The activities on this page were inspired by Stuart Firestein's book, Ignorance: How It Drives Science. Professor Feinstein is Chair of Biology at Columbia University. He works on the neuroscience of olfaction.

This unit of inquiry will almost certainly shift student mindsets for the TOK class moving forward. In particular, it sets the stage for Is there a Scientific Method? in the Areas of Knowledge section.



  • Is Theory of Ignorance (TOI) a better name for this course than Theory of Knowledge (TOK)?
  • If the course focused on Ignorance would you still want to get an A? 
  • How would teacher guest speakers respond if asked to come to talk about what they don't know in a class about ignorance?

Well before the conversation fizzle out, show Professor Firestein's full TED talk.

As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.
— Albert Einstein: quoted in Paper Prototyping: The Fast and Easy Way to Design and Refine User Interfaces (2003) by Carolyn Snyder.


Have students work in threes. They should produce written bullet point responses to the following questions. Printable pdf. Allow a strictly timed 10 minutes. While the trios are working on the task circulate freely and offer clarifications and generative hints. 

Play some non-intrusive, inspiring, ethereal music. If it goes well, this unit of inquiry builds gently towards a sense of awe for the knowledge quest.   

  • In his TED talk about Ignorance, we quickly recognize that Firestein does not mean "stupidity" or "indifference to fact or reason or data." In the context of being a real scientist what attitudes of mind about ignorance is Firestein actually championing?
  • Firestein mentions with plenty of irony that his fact-filled Neuroscience text book weighs more than two normal human brains. If the boundaries of knowledge and ignorance are so important, to what extent is it still important to learn facts?
  • Based on what you already know about the scientific method, to what extent is it accurate to say that science is all about "question propagation"? Can we say the same about History? How about other Areas of Knowledge?


This intriguing graphic is The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D. by Matt Might

This intriguing graphic is The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D. by Matt Might

Before opening up full class discussion provide student trios with a copy of The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D. Printable color Pdf. and ask the following questions.

  • Keeping in mind our work on mental Maps and Models; to what extent is the graphic an accurate and useful visualization of the progression through the various levels of academia and where they are positioned with regard to stretching the boundaries of knowledge?
  • Mark your own current position on your copy of this scheme. Also mark where you think you might you be in 10 years.
  • Briefly describe any other real life examples of the ignorance/knowledge boundary being pushed that is not contingent on pursuing a PhD.?   

At this point open full class discussion. You may, or may not, need to ask them: 

  • How familiar, and how comfortable are you, with the unknowns, frontiers and open questions in your various IB classes?  Provide real examples from your own experience.
  • What have you learned so far today?  Is this going to make you think differently?

Ensure that the students stay on task, keeping the original Common Agreements for Class Discussion in mind. Let the discourse run, staying open to what emerges. As the conversational to and fro unrolls, work in, and make explicit, the Schrodinger and Bernard Shaw quotes below. 

When the dust clears; or at the start of the next TOK class, reveal the Feynman video. 

“In an honest search for knowledge you quite often have to abide by ignorance for an indefinite period… The steadfastness in standing up to [this requirement], nay in appreciating it as a stimulus and a signpost to further quest, is a natural and indispensable disposition in the mind of a scientist.”
— Erwin Schrodinger, Nature and the Greeks
Look closely. This is a very dark graphic (not a defunct embedded video)...  "Science is like looking for a black cat in a dark room?" there a cat here?

Look closely. This is a very dark graphic (not a defunct embedded video)... 
"Science is like looking for a black cat in a dark room?" there a cat here?

George Bernard Shaw, in a toast at a dinner feting Albert Einstein, proclaimed, “Science is always wrong. It never solves a problem without creating 10 more.” Isn’t that glorious? Science (and I think this applies to all kinds of research and scholarship) produces ignorance, possibly at a faster rate than it produces knowledge. Science, then, is not like the onion in the often used analogy of stripping away layer after layer to get at some core, central, fundamental truth. Rather it’s like the magic well: no matter how many buckets of water you remove, there’s always another to be had. Or even better, it’s like the widening ripples on the surface of a pond, the ever larger circles on the circumference in touch with what’s outside the circe, the unknown. This growing forefront is where science occurs.
— Firestein, Stuart (2012: 37) Ignorance: How it Drives Science. Oxford University Press, New York



Closely related to Schrodinger's "abiding by ignorance," is the notion of "negative capability," encapsulated in an 1817 letter by John Keats referring to the way that Shakespeare looked at the world. This notion can be seen as a gateway to exploring the role of ignorance in the Arts

[A]t once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason
— John Keats, 1817