Theory of Knowledge (TOK)

Making Links to TOK in ESS

Theory of Knowledge is required to be linked to while teaching ESS. Luckily ESS lends itself to TOK rather easily. The idea is to help students question what is knowledge, why do people think the way they think and how is this applied across all subjects, thus making interdisciplinary links in life.

For the non-specialist TOK teacher you need to understand how Theory of Knowledge is constructed in an IB context. The TOK course divides knowledge up into Areas of Knowledge (AOKs). For the ESS teacher this can be challenging as we are an interdisciplinary subject and sometimes our "knowledge" doesn't fit neatly into these ideas.

The TOK course also talks about Ways of Knowing. Students are expected to study four of these in depth. The TOK course emphasises how WOKs have contributed to a common understanding in different areas of knowledge.

Students need to develop their ability to ask Knowledge Questions. A knowledge question is about knowledge, open and general. The IB guide has example knowledge questions for each sub-topic and these are helpful when planning your units. 

In the assessment for TOK, students are asked to produce a presentation of approximately 10 minutes that demonstrates an understanding of knowledge at work in the world and is a reflection on a real-life situation. This counts for 33% of the final mark.

In their final year, students are given a set of prescribed essay titles from which they should choose to write one essay of 1600 words. The essay should explore the conceptual nature of knowledge using real-life examples from the student's academic study or the wider world.

For more information about TOK please refer to the IB TOK guide or try a workshop that is designed for non-specialist TOK teachers and investigates the links between subjects and TOK.

Areas of Knowledge

  • Mathematics

  • Natural Sciences

  • Human Sciences

  • History

  • The Arts

  • Ethics

  • Religious Knowledge Systems

  • Indigenous Knowledge Systems

In ESS, we have knowledge that fits Natural Sciences, Human Sciences, Ethics and, depending upon how you teach, Religious Knowledge Systems and Indigenous Knowledge Systems. As you can see we are a very rich and fertile ground for TOK.

One way of helping you to think about TOK is to explore your own understanding of the Knowledge Framework for ESS. In workshops we have had teachers take half a day to develop this understanding. It could enrich your teaching and help you develop methodology skills with your students.

Ways of Knowing

 The TOK course identifies eight Ways of Knowing

  • language

  • sense perception

  • emotion

  • reason

  • imagination

  • faith

  • intuition

  • memory

These are used to ask the questions, "how do we know?" and "how do I know?"

 In ESS Reason will be a strong element of how we know something. It is closely linked to logic. Inductive reasoning is the process of supporting general statements by a series of particular ones. Deductive reasoning tends to proceed from a general perspective to a particular one.

Example of the Development of a Real World Issue to Knowledge Questions

Real World IssueAOKWOKImportant ConceptsKnowledge Questions
Global Warming

Natural Sciences












Scientific Method

To what extent are models in the natural sciences accurate?

How can one decide when one model / explanation . theory is better than another?

What role does language play in the shaping of scientific knowledge?

How do we arrive at ethical judgments in the natural sciences?

Given the problems associated with the inductive process (going from the particular to the general), how is it that science can be reliable?

How does one know in advance which factors (to measure, say) will be relevant to final explanations?

How can we know cause and effect relationships given that one can only ever observe correlation?

My thanks to my friend and TOK teacher, Clint McCowan for the development of these questions. 

Topics and Activities with TOK Links

1.1 Environmental Value Systems

Environmental value systems are an excellent way to start the course and get to know your students. I like to start by asking students to explore what they know already, who they are (in the context of...

1.1 Exploring ideas of Intrinsic Value

Some people believe that all / some elements of the natural environment have intrinsic value. They should be valued just because they exist. There are a number of countries which have given an equal right...

1.1 Tribal Societies

In order to develop a deeper understanding of how different societies interact with the environment and explore the ideas that tribal societies are somehow "in balance" with the environment, try this...

1.1 Cultural Attitudes

The development of environmental movements is often viewed from a very western perspective. We are going to investigate a couple of examples that will help broaden our understanding of how different societies...

2.5 Estimating Biomass and Energy Flow

It's quite a challenge for students to gain any experience of this aspect of the ESS guide's knowledge and understanding. Techniques which might be used to obtain data are not ethical and not at all in-line...

3.2 Mass Extinctions and the 6th Extinction

There have been five major mass extinction events during the Earth's geological history. Students need to understand the type of environmental changes which led to these extinction events and what were...

4.3 Aquatic Food Production Systems

This is quite a new topic for ESS. Although teachers had the option, in the previous syllabus, to teach an aquatic food production system, I have not found this a common option. Past case studies have...

7.2 2 Climate Change - Debate and Models

In this page we will try to explore some of the debate surrounding global warming. In order to do this I use the BBC documentary The Climate Wars presented by Professor Iain Stewart. In the second episode...

8.4 Ecological Footprints

This sub-topic overlaps largely with sub-topic 1.4 on Sustainability. I chose to teach most of the concepts within sub-topic 1.4 and then to revisit and reenforce these ideas through this section of learning.

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