Theory of knowledge is unlike other Diploma courses, and probably unlike anything you’ve done before in school. If you’re coming to it for the first time, you’ll be wondering what it deals with, why you have to do it, and whether it’s a good thing or not there’s no TOK exam.
Confusion is good
If you’re a little confused, then you’re off to a good start, because you’re going to confused a lot during the TOK course. TOK is all about wondering, and often your wondering won’t result in you figuring out a clear answer, and you’ll discover that the wondering is often the end product.
In terms of what it deals with, it’s essentially a critical thinking course, which focuses on eight areas of knowledge that are connected (but not limited) to your IB Diploma subjects. It deals with the nature of knowledge – epistemology – so it has a ‘philosophical’ angle, and draws on the ideas of many famous thinkers from the present and the past history. It’s probably best understood by looking at its aims, the fundamental one of which is simple: to help you think in a clearer and more structured way.
How does TOK try to achieve its aims?
By looking at both the subjects we study (the areas of knowledge) and how we perceive them (the ways of knowing), and then trying to work out the connections between them and ourselves as knowers. Already that sounds complicated. It means in practice that we try to apply what we are learning to the world of ideas, pondering such questions as: Can art be fundamentally good or bad? How complete is the picture of the world that science provides us with? How much do ethical decisions depend on society and individual? Does our view of history change over time? … and so on.
It’s a mandatory course because the IB considers the skills and topics that you’ll be learning during the course very important. TOK, alongside the extended essay and CAS, is one of the three things that sets the diploma apart from other programmes of its type, such as A-Levels, and, makes the Diploma, dare we say it, a superior and more demanding course.
Assessment in TOK
Finally, assessment. You’ll be assessed in two ways in your second year of the course. First you’ll write an essay, which will be externally marked. You get to choose from a list of 6 titles, and given time in class and at home to complete it. Then you’ll give an oral presentation in class that will be marked by your teacher. Together with your extended essay, their combined grade will contribute to the 3 ‘extra’ points to your overall Diploma mark out of 45. Note that you have to pass TOK in order to pass your Diploma. Even if you have done amazingly well in your other subjects, you will not be awarded your Diploma is your grade in TOK insufficient.
In conclusion, TOK is about knowledge questions, about debate, about forming opinions, and about trying to improve the way we structure our thoughts and ideas. It is about being critical but not cynical, interested but also objective, well-informed but not opinionated. It is about encouraging the process that Maria Mitchell talked about when she said:
We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire; the more we see, the more we are capable of seeing.
But you’ll only truly understand TOK when you begin the course, research the issues, form your own opinions and try to defend them, and listen in class to your teacher and (above all) fellow students.