What is TOK?

Introduction

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 & society) 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

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

This statement is crucial to understanding how to incorporate TOK into your Chemistry teaching. So what exactly is TOK?  My colleague Richard van de Lagemaat, a former TOK teacher and author who is the Director of InThinking, has written an excellent overview of how he sees TOK. With his permission what follows on the rest of this page was essentially written by Richard although I have made some minor changes and additions and updated it to cover the new TOK programme which was first examined in May 2018.

How do you know?

Theory of Knowledge (TOK) is a compulsory 100 hour course in the IB diploma programme. There is a separate TOK subject guide which you can obtain from the TOK section in the Programme Resources part of My IB.

The main question in TOK is “How do you know?” The aim of the course is to help students to think critically about the nature of knowledge and about how the various areas of knowledge are related to one another. TOK builds on the critical thinking skills that students should naturally be acquiring across the range of subjects that they study. Among the elements that make up critical thinking are: asking good questions; using language with care and precision; supporting opinions with evidence; arguing coherently; and looking at problems from a variety of perspectives. The hope is that a TOK student will come to think of knowledge as being more of an open-ended enterprise than a closed body of dogma.

The TOK course can be thought of as consisting of three main parts. At the centre lies the knower, or community of knowers. The first task in TOK is to see that there is a problem of knowledge, that we cannot simply take our knowledge claims for granted. This requires that students make the “reflexive turn” and question their own beliefs and assumptions. Further questions then arise about the nature of knowledge, the difference between knowledge and belief, and - most importantly - the difference between reasonable beliefs and unreasonable ones. Although it is not our job to tell students what to believe, I think it is our job to tell them how to believe. So we might say that TOK is adverbial and that one of its main goals is to help students develop their own criteria for making sense of the world.

Knowledge tools

If we can establish that there is a problem of knowledge, then we are naturally led to ask where our various beliefs about the world come from. According to the TOK diagram for use up to 2017, the current four main "Ways of Knowing" were: Language, Perception, Reason, and Emotion. Now (first assessed in May 2018) this list has been increased to eight but students are only expected to study four of them in depth. These eight ways of knowing are: Language, Sense perception, Emotion, Reason, Imagination, Faith, Intuition and Memory. If someone asks you how you know, then as a first approximation it seems reasonable to say that you know either because someone told you (language), or because you saw it (perception), or because you worked it out (reason), or because you feel it (emotion). (This does not necessarily exclude the other possibilities, such as memory or revelation.) I prefer to speak of "Knowledge Tools" rather than "Ways of Knowing" and early on in the course I emphasise that each of them is double-edged and can be both a source of knowledge and an obstacle to it.

Areas of knowledge

The third part of TOK looks at the justification of knowledge claims in each of the areas of knowledge. For example, to say that you know in mathematics, you should be able to prove your claim, but in a subject like history something less is required - for there can be no QED proofs about the past. We also look at the role played by any four out of Language, Sense perception, Emotion, Reason, Imagination, Faith, Intuition and Memory in the construction of knowledge. Thus with reference to the natural sciences, we might ask how expectations influence observation, whether there is a logic of scientific discovery, why lab reports have traditionally been written in the third person - “a test-tube was taken” rather than “I took a test-tube” - and what scope there is for intuition in scientific thinking. Here there is likely to be considerable overlap between our discussions in TOK and those that take place within various subjects, such as the Nature of Science. The TOK guide has two pages specifically on how the knowledge framework applies to the Natural Sciences together with some problems of knowledge.

Making connections

As well as looking at the methodologies underlying various subjects, we are also interested in comparing and contrasting knowledge claims between different areas of knowledge. Thus, taking the natural sciences as our point of reference again, we might ask: Why is it that, as Galileo observed, “the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics”? Can we study human beings in the same way that we study other natural phenomena? How important is it for a scientist to know something about the history of his/her subject? What truth, if any, is there in the traditional stereotypes of the rational but unimaginative scientist and the creative but irrational artist? How should a scientist’s work be informed by moral considerations?

We should be able to ask similar linking questions in every other area of knowledge: What role does beauty play in mathematics? Can historical events be described in neutral language? How important is it to be consistent in our moral judgments? etc. The point of such questions is to help students develop a more coherent and integrated picture of the world. We are so used to the division of the school curriculum in to different subjects that we tend to take it for granted; but while it may make sense to take the world apart and examine the pieces one by one, we also need to think about how the pieces fit together. The point of education is, after all, to help us to cope with reality, and reality does not arrive neatly packaged into different subjects. Since many of the world’s problems will only be solved by experts coming together and sharing their insights, we need to find the right balance between being disciplinary and being interdisciplinary. Part of my ideal of a well-educated student is someone who has not only the detailed knowledge of the specialist but also the contextual understanding of the generalist.

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