Theory of Knowledge - what is it? - GSO

Theory of Knowledge – what is it?

What is TOK?

Theory of Knowledge – popularly recognised simply as TOK – is a subject that all IB candidates must take during the 2 two years of the Diploma Programme. In brief, the subject is about answering the question “How do we know what we know?” in multiple contexts. To illustrate it, I can mention that in the last unit of our course for the 11th graders of this year we tried to understand how scientific hypothesis (what we know) are proven (how we know it). So, as you can see, TOK does not have a content per se; instead, it focuses on how the knowledge of other disciplines are produced, used and changed. This is why TOK is considered to be a meta-subject; instead of learning to draw a sketch, for example, students can learn about why so many Renaissance artists chose the divine as a theme for their work.

In order to answer the question above mentioned students practice a range of skills throughout the course, of which three I consider particularly relevant:

  1. Awareness of multiple perspectives over a single issue;
  2. Critical reflection of the knowledge acquired in school;
  3. Effective ways to communicate their thinking.

The first skill mentioned is developed because the course demands students to justify not only their own personal opinions but also to explore opposing views and different perspectives; other opinions could be as good as our own if we give them a chance. An obvious consequence of this is that students become open-minded in dealing with issues, an attribute particularly fostered by the IB for its importance in a multicultural and peaceful society.

Two main concepts are discussed throughout the TOK course: Areas of Knowledge and Ways Of Knowing. I will talk a bit about the first of these concepts. Areas of Knowledge brings the idea that knowledge can be organised and classified into groups according to certain similarities. The IB suggests that there are eight big groups of knowledge of which six must be covered in detail. This year at GSO, for example, teachers and students decided to study History, Natural and Human Sciences. Next year we’ll study Mathematics, The Arts and Indigenous Knowledge Systems. Then, it is up to the cohort to discuss, evaluate and decide what the similarities and differences between these groups are. A couple of months ago we were discussing, in a conjoint class with Business Studies, if the apparent weak predictive power of the Human Sciences in comparison with the Natural Sciences makes the former group less scientific than the latter and, as a consequence, if their knowledge is less valuable.

The IB recommends a minimum of 100 hours for the teaching of the course in both DP years. This means that students will spend more hours in their Standard and High Level classes. But, due to its unique content and approach, the amount of hours usually do not constitute an obstacle in leaving a significant mark on each student.

Theory of Knowledge and Extended Essay (EE) – another core subject in the IB diploma – can together grant the candidate a total of 3 marks for their final grade. Comparably with the other six mandatory subjects that can grant 7 marks each, TOK may seem hard work with small pay off. However, the 3 marks can make a big difference: it can represent the marks needed in order to enter your first-choice university. But it’s important to remember that the whole IB experience is not only about grades. TOK has plenty of other benefits that go beyond the cold measurement of students’ performance.

Why TOK?

Why did the IB choose TOK to be part of its diploma? To answer this question I believe it’s important to understand the term “core”, after all, TOK is considered to be one of the core subjects together with EE and CAS(Creativity, Action and Service). In my opinion, the term “core” has plenty of meanings in the context of the diploma. The one that I’d like to explore is the role of connecting all different parts to a central point. In my view, the six groups are the different parts which TOK has the role of connecting together. Through this interdisciplinary approach TOK aims to reach two central points: the first is to show how knowledge – or, better, knowledges – independent of its divisions are all connected; and the second explores the fundamental reasons behind acquiring knowledge (“Why and how do we learn?” or, ultimately, “Why am I studying? Why am I here?”).

First, let’s explore the role of TOK as connecting all subjects in the six different groups. Since students are faced with the decision of choosing only six subjects, it’s obvious that some gaps are going to exist in the student’s formation. A student that decides to take two scientific subjects may have a lack of artistic formation and vice-versa. Also, considering that some subjects are required to be taken at Higher level while others are taken at Standard level creates, again, another gap. TOK was not intended to be a filler for these gaps. The content of TOK – if there’s any content per se – does not substitute the content of any other subject in the IB. However, TOK works well as a “glue”, connecting common points between subjects.

Using the example above mentioned, even if a student is not enrolled in an artistic subject, he/she will have the opportunity in a TOK class to reflect in what ways and to what extent a scientist act as an artist and makes use of his/her imagination when formulating hypothesis: can we affirm that the scientific activity also involves creativity? This shows how TOK may connect two seemingly independent subjects such as the sciences and the arts.

By noticing these hidden connections students will hopefully realise that even though subjects have their own specificities – such as particular scopes, concepts and methodologies – they are all knowledge and hold much more commonalities than one would expect.

The commonalities stem mainly from the fact that all knowledge is produced and “consumed” by humans and, therefore, some of our own characteristics will be communicated to it. One of the problems this revelation could help solving is the Two Cultures Problem (C. P. Snow) on which people believe there’s a fundamental difference between scientific and humanistic knowledge. Looking at knowledge through this dichotomy has some detrimental implications, such as considering one type of knowledge more valuable than other, and of classifying people’s minds or inclinations according to two opposite categories. By stimulating students to evaluate the subjectivity of the sciences (both Natural and Human) and the objectivity of History and The Arts, the TOK class hopes to attenuate this division. Each knowledge gets its right to legitimacy through a particular process and to judge a body of knowledge using the justification process of another one isn’t appropriate; every knowledge is legitimate in their own way.

A student that reflects on how knowledge is acquired both in a general and in a personal level tends to learn how to learn. In other words, since the student will be analysing a plethora of methods for acquiring knowledge, later these same methods can be used individually or combined for personal gain. Memorisation will be just one way of learning in the vast sea of methods the students can employ.

The reflection will also allow the student to adapt the object of study to its own strengths while not forgetting to develop their weaknesses. Meanwhile, the reflection on why knowledge is acquired opens the opportunity for the student to create a meaningful school experience. Knowing how powerful knowledge is, its applications, how it changes through history, how it affects society and how individuals can contribute to its development are all key opportunities that can justify the learning experience at school.

We all know how hard IB students work and the TOK class allow students to reflect on the many reasons why education is important or why they are working so hard besides the usual “my parents make me do it”.

Finding on your own the reasons for learning, building ownership, has a great effect on the academic future of students. This can make TOK – and usually do make, ask any IB student – a special moment in student’s learning journey.


Andre Philot

TOK and Philosophy teacher