Knowledge questions are central to the 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 handle them. Students get confused about knowledge questions because they think they are more than what they actually are. 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.
How do we identify knowledge questions?
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. Currently, there is a lot of speculation on the character of the new US President, Donald Trump. You can find a lot of stories in the press – written by psychologists, or experts on psychology – speculating on his psychological state. Many of these suggest that he is unsuitable for the job.
But we’re starting to see a backlash against this, by other experts, who argue that you cannot carry our psychology ‘from a distance’, and need to personally deal with a subject in order to properly assess their psychological state. Indeed, it is forbidden from registered psychiatrists to do so – the so-called ‘Goldwater Rule’ (named after exactly the same situation began to occur with another presidential candidate).
Using the areas of knowledge and ways of knowing, what KQs can we identify? Clearly, this is an issue closely related to psychology, which is part of the human sciences. Knowledge questions should be phrased as open questions so we might have:
How much evidence do we need to reach convincing conclusions in the human sciences?
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: as you can see in the Vox article, there is a great deal of debate surrounding this issue.
It’s usually possible to identify more than one KQ, though, and this real life situation prompts us to ask many other questions, linked to the human sciences, and other WOKs and AOKs. We could explore:
Second and first order knowledge questions
It should be quickly apparent that in TOK, we are not interested in whether Donald Trump is fit for office or not. His psychological state is not what we are interested in – that is the preserve of Psychology (or, perhaps not, depending on your viewpoint about psychology ‘from a distance’!). This would be first order knowledge – knowledge directly about the world.
Instead, we are interested in second order knowledge, or how we gain our knowledge about the world. Understanding this difference is probably the key challenges of the TOK course; indeed, once you get that difference, you get TOK! But it takes practice, and it helps hugely to use examples. Below we present a few examples of what might constitute first order knowledge, and what might constitute second order knowledge. Remember – you need to avoid discussion of the former in your essay and presentation, and only focus on the latter.