General thoughts on TOK

General thoughts on TOK


The philosophy behind theory of knowledge

The philosophy of theory of knowledge, if that isn’t a tautological statement, is very much the philosophy of the IB Diploma programme, founded in 1969. This is to provide a wide-ranging educational programme that fosters a love of learning, autonomy, tolerance, internationalism, critical thinking, and various other desirable and hopefully-not-utopian ideals.
Theory of knowledge is particularly involved in the last of these, as it gets students thinking about where and how they have acquired the knowledge they possess, the extent to which they can rely on it. As the IB guide to theory of knowledge states, students have “accumulated a vast amount of knowledge, beliefs and opinions from academic disciplines and their lives outside the classroom. In TOK they have the opportunity to step back from this relentless acquisition of new knowledge, in order to consider knowledge issues.” It is this stepping back from what they think they already know that makes TOK so worthwhile, allowing the students to see the woods without the trees getting in the way, so to speak.

Structuring the course

There are two basic ways of structuring the TOK course, and which one you choose will probably depend on whether or not there is a discrete TOK department in your school or not. The first way is to teach the course through the different ways of knowing and areas of knowledge, moving from one to the next, with explicit links made by considering questions that compare and contrast ways of knowing and areas of knowledge. The advantages of this approach are twofold:

  1. It provides a clear framework for the students to understand the subject, a factor that is very important when one considers that they probably haven’t done anything like theory of knowledge before.

  1. Structuring TOK in this way makes it easy to keep track of what is being covered by teachers, and allows them to deliver the elements of the course in a thorough and systematic way.

However, delivering TOK this way, rather than, say, through case-studies and real life examples, represents a rather artificial and contrived way of approaching knowledge. There are many overlaps between the different elements of TOK, and indeed the areas of knowledge – for example in the scientific method, and the pursuit of history – are often just as much ways of knowing as they are areas of knowledge. This makes it hard to divide up the course in such a neat fashion.
The alternative way is to follow an issue-based approach, and, by examining real life examples, the ideas of prominent thinkers, and contemporary events, introduce the different ways of knowing and areas of knowledge in a more realistic manner.
The advantages and disadvantages of this method are the reverse of those stated above. In other words, it is a more realistic way of dealing with our knowledge of the world and it does not force teachers to split issues that may relate to different areas of knowledge and ways of knowing. However, it may make it more difficult to investigate thoroughly all the different elements of the course in the limited time available, and the students may find it difficult to grasp some of the more difficult concepts associated with these elements by approaching them indirectly rather than head-on.
Teachers may seek to fuse the two approaches, by organizing the course so students go through the different AOKs and WOKs systematically, but within each section they focus on one or two main real life examples. To put this in context, when teachers arrive at the human sciences, they could deliver the ideas via an engaging real life example, such as the effect on society and individuals of our increasing reliance on social media to interact with other people.
This could lead to an investigation of the nature of the human sciences (What has this got to do with the human sciences?); the way in which human scientists acquire knowledge (should we follow an objective, naturalist approach to this phenomenon, or should we be more objective, and interpretivist? Can we use the scientific method in the human sciences?); the problems associated with the human sciences (why does studying human beings make the subject matter more complicated than that of the natural sciences? How can we discern correlation from causation?); and the ideas of prominent thinkers to what we see in this example (see the contrasting approaches of Susan Greenfield, and John McWhorter)

Introducing theory of knowledge

In no other Diploma subject other than TOK is it truer that first impressions are the most important. For most students, when they begin their first year of the Diploma programme they’ll have never done anything like it, and if you get it wrong in the first few weeks, you may end up playing catch-up for the rest of the course.
Here are some tips that have worked for some experienced TOK teachers – if you have any more, please share them with us.

  1. Admit that TOK can be a confusing experience. Although you’ll be keen to enlighten them quickly as the nature of TOK, the structure you’ll be using to deliver its different elements, and the content they’ll be looking at, it’s no use pretending that it’s an easy course to get their heads around. They’ll be confused at times. They’ll be frustrated. They’ll be annoyed. But that’s part of the nature of it – and it’s worth it in the end.

  1. Draw on Socrates. In order to put their minds at rest about the confusion they’re going to experience from time to time, and to allay their fears that, unlike in other subjects, they haven’t got a curriculum document to hand which lists every different idea and element they’ll need to know for the exam, I base my very first TOK session around the ideas of the Western World’s daddy of thinking. We read through Plato’s dialogues when Socrates is accused of deliberately confusing everyone by Meno:

‘you are exactly like the flat sting ray that one meets in the sea. Whenever anyone comes into contact with it, it numbs him… If you behaved like this as a foreigner in another country, you would most likely be arrested as a wizard.’
Socrates replies:
‘If the sting ray paralyzes others only through being paralyzed itself, then the comparison is just, but not otherwise. It is not that, knowing the answer myself, I perplex other people. The truth is rather that I infect them also with the perplexity I feel myself.’
The point is, if one of the most brilliant thinkers in the history of the world not only experienced confusion, but believed that it was a positive emotion, then there’s really no shame in them getting bewildered from time to time.

  1. Stress the non-exam nature of TOK, and the point of that. One of the glories of the TOK course – really the thing that makes it what it is – is the fact that there is no exam at the end of it. This is good news for everyone. The reason, though, needs to be considered: this means that students and teachers are permitted the luxury of exploring themes and ideas that engage them particularly as much as they want. It means that if a contemporary event occurs that is of particular interest and significance to us as explorers of knowledge, then this can be built into sessions. There is freedom to play with almost any idea that enlightens us about knowledge.


  1. Make them stakeholders in the course. The most valuable resource in TOK is the students. To a large extent, it’s up to them to make sessions vibrant and interesting, and if they have experienced something profound, then they have to bring it in to the classroom for discussion and debate. Establish this from the very beginning, asking them all to explain to the class what they have been reading, watching, listening to, and following in the news.


  1. Stress the central role of TOK in the IBDP. It’s not worth 7 points. It doesn’t have an exam at the end of it. It isn’t really a subject in its own right. But it is one of the ‘flagship’ elements of the IBDP. Universities love it. Alongside CAS and the EE, it’s what makes the IBDP unique. They have to pass it in order to earn their diploma. Beyond all that, it’s the most central element of the programme, and the thing that should bind together all their other subjects.


  1. Learn from Robin Williams. The greatest film to watch for all TOK teachers, especially ones who want to make an impression in their first class, has to be the Dead Poets’ Society. Williams’ character, John Keating, really understood the importance of first impressions, and had the class eating out of his hand after uttering the immortal words: “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” This is a different course, a course that allows them more intellectual freedom that anything they’ve done up until this point. They need to appreciate this from the off!



There’s only one rule for the provenance of TOK resources, and that is that they should be as diverse and varied as possible. Everything is a potential resource, from the obvious, such as books, documentaries, and articles (not to mention internet sites), to the more esoteric, such as the speech made by the head-teacher in assembly this morning, the building in which you are sitting, the choice of transport used by you and your students on your way to school, the billboard commercials that you passed during the journey, and the most popular breakfast cereal eaten by the class. The more creative and inventive you and your students are, the richer will be the resulting course that is constructed.
As already mentioned, it’s also not just about the resources that you draw as the teacher. Your students should be very much a part of the process of generating ideas about knowledge, and the way we acquire it. What newspapers do they read, and why? What is their favourite art form? Which languages do they speak, and do the differences between them mean they see the world in a different way? How about differences in ages between them? Their gender? Again, even in-built characteristics determined by genes can be drawn on in order to elicit a discussion.

Cite this page as: Dunn, Michael. General thoughts on TOK (30th May 2013). Last accessed: 22nd January 2017


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