TOK knowledge questions
TOK knowledge questions (formerly referred to as ‘knowledge issues’) are one of the focus points of the TOK course in general, and the essay and presentation in particular. It’s therefore vital to build up an understanding of what they are, and how to present them. Students get confused about knowledge questions because they think they are more than what they actually are.
The concept is actually fairly simple: a ‘knowledge question’ is exactly that – a ‘question (or issue) about knowledge’. The IB has always asked TOK students to consider this concept, but has never quite decided on how best to label it. At various times, ‘knowledge questions’ have been referred to as:
• Implications of knowledge
• Knowledge controversies
• Knowledge issues
Seeing knowledge questions as a combination of all these things is probably the best way to approach them. Virtually everything has a knowledge question attached to it. The great thing about TOK is that it provides students (and teachers) with a language and conceptual framework to identify and express a knowledge question. This language and framework are the ways of knowing and areas of knowledge.
If we put this into context it becomes a little clearer. By picking a contemporary news story from random, we can identify the knowledge question within it. At the time of writing this (October 2013) Facebook has just announced that it will stop preventing videos on their social media pages that feature violent acts. Previously, they had ‘censored’ videos that were considered too gruesome for users (particularly children) to view. Using the areas of knowledge and ways of knowing, what KQs can we identify? Clearly, this is an issue closely related to ethics. Knowledge questions should be phrased as open questions so we might have:
Is internet censorship ethically beneficial to society?
When we say an ‘open question’, we mean a question that doesn’t have an obvious and well-defined answer, and which can be approached from different perspectives and opinions. This question is certainly that: some people (perhaps those with children) might argue that censorship can be beneficial if it stops people from being psychologically harmed by images that are distressing to view. On the other hand, some people (perhaps those who have had their ideas suppressed by the authorities) might say that any form of censorship curtails our right to express ourselves in any way, and is therefore always wrong. It’s usually possible to identify more than one KQ, though. Another question related to this story might be:
Who should decide how freely people are allowed to express themselves?
This is still related to ethics, but it brings in the human sciences (politics, law, sociology), the arts (the arts are generally about the expression of ideas), and language (we use language to express ourselves). Many answers to this knowledge question are possible: should the government decide on freedom of expression? The people themselves? The judicial system? Other institutions and authorities – such as religious organizations? Clearly, there is a lot of thinking required in order to properly explore this knowledge question.