Theory of Knowledge (TOK)

Introduction

Enlightenment (in a Tibetan thanka)

I think that Theory of Knowledge is unique among all subjects taught to 16-19 year olds in schools in that not a single teacher has a university or teaching qualification in Theory of Knowledge. Yes, you can study Philosophy at university but Philosophy is a separate Group 3 (Individuals & societies) IB Diploma subject and is not Theory of Knowledge.

I first started teaching the whole TOK course to students about thirty years ago. I was attracted to it by just one sentence in the then IB Theory of Knowledge guide (and which is still in the current guide).

“Theory of knowledge is not intended to teach students new facts but to enable them to put into perspective what they already know...”

In the early years of the IB (pre-2005) many schools often taught TOK as a separate seventh subject within the IB Diploma programme and, unless they were also TOK teachers, IB chemistry teachers were not really involved. Now all subject teachers are encouraged and expected to make links to TOK throughout their teaching, helping students to see the interconnectedness of their learning, i.e. "to enable them to put into perspective what they altready know".

Like all IB subjects, TOK is continually evolving. The latest Theory of Knowledge (TOK) Guide was  published in 2020 for first exams in 2022. You can download the new guide from My IB. What follows on the rest of this page is an overview of the TOK course which can be used as a 'cheat sheet' when planning your units. In Managebac, which many schools use for example, you can tick your area of focus and explain how this is a focus. Subsequent linked pages explore some specific connections between TOK and chemistry.

The Theory of Knowledge Course

The Theory of Knowledge Course provides students with an opportunity to explore and reflect on the nature of knowledge and the process of knowing. It embraces the exploration of tensions, limitations and challenges relating to knowledge and knowing while also encouraging students to appreciate and be inspired by the richness of human knowledge, considering the value of different kinds of knowledge. Reflecting on knowledge and knowing can be beneficial so that knowers are more aware of their own assumptions and can help to overcome prejudice and promote intercultural understanding.

There are three main strands to the course; the core theme, two optional themes and the Areas of Knowledge (AOK). The lenses used to study these are knowledge questions and the knowledge framework. There are also twelve concepts to help deepen understanding.

The Core Theme - Knowledge and the Knower

Students reflect on themselves as knowers and thinkers and the communities of knowers to which they belong. They reflect on what shapes their perspectives as a knower, where their values come from and how they make sense and navigate the world.

Optional Themes

Two themes are looked at in depth. These  play a key role in shaping people's perspectives and identities.

Knowledge & TechnologyKnowledge & LanguageKnowledge & PoliticsKnowledge & religionKnowledge & Indigenous Societies
Focuses on issues relating to the impact of technology on knowledge and knowers and how technology can help and hinder our pursuit of knowledge. It examines the ways that technology can be seen to shape knowledge creation, knowledge sharing and exchange and even the nature of knowledge itself.What role does language play in our lives and how does it influence thought and behaviour? How does language allow knowledge to be shared and what role does it play in the dissemination of knowledge, including to future generations? How do power and language interrelate?How knowledge is constructed, used and disseminated is infused with power and politics. It is also related to issues around power and oppression. New technology may give political actors new powers and be used in persuasion, manipulation, misinformation and propaganda?Religion can have a significant impact on how we view the world and people have very personal and deeply held convictions regarding religious matters. How does religion affect the way that knowledge is exchanged between individuals and groups. How does religion relate to the concept of evidence?Indigenous peoples have faced historic and ongoing injustices and are very diverse. How is knowledge deeply embedded in the culture and traditions of particular communities of knowers. How does power affect hierarchies of how knowledge is classified and validated?

Areas of Knowledge (AOK)

These are specific branches of knowledge, each with a distinct nature and sometimes different methods of gaining knowledge. In the TOK course, there are five compulsory areas of knowledge.

HistoryHuman SciencesNatural SciencesMathematicsArts
How can we talk meaningfully about a historical fact or with any certainty about anything in the past? How reliable is documentary evidence especially when sources may be incomplete or there are contradictions? Historians are influenced by their historical and social environment and as an interpretative discipline how do we allow for multiple perspectives and opinions?Psychology, social and cultural anthropology, economics, political science and geography share a common focus on the study of human existence and behaviour but there is a large diversity of approaches. How do the methodologies in the human sciences compare to those in the natural sciences and how do they seek to provide objective knowledge or do they do this?Seen to rely on evidence, rationality and the quest for deeper understanding, with a specific use of “theory”. How do scientific methodologies generate evidence that is seen as highly reliable? As scientific knowledge develops it can lead to revolutions and paradigm shifts. The scientific community acts with self-regulation but how reliable is this? How do we prioritise funding for scientific research?Seen to have a degree of certainty that is unmatched by other areas of knowledge. Founded on a set of more or less universally accepted definitions and basic assumptions. Does a mathematical treatment of a topic lend it rigour? Mathematic logic can require great leaps of imagination so is there a role for elegance and beauty in mathematical value? How does mathematic relate to the world around us? What is proof in mathematics?Includes visual arts, theatre, dance, music, film and literature but with great diversity between these disciplines. Interpretation is key. How is meaning ascribed to a work of art? Was it done with intension by the artist? How key is the role of the audience? Does art shed light on the human condition and act as a vehicle for social criticism and change? Are there ethical constraints? How does culture impact the production of art?

Lens: Knowledge Questions and the Knowledge Framework

These are provided to help explore the three areas of the TOK course and are organised into a framework of four elements. Knowledge Questions are about knowledge, contestable and draw on TOK concepts.

ScopePerspectivesMethods and ToolsEthics
How does this AOK or Theme fit within the totality of human knowledge and how does it try to address problems?How does your perspective and that of other groups of people inform an approach to this AOK or Theme and how does it change over time?What methods, tools and practices are used to produce knowledge? How have these tools changed as a results of technological development?How do facts and values and ethical and epistemic values relate in the quest for knowledge? How does knowledge relate to  inequality and justice?

Assessment

There are two assessment tasks in the TOK course.

The TOK ExhibitionThe TOK Essay
This assesses the ability of the student to show how TOK manifests in the world around us. It is an internal assessment component, externally moderated by the IB and counts for 33% of the final TOK gradeThis is a more formal and sustained piece of writing in response to a title focused on the areas of knowledge. It is externally assessed by IB Examiners and counts for 67% of the final TOK grade. It is an essay of 1600 words and must be on one of the six prescribed titles issued by the IB for each examination session (released in September of Grade 12).

Twelve concepts

Exploring the relationship between knowledge and these concepts can help students to deepen their understanding, as well as facilitating the transfer of learning to new and different contexts.

Evidence

Certainty

Truth

Interpretation

Power

Justification

Explanation

Objectivity

Perspective

Culture

Values

Responsibility

 All information is adapted from the Diploma Programme Theory of Knowledge Guide (2020). International Baccalaureate Organisation. Many thanks to Zoe Badcock, co-author of the ESS site, who laid much of this out.

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