Theory of Knowledge (TOK)

As we study a wide range of texts, we are likely to consider many critical questions that relate to the nature of knowledge, certainty, belief and truth. Such questions are relevant to the Theory of Knowledge (TOK), which is a core requirement for any IB student. In fact TOK is all about asking questions, of which the most important may be: "How do I know what I claim to know?"  TOK does this by encouraging students to consider knowledge claims and knowledge questions, where knowledge claims are expressed as assertions whilst knowledge questions, as the term suggests, are framed with greater openness. In addition, TOK explores the nature of knowledge, establishing a distinction between shared knowledge and personal knowledge.

While TOK is almost always offered as a separate subject, every IB teacher has a responsibility to incorporate the ideas of TOK into the curriculum. In the context of English A: Language and Literature, there are many starting points. Language, after all, is a medium. To some considerable extent, it is through language we acquire knowledge. Literature, constructed through language, is generally regarded as a form art, which opens it up to questions of value, tradition, and culture. 

How do we structure TOK and integrate it into the Language end Literature classroom? First of all, it is recommended that you read the TOK guide (available on My IB); this provides much useful insight, ideas, and suggestions. In addition, on the menu to the left on this page, there are a range of suggested lessons and activities. Over time, these will be added to as the website expands and develops.

Ways of knowing

There are, quite probably, many ways of knowing (WOKs). The TOK course identifies eight WOKS: language, sense perception, emotion, reason, imagination, faith, intuition and memory. Students study a range of ways of knowing, and it is suggested in the TOK guide that students study four of these in greater depth, whilst simultaneously recognizing that WOKs rarely exist in isolation. Below, we consider four ways of knowing, providing some suggestion on how these may be embedded into a Language and Literature programme:

Reason - One way to find truth and certainty is through logic. As we analyze persuasive texts, we can ask ourselves how writers and speakers appeal to our sense of logic (logos). This is often done through deductive and inductive reasoning, in other words we usually state several premises before we come to a conclusion. As you look for examples of reasoning in persuasive speeches or texts, you may notice argumentation fallacies or invalid strings of logic. Advertisements may come to hasty generalizations. Applying reason to textual analysis increases critical literacy skills. This has been the approach taken in the lesson on ads and syllogisms

Perception - Seeing is believing, right? How might visual texts persuade us more? What is the role of eye-witnesses in journalism? As we read news articles, deconstruct ads and view TV shows, ask yourself how truth is established by appealing to the senses. What is the effect of imagery in poems and speeches?

Emotion - As you analyze various texts you will have discussions on the writer's use of tone and its effect on the audience's mood. How does your sense of intuition guide you on establishing the meaning of a text? How are the writer's emotions reflected in his/her language.

Language - How do words help lead us to the truth? Some words can be very ambiguous or vague. Emotive or sensational language can skew an audience's view on a story or event. As we explore journalism, advertising and literature, ask yourself how language influences people's perception of reality. In one lesson on ambiguity, we learn to identify vague language by studying several examples of spam. 

Areas of knowledge

Areas of knowledge are different branches of knowledge. Each of these is somewhat different, and often it is the methods of gaining knowledge that establishes this difference. The TOK course identifies eight areas of knowledge (see below), and it is suggested that students consider at least six of these.

Human sciences - Psychologists and social scientists must also use language. Surveys, referendums and interviews all measure, analyze and assess human behavior using a rather inaccurate instrument: language. Or is language an asset to this process of studying individuals and societies?

Religious knowledge systems - 'Language and belief' happens to be a Part 1 topic. The language of religious doctrine uses a range of stylistic devices. How do religious documents persuade, affirm, heal, give hope or incite anger?

Arts - Over half of our syllabus is devoted to studying the language arts. As we explore literary texts, we must ask ourselves what makes them 'literary' in the first place. Who determines what is poetic, what belongs in the canon or how literature enriches our lives?

Mathematics - Mathematics, it is argued, is the language of physics. Literature and the arts, it is argued, are the language of emotion. How does a system of numbers differ from a system of letters in describing the reality in which we live?

Natural sciences - How is the language of science different from every day communication? In other words, how do scientists use language to describe the natural world? How did Darwin, Newton and Turing use English to convey their messages to the world?

History - How has language skewed or assisted our understanding of history? How have the media used language to shape our understanding of past events? Is it possible to discuss the past without being biased?

Ethics - How do we use language to determine what is right or wrong? How do politicians persuade us to believe in their view of social issues? How are people manipulated through language? Can we use language to 'get away with murder,' literally and figuratively speaking?

Indigenous knowledge systems - Across communities and time, arguments can be made for the existence of cultural universals. But it also clear that communities differ in how they think and divide up the social world. What is the role of language in this? Why is translation between languages sometimes difficult? What is the relationship between language and cognition?

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