Theory of Knowledge, Supporting your students


​Hello QACI community, 

I am very excited to share with you the wonderful things our students will learn in Theory of Knowledge this year. Theory of Knowledge, or 'TOK' in IB-speak, is one subject that makes the IB experience so special. As a critical thinking course, it teaches students to analyse how knowledge is acquired and produced in different subjects, or as we call them, areas of knowledge. The aim is to show students that what we accept as knowledge depends on a range of factors: the scope or aim of the area of knowledge, the different perspectives explored, the role of ethics, and the methods and tools used. Ultimately, we want to expose students to ambiguity, uncertainty, and questions with multiple plausible answers in order to equip them to make sense of the world.  

While this might sound like a lot to think about (and indeed, we do a lot of thinking in TOK!), the central aim of TOK is to reflect on the question "how do we know that?". For example, we might look at how knowledge production in the natural sciences is driven by the need to find solutions to problems and to understand the natural world; whereas knowledge in the arts is much more focused on expression and creativity. Both areas of knowledge have their own methods and tools for creating knowledge, like using the scientific method in the natural sciences, or using the elements of film to create beautiful movies; both areas of knowledge are shaped by different perspectives, like those of scientists Marie Curie and Albert Einstein or artists Frida Kahlo and Andy Warhol; and both cover specific ideas, like quantum physics or absurdist theatre. We wouldn't ask an artist to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, nor would we expect a scientist to make sure their experiment was visually pleasing and appealing to the audience's emotions (although it may well be!). The point is, we understand that different areas of knowledge handle different things, with each area of knowledge having their own traditions, values, and ways of making knowledge. TOK is about moving beyond the subject-level analysis (I follow the scientific method for my Biology experiment and I learn to play twelve-bar blues in Music) and instead explores the implications for knowledge (why does science require a consistent method, and how can we know what counts as art?).

The TOK journey officially begins for Year 10 in Term 4, where they will study "Who am I as a knower?". Students will explore their own perspectives and reflect critically on their beliefs and assumptions. In Year 11, students have started their journey into the areas of knowledge, starting with Mathematics. So far, we have explored the Monty Hall problem to think about how mathematicians use intuition, and we've learned about 'big data' and how algorithms can be used as 'weapons of math destruction'. Our Year 12 students are learning how to write the TOK essay, which is one of the summative TOK assessment tasks. We are learning how to respond to essay questions such as "Too much of our knowledge revolves around ourselves, as if we are the most important thing in the universe." Why might this be problematic?" This task requires students to define key terms, like 'problematic', and explore what that looks like in different areas of knowledge.

TOK might seem like a challenging subject, but it really just asks students to take what they already know about what counts as knowledge within their school subjects and think about why that counts as knowledge. If you would like to know how you can support your students, one of the best things you can do is keep your eyes peeled for TOK in the real world. Perhaps you've read an article about scientists looking for alien lifeforms– this could lead to a great discussion about the methods and tools used by scientists. Or maybe you saw a news story questioning whether a 'psychological vaccine' can protect against fake news – what a fascinating and topical way to explore the aims of psychology as a human science. The more we talk about TOK, the more students will see that it is all around us!

Thank you

Alice Elwell

Head of Department Individuals and Societies
TOK Coordinator


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Last reviewed 10 February 2021
Last updated 10 February 2021