This workshop begins and ends with quiet reflection; but there is a loud and anarchic element in the middle. The messy, hands-on aspect and extended time requirement make the workshop appropriate for an offsite TOK Retreat or similar.


The workshop requires a large, indoor open space with a clean, fairly smooth floor. Students can be seated at large tables for certain of the activities, but this is not essential. Required materials include: a loud boom box, a selection of contrasting music, a box of pastels or other messy drawing tools, a packet of white, letter-sized paper, sharp pencils, rulers and a timer. A set of “abstract emotion” cards, a basket of “outrageous gesture” cards, a set of “anatomical illustrations” and a set of “student response tables” should all be prepared in advance. Printable Pdfs. can be found at these live links. 


Students sit facing each other in a circle for the welcoming remarks. White paper and the box of messy drawing tools have been previously placed in the middle. Start by calling randomly on several students to explain the difference between the terms “subjective” and “objective.” At the beginning of the TOK course, I find that the majority of students at the beginning TOK seem unable to answer this basic but fundamental question with confidence, especially when they are put on the spot.

After hearing a few student responses any discussion should be allowed to play itself out. Do not attempt to explore every avenue of the workshop theme before the activities begin. 

Students are informed that by the end of the workshop they will gain a firmer understanding of subjectivity and objectivity and how they play into personal vs. shared knowledge and the various Areas of Knowledge. They might not all be able to define the terms expertly at this juncture, but they can all draw. They are told that they will explore subjectivity and objectivity through the conventions of gestural figure drawing and anatomical illustration. 

Students are told to pick up about 30 sheets of paper and some colored pastels; and be ready to draw!

Student pastel:  Jealousy

Student pastel: Jealousy


In an open space, cards have been previously placed face down in a very large circle on the floor, containing one of the following title words: Zen; Explode; Rage; Rhythm; Stupidity; Ennui; Scandal; Irritation; Jealousy; Escondido; Pristine and Contentment.

Whilst some intense music is playing, students find a spot behind a random card and sit facing center. They must not touch the card yet. They are told they will draw an abstract piece based on the title word. The only rule is that no recognizable images or words are permitted. When everyone is ready: cards are turned over and students draw for a timed three minutes. After, they change places with the person diametrically opposite and, this time, draw for another three minutes using the opposite person's prompt card.

Drawings and cards are left in place. Students move to the next activity



Students are told (harshly but wryly) to leave their creative imaginations at the door and to prepare themselves for making a scientific illustration based on objective observation. The conventions for this kind of drawing minimize individual expression. Here are the Rules:

  • Sharp pencil outline only, aim for correct proportions

  • Enclose any areas carefully

  • No shading allowed, or tentative sketchy lines

  • Print the title and scale

  • Print the label descriptors and ensure that label lines are ruled, parallel, straight lines that must actually touch the object described

This activity can be performed seated at a large table. The facilitator demonstrates how to illustrate a lateral view of the human thumb at approximately x4 magnification. With some dignified music playing, students are given 12 minutes to complete their drawings.



Students bring their objective scientific illustrations back to where they last sat in the big circle. Next, everybody walks around the outside of the big circle about three times, all the while examining the earlier abstract drawings of the entire group. As the procession proceeds, students are encouraged to place a drawing that they find particularly interesting, and are willing to talk about, in the center of the big circle. 

Students critique and praise their selected drawings and are steered by the teacher towards more detailed discussion about subjectivity and objectivity. Students see for themselves the stark contrast between the anatomical illustrations, which look like anonymous, analytical clones, and the unique emotive, imaginative and interpretative aspects of the abstract pieces. 


Two or three student volunteers are required to be the models. Dancers and martial arts experts are often willing. After yet another change of music, the models strike a comfortable static pose in the center of the big circle facing out. The student artists are told that they must attempt as realistic a likeness as possible. They will draw for a full ten minutes. Don't forget the music. Next, every one walks around the circle as before. Again, successful drawings are placed in the middle. 

Are there any photographic likenesses? If not: why not? What factors got in the way of obtaining realistic finished products? Talent? Artistic training? Time constraint? Something else? Was this a somewhat annoying and frustrating experience? What else is going on?

Students are told that in art schools around the world students warm up with short poses and gesture drawing. Since a photographic likeness is impossible with strict time constraints; there is an giddy freedom to do something else! What is that something else? Students are told that they are about to attempt this...

The second model takes a series of three one minute poses, a series of three 30 second poses and series of three 10 second poses. Again, do not forget to change the music!



Students work in pairs. One is appointed the model; the other will be the artist. While some loud, energetic music is playing, the models perform exaggerated gestures described on cards placed faced down in a basket. After each gesture the model returns to the basket to get a new card. Half way through the session the students switch roles. Allow a timed 8 minutes for the whole activity. The descriptors on the cards are as follows:

  • You are wriggling and squirmy because you need to urinate very badly

  • Eat a juicy mammoth spare rib without table manners

  • Stomp small, helpless creatures with sadistic glee

  • You are a bull elephant seal on dry land

  • Remove the three-foot octopus stuck to your naked body

  • Commit suicide with a banana

  • Ride a mechanical bull

  • You are a gesticulating New York cab driver

  • Your are a frog trying to escape from a deep well

  • Lay on your back, pedal an upside down bicycle


The students are told to bring their two most successful drawings; they place them on the floor in the front of them as they take their place in the circle. Everyone walks around the circle as before. The "best of the best" drawings are placed in the middle. 

Are these drawings more successful than those produced earlier? What is being captured in a gesture drawing? What, if anything, do these drawings have in common with the anatomical illustrations and the abstract emotion drawings that started the session? Are the gesture drawings subjective or objective or both? 


Students in different pairs for this penultimate activity, but they should be encouraged to share their ideas with others. The idea here to chill out and reflect after all the raucous activity; and to change the mood before final whole group discussion. Students examine the collection of images and respond in writing according to the criteria in the results table provided.

Now this art table.jpg
Lucian Freud (1995)   Benefits Supervisor Sleeping.  Oil on canvas.

Lucian Freud (1995) Benefits Supervisor Sleeping. Oil on canvas.


Depending on time availability, the following Knowledge Questions questions can be tackled as group discussion, journal reflection or some combination of the two. 

  • What is the relationship between Subjectivity, Personal Knowledge and Sense Perception?

  • Taking each of your six IB subjects in turn, what is the balance between subjectivity and objectivity in the methodology of the discipline?

If this workshop is taking place at the start of the TOK course, this would be a good moment to pause and offer general meta-remarks on the conventions of TOK Knowledge Questions.