TOK Guide 2020

The TOK Guide which came into effect from September 2020 provides a somewhat simpler programme and approach than the previous one (2015). What I present here is a brief summary of the overall framework, and of the elements of the syllabus which directly affect the English B teacher.

The components

The Subject Guide does not set out a required programme or sequence - rather, it specifies fundamental components which need to be addressed, but which can be taught in whatever order or sequence that seems best. Here they are -

Core theme: Knowledge and the knower

This theme provides an opportunity for students to reflect on themselves as knowers and thinkers, and on the different communities of knowers to which we belong.

Optional themes

Students are required to study two optional themes from the following five options.

• Knowledge and technology

Knowledge and language

• Knowledge and politics

• Knowledge and religion

• Knowledge and indigenous societies

Areas of knowledge

Students are required to study the following five areas of knowledge.

• History

• The human sciences

• The natural sciences

• The arts

• Mathematics

Notice that I have printed in red the notions which are most accessible and relevant to the teaching of English B - if you cover these in your classes, you will have done the basics required in terms of inserting TOK ideas into your normal teaching.

Knowledge questions

The components set out above are to be taught through the use of 'knowledge questions' (see pages 11-13). These knowledge questions form a “knowledge framework” consisting of four common elements: scope, perspectives, methods and tools, and ethics - and this knowledge framework should be applied to all of the components selected from the list above. These repeated elements are intended to give coherence to the otherwise free-form structure of whatever course is composed. But what do they actually mean, in practice, for us as language teachers?...


Here is the Guide's explanation (p.12) :

This element focuses on exploring the nature and scope of the different themes and areas of knowledge. It explores how each theme/area of knowledge fits within the totality of human knowledge, and also considers the nature of the problems that each theme/area of knowledge faces and tries to address

In other words, what sort of concepts / fields of knowledge does the nature and use of language influence and affect?


Here is the Guide's explanation (p.13):

This element focuses on the importance and influence of perspectives and context. This includes reflection on the students’ own perspectives and what informs them, as well as how different people or groups view or approach knowledge in the different themes/areas of knowledge. It also includes reflection on historical perspectives and how knowledge changes over time

In other words, how does the use of language affect the way that we, as individuals but then also as societies, grasp and construct knowledge?

Methods and tools

Here is the Guide's explanation (p.13):

This element focuses on exploring the methods, tools and practices that we use to produce knowledge.This includes the building of conceptual frameworks, the establishing of traditions and practices, as well as the methodologies employed by formal disciplines. It also includes consideration of the cognitive and material tools that we have available to help us in the pursuit of knowledge, and of how these tools have changed as a result of technological developments

In other words, how does language function when it sets out to encapsulate knowledge, or describe how knowledge works? This is more of a theoretical and technical area, as so perhaps suitable for the language teacher in class.


Here is the Guide's explanation (p.13):

This element focuses on exploring ethics and the ethical considerations that have an impact on inquiry in the different themes and areas of knowledge. This includes aspects such as the relationship between facts and values, and how ethical and epistemic values are built into the quest for knowledge. It also includes questions relating to knowledge and inequality and injustice. It is crucial that TOK discussions about ethics focus on the knowledge questions that are woven into, and implied, in the ethical issues being discussed, rather than the focus being on debating the ethical issues themselves.

In other words, how does the language that we use to debate ethical issue affect the judgements we make, through the prejudices and assumptions embedded in the associations that much language contains.


Option 'Knowledge and language'

This section of the Guide (pages 18-20) is the most directly relevant to the the English B teacher, and so is the section that you should read most attentively.

Knowledge questions relevant to language are given under the headings of the four common elements: scope, perspectives, methods and tools, and ethics. It is important to note that the Guide states that these are simply examples: they do not all have to be covered, and may be re-phrased in whatever way seems useful to your students' understanding.

For ease of reference, here are the knowledge questions provided.


* Can all knowledge be expressed in words or symbols?

* Is it possible to think or know without language?

* Is being able to speak a language an example of “knowing how” to do something?

* What role does language play in allowing knowledge to be shared with future generations?

* Are there differences in how knowledge itself is conceived of, or presented, in different languages?

* Is it the case that if we cannot express something, we don’t know it?

* To what extent does language allow us to make our private experiences public?

* How does language allow humans to pool resources and share knowledge?


* Does the transmission of knowledge from one person or generation to another depend on language?

* What knowledge might be lost if the whole world shared one common language?

* If a language dies, does knowledge die with it?

* How do our values and assumptions influence the language in which we express our ideas?

* Is ambiguity a shortcoming of language that must be eliminated, or can it also be seen as making a positive contribution to knowledge and knowing?

* Do all people share some innate linguistic knowledge?

* If the categories that we use necessarily empower or marginalise, is it ever possible to produce knowledge that does not either reflect or challenge existing power structures?

Methods and tools

* How are metaphors used in the construction of knowledge?

* If language works according to sets of rules and conventions, how much scope do we have as individuals to break the rules or challenge these conventions?

* In what ways do values affect our representations of the world, for example, in language, maps or visual images?

* To what extent do the classification systems we use in the pursuit of knowledge affect the conclusions that we reach?

* In what ways can language be used to influence, persuade or manipulate people’s emotions?

* To what extent do the names and labels that we use help or hinder the acquisition of knowledge?


* Does ethical language differ in any significant way from other types of language?

* How can we know if language is intended to deceive or manipulate us?

* Do ethical statements simply convey our feelings/emotions rather than making claims?

* If ethical terms and concepts cannot be easily defined, does this mean that they are meaningless?

* Can we define words such as good and bad in terms of objective features of the world?

* Do professional interpreters and translators have any special ethical obligations?

As you will notice, many of these questions overlap with others under different headings. This is not surprising, since language, by its very nature, is applicable in a wide variety of circumstances.

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