University College London Presents A Theory of Knowledge Lesson to Grade 11 Students

More than 70 BDSIS IB students and teachers attended a celebration of critical thinking, via a digital platform on Friday, April 30th. The intriguing title of the lesson was:

Topic: Can robots and elephants create art?

Our Head of School, Dr Geoffrey Fisher, welcomed Professor Ambrosio and her colleague Professor Joe Cain to this collaboration with the TOK Department and students. The Leadership Team was represented during the course of the lesson by Dr. Colleen Boyett, Principal of the Secondary School, Ms. Shagun Sobti, Mr. Navroz Billimoria, Dr. Rupesh Solgaonkar, and Mr. Andrew Callaghan, Coordinator of Theory of Knowledge.
The hour long lesson began with a series of open questions from Dr. Chiara Ambrosio which set the tone for the next hour. Her introduction challenged us to reflect on the big questions:

What is art?

Can art only be created by human beings?

If we are shown works of art in slides are we sure we can identify what is ‘made by humans’?

Professor Ambrosio reminded us that these questions are linked: An example of the perennial question: what makes us human? But also an example of the bigger questions about technology and biology we ask, when we try to endow machines and animals with agency (aesthetic agency, in this case).
From the beginning our Grade 11 students entered the fray with confidence and intelligence. The UCL academics expressed their delight at the quality of the responses from our students. It was then time for a break out session with students randomly assigned teams to discuss a series of graphic images and debate which ones had been made by either an elephant, a human being or a machine.
When they emerged there was a spirited and sometimes humorous discussion. Prof. Chiaro challenged the students to justify their choices regarding which graphics had been designed by which ‘creators’.
Such was the energy of Professor Ambrosio that when the end came we just wanted the lesson to go on for some more time. Students had their hands up to join the discussion and we felt we had made a real connection with Dr Ambrosio and Dr Cain during the discussion.
A favourite moment was the juxtaposition of Portrait of Pope Innocent X, an oil on canvas portrait by the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez, executed during a trip to Italy around 1650.
Response from the twentieth century? Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X is a 1953 painting by the artist Francis Bacon. How much of this sensibility is from Bacon’s personal life and how much of the hidden pain here released is a reaction to the horror of two world wars in his lifetime?
The art of Francis Bacon (1909–1992) epitomizes the angst at the heart of the modern human condition.
Conclusion: The feedback has been universally positive. We are keen to continue collaboration as a major theme of our TOK programme both within BD and reaching out to other institutions of learning both secondary and tertiary.
Our deepest thanks to our own University Counsellors Ms. Meenakshi and Ms. Manju who began this initiative with University College London. We encourage our students who wish to study in the UK to research UCL and seriously consider the courses on offer there.

Note on the Presenter: Dr Chiara Ambrosio

She is an Associate Professor in History and Philosophy of Science at University College London. Her research interests include the relations between art and science in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, American Pragmatism and the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce, scientific discovery, and general issues in philosophy of science, with a particular focus on scientific representations.
This post has been authored by our TOK Coordinator, Mr. Andrew Callaghan.
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