Source: Steven Lodefink

Source: Steven Lodefink

A toy octopus was the easiest of the three mystery objects to identify by touch alone during the first TOK class. Removing the plastic octopus from the pillow case, with comic timing, and asking the students, “What does an octopus know?” will guarantee some lively class discussion. Everyone has prejudgements and something to say about the octopus. 

The octopus is a fascinating, iconic object even for small children. It is both familiar and strange. It is easy to anthropomorphize a creature with highly evolved, owl-like eyes and enigmatic habits that combine moodiness and timidity with a relentless curiosity. Like spiders and snakes, the octopus has an alien body plan and carries with it a default “yuck” factor for many people. Squidgy molluscan flesh, jet-propulsion, chameleon-like color changes, clouds of sepia ink, an unyielding calcareous beak and a radiating octet of probing tentacles, armed with suckers are the raw stuff of myth and legend. 

Source: Hopcrodts/UAF/NDAA/CoML

Source: Hopcrodts/UAF/NDAA/CoML

Generally TOK students will not have encountered the following details of the octopus life cycle; but if there is a well-read natural historian in the room who spontaneously offers some of this, or more―so much the better:

Octopuses seem to be the most intelligent of the invertebrates. Years of maze and problem-solving experiments have revealed that octopuses are playful, have long-term memory and can learn from experience. There is little social learning for octopuses in the wild because they are solitary. Their accumulative learning is limited because they rarely live longer than three years. There is no learning associated with parental care. Larval octopuses are orphaned, micro-plankton, initially the size of a grain of rice.

Now the TOK can start. In the light of what students have learned thus far about the octopus, they should explore in small discussion groups, the following knowledge issues/generative questions: 

1. What are the biological factors that limit what the octopus can know?

2. What are the commonalities and differences between how what and how young octopi and young humans learn?

3. Termites have nests, beavers make dams. Artifacts and technologies that are adjunct to the physical body of an organism but are ubiquitous and necessary for its way of life are known as the extended phenotype. 

  • Do octopi exhibit an extended phenotype? 
  • What does the human extended phenotype consist of? 
  • What are the implications of an extended phenotype for knowledge acquisition?

As small discussion moves to whole class discussion, the third question could unleash a monumental discussion, especially if advances in digital technology, arise. Be ready for students in the room who curious about an artificial intelligence "singularity."

As a baby step towards meta-thinking about Knowledge Questions students could be asked which of the above guiding questions are closed rather than open?