TOK - Introduction

Introduction to TOK for Biology teachers

TOK introduces students to the strengths and weaknesses of the different ways that we know things. It's a training in critical thinking, an introduction to philosophy and one of the reasons why the IB diploma is such great preparation for university study. Students are asked to consider the areas of knowledge which they are learning and the different ways that they know things from each of these TOK areas of knowledge.

Since 2013, for assessment from 2015 onwards, students learn about five of the eight ways of knowing and areas of knowledge shown in the diagram below.

The final assessment of TOK is a presentation and an essay.

  • The presentation has to be built around a real life situation with a contemporary knowledge issue. Students have to link a couple of ways of knowing and areas of knowledge to this issue and explain different viewpoints, how people arrive at these viewpoints and what their own personal view is.

    This video is just one way to do a TOK presentation - many students choose real life situations which link closely to natural sciences, and biology.
    For example: IVF treatment, Cloning, Genetically modified food, Availability of medical treatments,

  • The essay is chosen by each student from a choice of titles published several months before the deadline. Each title gives the students a starting point and a knowledge issue. The students have to make links and comparisons between areas of knowledge, including their learning experience from the IB subjects, and ways of knowing. In the best essays students outline a knowledge claim relevant to essay title and explore a counter claim leading to a conclusion about the knowledge issue, and its implications.

    A TOK essay may begin with a question like this,

    “Tell a man there are 300 billion stars in the universe and he’ll believe you. Tell him a bench has wet paint on it and he’ll have to touch it to be sure.” from Murphy's law. What does this quote tell us about the way we know different types of knowledge?

This is a great illustration of two different ways in which we know things, sense perception (touching the paint) and faith (that the astrophysicist is justified in his assertion about the number of stars.)

A student might identify the knowledge issue to be, "what is it which makes us most certain that knowledge is true?

The essay might continue with a claim that a highly trained scientist using the scientific method, a large set of supporting data and the controlling mechanisms of peer review is more believable than a man in the park using his own sense perception (he saw the painter working 30 minutes ago) and reason (that it takes paint two hours to dry so it will still be wet.)

The student will need supporting evidence for this claim, and this is where the biology teacher can help. Evidence and examples of the nature of science (e.g. use of data, peer review), of types of reasoning (deduction and induction) in analysis and evaluation of conclusions could all be important individual pieces of TOK directly related to biology and that the student has experienced during biology lessons.

How can a biology teacher help students succeed in TOK?

To write a good TOK essay and to make a good presentation students need a broad collection of individual pieces of philosophical (TOK) understanding.

The role of a biology teacher is to point out examples of these things when they arise in lessons.

What the student must do is to collect these pieces of TOK (these subject specific examples of strengths and weaknesses of the ways of knowing), keep a record of them.

A student who does this will be well prepared when the moment comes to debate an issue in a TOK lesson, make a presentation, or write an essay. They will choose some of the relevant pieces, reflect on them and produce an original claim of their own justified by their understanding of knowledge issues in the subjects they have learned during the IB course. This is rather like the small pieces of plastic become a beautiful image when they appear reflected in the mirrors of the kaleidoscope.

Some TOK knowledge issues which relate to Biology

What does it mean for a discipline to be a science?

In what ways have natural sciences like biology changed over the last 200 years?

What similarities are there between ways of knowing in natural sciences and human sciences like geography?

Should there be ethical constraints on the pursuit of scientific knowledge?

Can the natural sciences discover laws of nature using reason alone?

In which ways does the scientific method reduce the bias and selections caused by human desires or preferences?

What differences are there between scientific knowledge and non-scientific knowledge?

In what ways has science contributed to your personal view of the world?

Is there just one scientific method?

To what extent is biological research influenced by the society in which it is carried out?

How does the language used in natural sciences differ from language used in other areas of knowledge?

Further details can be found in the IB TOK guide for 2015 assessment which has a section about Natural Sciences.

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