Theory of Knowledge, colloquially referred to as TOK, is a compulsory course for all students earning the IB diploma. In the course, the aim is to help IB students become effective critical thinkers, with a greater goal being to develop IB learners: ‘internationally minded people who, recognizing their common humanity and shared guardianship of the planet, help to create a better and more peaceful world.’ The Theory of Knowledge course, along with the Extended Essay, are intended to unify the other academic subject of each student.
The course is centered around the study of ‘Ways of Knowing’, ‘Areas of Knowledge’ and ‘Knowledge Issues’, and encourages students to question what they already know in an abstract manner, by asking questions such as ‘What counts as knowledge?’ or ‘What is the value of knowledge?’
The classroom environment is usually very discussion-based, and the course thus has a secondary function of helping students develop their oral expression skills.
The length of the course varies slightly between schools, but it must comprise of a minimum of 100 teaching hours. Classes are composed of various activities which depend upon the instructor. Examples include:
- Guided discussions
- Class presentations
The final TOK grade is outputted to an A-E grade. The A-E grade is determined by a:
- 10 point “Essay on a prescribed title” worth 67% of the final TOK grade (graded externally)
- 10 point oral presentation worth 33% of the final TOK grade (graded internally by the subject teacher)
The outputted A-E grade is used in conjunction with the Extended Essay A-E grade and can contribute up to 3 points the diploma. Because these are the only two grades taken into consideration for TOK by the IB, it is recommended that students practice essays and presentations.
The Theory of Knowledge components and diagram
The TOK diagram  is an organization system of the Areas of Knowledge, Ways of Knowing, and the Knower. It is not a set-in-stone form, but rather a suggestion that may be debated upon in a Theory of Knowledge manner. The three components are integral to the TOK course and should be analyzed in great depth in order to make sure each student understands what they can describe. By knowing what each component can describe, a student may and should make well thought out conclusions concerning the components. They are broken up as follows.
Areas of Knowledge
Areas of Knowledge (sometimes AOKs) are disciplines in which knowledge may be based. Certain knowledge may overlap certain AOKs or not fit well with any of them, however most knowledge and specific disciplines taken into consideration during the course do fit.
- Natural Sciences
- Human Sciences
- The Arts
- Religious Knowledge Systems
- Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Ways of Knowing
Ways of Knowing (sometimes WOKs) are traits which knowers can possess through which the knowers obtain and manipulate knowledge.
- Sense perception
The knower is not broken up. It represents whatever “knows.” Meanings associated with the knower and “knowing” should be discussed.
The guided discussions generally relate to the various Areas of Knowledge and Ways of Knowing, and can be specific or inclusive of all Areas and/or Ways. It is helpful for most candidates to actively engage in and participate in discussions, challenging the basis of knowledge. In many cases there is no real “right answer.” As such, students probably will debate during the class discussions. Instructors should guide these debates, however should not interfere too far as to not allow students to arrive at their own conclusions. Discussions on the AOKs and WOKs may manifest themselves in many, many ways. For example, a class spent 5 one-hour classes (the entire week) debating if machines can truly know as humans do. They were split into groups with one side affirmative and the other negative. Our group took the stance that they could not, which we initially believed would be easy to defend. We defined machines as a tool programmed by humans, and as such, were merely a more complex form of a hammer or chisel. The negative side however began talking of A.I., and used the example of the lifesaving ability of a water machine, which saved a child’s life. They claimed that the machine knew the child was in danger, and reacted. Thus, the argument went on, and on, and on. Other discussions may center around heated topics such as current events or global warming. Care should be taken to keep the discussion TOK related by guiding the students to use analysis from a TOK perspective.
The IBO intends the program to develop critical thinking, and as a result creates questions that are thought provoking. One such question would involve explaining the consequences if the very foundations of knowledge were wrong, as all current knowledge is purportedly based on past knowledge. Often, such discussions span more than one classroom session, as shown above.
It is necessary to provide a definition of any term before it can be properly discussed. This ensures that every person taking part in the discussion is aware of the context in which the term is being used, in order to avoid confusion. For example, if you are making a discussion of language, it is important to know if a person is making an argument about language based on traditional, spoken languages, or if they are talking about all languages in general, including body language and computer programming languages. An argument that may be valid for one definition may not be valid for another.
Definition of terms is especially important in the externally marked TOK essay. As with any externally marked paper, clarity is of utmost importance.
The Oral Presentation
Each Theory Of Knowledge student must prepare an internally moderated (marked) oral presentation lasting up to 10 minutes (per person in a group). There are no limits on what you wish to talk about, and thus, the choice is merely interest. A student may choose to talk about fashion, media, the Internet, philosophies, physics, etc. The use of visual aids is completely optional (your instructor may or may not allow them). Some students may choose to sit and talk for 10 minutes, and others may choose to use a poster or Power Point presentation to guide them, although these will not be marked. The focus should thus be on the oral component.
Whatever topic you choose, be sure to relate it in some way to Areas of Knowledge and Ways of Knowing.
Regular reference to both the Ways of Knowing and the Areas of Knowledge are a must for every aspect of TOK. These “dominions”, for lack of a better word, often make or break arguments, with conclusions such as “machines cannot know through emotion” but can “know through perception” being formulated. This allows for some sort of middle ground to be reached.
Essay on a prescribed title
The “Essay on a prescribed title” topics are made available in the September before the May exam session. Students may choose from one of six titles. Carefully examine all of them, and look for which you find most interesting in the context of Areas of Knowledge, Knowledge Issues, and Ways of Knowing.
Remember to include:
- Note that it is important to define what you plan on talking about. In the machine question (shown above), define what a machine is and consider what defines knowing.
- Ample usage, discussion and exploration of
- Ways of Knowing pertaining to your topic
- Knowledge Issues pertaining to your topic
- Areas of Knowledge pertaining to your topic
When writing the final essay, it is imperative that you very clearly define your argument and the context and definitions of all terms. This will prevent ambiguities that risk confusing your argument. To continue with the example “Can Machines Know”, it is important to define “machines”. For example, a machine could be defined as anything from “any piece of technology, future, past, or present that operates by mechanical, non organic means,” to “a device capable of performing a series of tasks to do work.” The scope of your definitions solidify the meaning of your argument, as different arguments can be made based on different interpretations of words.
The following may be copyright material from the IBO prescribed title list, and thus are intended solely for individual study purposes.
- What is the difference between “I am certain” and “it is certain”?
- Is passionate conviction ever sufficient for justifying knowledge?
- Can a machine know?
- What is the difference between knowing a friend and knowing how to swim?
- Discuss the roles of language and reason in history.
- The traditional TOK diagram indicates four Ways of Knowing. Propose the inclusion of a fifth Way of Knowing selected from intuition, memory or imagination, and examine the knowledge issues it may rise on two Areas of Knowing.
Deciding to Take the Course
If you are an IB Diploma candidate, the course is compulsory.
Otherwise, if you are curious about the ramifications of the basis that all knowledge is incorrect, and if you enjoy asking questions such as “How do we know what we know?”, “What does knowing truly mean?” and enjoy both challenging the very fibers of societal knowledge and pondering the state of the universe, then TOK will provide a forum to ponder these questions.
- Sample presentations and notes on TOK available at Intense Cogitation
- Samples of TOK essay templates