the aspects of interpretation that we discuss is causality and correlation.  Causality may be a direct influence of an IV on a DV - or it may be domino causality or the result of positive/negative feedback loops.

Another aspect of interpretation is influenced by culture.  In abnormal psychology, for example, we discuss the use of the DSM to diagnose people from different cultures.  The importance of considering an etic vs emic approach to diagnosis helps students to grabble with another concept in psychology - universality.  Discussing etic vs emic approaches also helps students to understand the need to address the very Western orientation of modern psychology.

A final example of interpretation is the use of statistical analysis.  The debate about the use of the p < 0.05 threshold for significance is an important discussion for psychology students.  We can also interpret data through inductive vs deductive methods of content analysis. Having students consider the value, as well as the concerns about different approaches to interpreting data, is an important foundation for critical thinking.

Potential activities: Critical thinking about dimensions, The Emic Clinic, Correlations in the headlines 


Justification in psychology is the process of making links between theoretical frameworks and choices.  There are several points in the curriculum where we explore this concept.

For example, in developmental psychology, we might have students discuss which toy is appropriate for a child at which age or how school curricula should be designed in light of children's cognitive development.

In abnormal psychology, we discuss why a therapy may or may not be effective - or which therapy might be the most appropriate for a specific disorder or client.

In addition, we ask students to justify their methodology when proposing research. This includes deciding whether deception is justified in order to study cult behaviour, whether animal research is valid or ethical in the study of Alzheimer's disease, or whether it is even worth studying sex differences with regard to the brain.

Potential activities: Which interview style to use?, Shark tank, Advocating for Alzheimer's research 


As psychology is the scientific study of behaviour, where humans study their own species, we have a lot of issues with objectivity.

As mentioned above, cultural bias is an important part of psychology - both in the choice of what is studied and the people that make up so many samples. Acronyms such as WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) and YAVIS (young, affluent, verbal, intelligent, social) are used to describe the typical participant in psychological research.

We also look at the role of researcher bias, publication bias, and confirmation bias in psychological investigations.

Finally, there is a good part of the course that looks at our ability to be objective with regard to our own behaviour.  The study of cognitive biases, as well as memory biases, show that we are unable to be really objective when considering our own behaviour.  This is problematic when so much psychological research is based on self-reported data.

Potential activities: Cakes of deception, Finding a sample, Bias in qualitative research 


The psychology curriculum is designed to look at three core perspectives: the biological, cognitive, and sociocultural approaches.  It is important for students to understand that although they are beyond the scope of our curriculum, there are other approaches - such as the psychodynamic, humanistic, and indigenous approaches to psychology.

As mentioned above, there are other perspectives that we examine in psychology: emic vs etic approaches, culture and gender, and reductionist vs holistic approaches.

Potential activities: Parenting & Tiger Moms, Thinking about online dating, Genetics and education  


In TOK the idea of power is how knowledge can be power.  I think about this concept in terms of how psychological research can allow society to change and develop.

One area of power is the question of autonomy vs determinism.  A potential discussion area here is whether we would want to know that we have a genome that could potentially lead to Alzheimer's, bipolar disorder, or criminal behaviour. Is knowledge power to potentially avoid these future developments? Or is biology our destiny - a ticking timebomb?

Another question is how psychology may be used for the public good.  For example, in health psychology, we evaluate health promotion campaigns. How could psychological theory be used to help governments to increase vaccinations rates in the current pandemic?  What type of campaigns are the most effective in the reduction of teen smoking?  How could theory be applied to encourage people to seek mental health support and decrease social stigma?

Potential activities: Designing a perfect menu, Health campaign presentations, Legalizing marijuana 


This concept seems to be very much linked with power.  If we are able to apply psychological research in order to promote change and development, what are the ethical responsibilities of psychologists?

I think that when most of us read this, we jump to "ethical considerations in research."  However, I would encourage us to get beyond CARDUD (Consent, anonymity, right to withdraw, deception, undue stress or harm, debriefing) and to consider ethical issues in psychology

These include, but are not limited to, the use of animals in research, the use of case studies of abuse victims, ethical implications of genetic research, how we carry out and report on socially sensitive issues, questions of research funding, and the balance between the positive effects of diagnosis and social stigma.

A final consideration would be the role of psychologists as activists. There have been several psychologists that have played a key role in promoting societal change - for example, the role that Clark and Clark played in the Brown vs the Board of Topeka decision to desegregate schools - or the role of psychologists in decriminalizing homosexuality and removing it from the DSM. Should psychologists be playing a greater role in addressing climate change?

Potential activities: Judging ethics of research proposals, Animal research Socratic seminar, Prozac on trial 


One of the fundamental understandings of hypothesis testing is that we never "prove" anything, we can only disprove something. This happens by measuring the effect of the IV on the DV, therefore disproving the null hypothesis.  It can also happen by a repeated failure to replicate a researcher's findings.  Finally, it can also happen by discovering an alternative explanation that may have more evidence with regard to a behaviour, showing that the original explanation was inadequate.  This often happens as technology improves.

Truth is very much linked to objectivity. But is also integrally linked with constructs that we study.  For example, there is no absolute measure for normality, mental health, or intelligence. So, we are studying behaviour in a rather subjective framework that challenges the idea that there are "truths" in psychology.

Instead, psychology adopts a phenomenological approach to truth.  One of the things that students of psychology struggle with is that they assume that participants simply do not tell the truth in research. However, one's perception of their own behaviour should be seen as having value.

A final example is when we discuss generalizability/transferability - is what is "true" about behaviour in this case, also true in another?  Can we generalize the findings of a study of learning in your school to another school?  If not, what does that mean about the "truth" or value of the knowledge gained by studying your school?

Potential activities: Generalizability in qualitative research, Defining abnormal behaviour, Discussing validity 


The concept of values is very much linked to culture and perspectives.  The approaches that we study have certain values and assumptions that influence both what they choose to study and how they choose to investigate psychological questions.

For example, the great debate between Freud and Skinner - can we study what we cannot see?  Positivism (based on empirical research) and introspection (as well as phenomenological approaches to psychology) have different values and assumptions that influence their approach to research, but also how people that hold those values interpret or accept their findings.

In addition, values have changed or evolved over the past century.  This change in values has had an effect both on human behaviour and how we study it. For example, there has been a move from "mental illness" to "mental health" - and both the way we define disorders and how we treat them has changed.  There is now a more holistic approach to both diagnosis and treatment as a result of research on Adverse Childhood Experiences and the role of culture.  There has also been a change in how we perceive people with mental illness, with a lowering of stigma and a focus on empowerment.

Social norms are also a focus of the course.  We look at how globalization is playing a role in the changing of values - especially with regard to individualism and collectivism - and how changes in values may have an effect on one's subjective well-being.

Potential activities: I oppose: tourismThinking about homelessness, PSA about mental health stigma 

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