What are the aims of TOK?
Theory of knowledge is the ‘flagship course’ of the Diploma not only because it is unique, but also because it draws together all the knowledge that is learned in other courses, and questions the validity of what we think we know. Amongst other things, it seeks to do the following:
To help students to discover the richness of knowledge, and to realize how empowering knowledge can be.
To examine how knowledge is built up, examined, and evaluated by individuals and societies.
To reflect on how we learn – both inside and outside school – and to make links between the academic disciplines and our thoughts, feelings and actions.
To reinforce the idea that there are many different ways of thinking and perspectives, and assumptions we have because of our cultural and individual positions may obscure the way we see the world.
To suggest some of the responsibilities that may come with knowledge.
But how does TOK propose to do all these high-minded things? That can be figured out from the structure of the course, and its part in the IB diploma programme. TOK doesn’t have a clear curriculum like other subjects. The reason for that is simple: there is no checklist of things you have to know for the end of course exam, because there is no end of course exam. Instead, you’ll write a wide-ranging essay, and design a presentation, that both draw on ideas that you’ve built up during the two years of the course.
Thinking about the nature of knowledge
That’s not to say that you’re expected to sit in a darkened room and think your own thoughts for two years. There is a great deal of content to TOK, just not an obligatory list of topics you have to learn.
The starting point is to think about what we mean by the term ‘knowledge’. It’s worth pointing out that studying ‘theory of knowledge’ is not a new idea: almost all philosophy courses at universities devote some time to it, although they use the slightly less manageable term ‘epistemology’. And almost all philosophers of worth (and a great many thinkers in other fields) have devoted some of their time to thinking about it.
How we gain knowledge: ways of knowing (WOKs)
Then we’ll move on to think about the ways we gather knowledge, and process it. In TOK, we divide these ways into eight: sense perception (sight, hearing, etc.), emotion, language, reason, imagination, faith, intuition, and memory. We will examine each one individually, and try to work out how they are all interlinked. In some ways, they are linked in a positive way, working complimentarily; in others, their relationship is more negative, and one way of knowing may hinder another.
What the knowledge is: areas of knowledge (AOKs)
Then we’ll go on to the knowledge itself. We also divide this into eight areas: mathematics, natural sciences (biology, chemistry, physics), human sciences (sociology, anthropology, and most other things with an ‘ology’ in them), history, ethics, the arts, religious knowledge systems, and indigenous knowledge systems. Like the WOKs, we’ll look at them on their own, and then figure out how they overlap with each other.
We’ll also investigate how the AOKs relate to the WOKs, and whether any of them fit naturally together. To give and example of this, we might think about how emotion is used by artists to convey their messages. We might consider how the way we use language affects our understanding of history. We might pose the question ‘Is reason the only area of knowledge used in science?’ Do we need anything other than faith when it comes to religion? And so on…