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How do we know what we know? - TOK's essential question

"To question means to lay open, to place in the open. Only a person who has questions can have [real understanding]."

-- Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 1994, quoted in Wiggins and McTighe, Understanding by Design, 2nd edition, 2005, p. 105. 

It can be helpful to start with what TOK is not...

  • TOK is not a specific content area. It is not “Philosophy 101” (though we will now and then look at how certain philosophers have posed questions or explored key concepts). And while we will consider "theory" from time to time (this is theory of knowledge, after all), this course is very much about "the real world" (whatever that might mean!). 
  • TOK is not linear in the way of most other IB courses. Instead, TOK spirals: concepts and issues once introduced keep returning, from different perspectives, with increasing depth and in new contexts.
  • TOK is not about getting the answers right. It is much more about getting the questions right, and about understanding the assumptions that underlie the right answers we believe we have.
  • TOK is not about winning arguments or endlessly debating which point of view is superior; rather, it's about exploring multiple perspectives and critically weighing the processes we use to support knowledge claims -- especially one's own.  



TOK can often seem messy, open-ended, a work in progress with insufficient closure. That's okay. Some might describe the pursuit of knowledge itself to be like that.  


In part, this is because the more we know, the more we realize we don't know. Only the ignorant or arrogant think they have nothing left to learn. People since Socrates have asserted the paradox that the truly wise person is the one who realizes how little he or she actually knows. This doesn't mean that the goal of TOK is to persuade you that you don't know anything -- though it might feel that way, especially during the early stages of the class. By the end of the course, here are a few things I suspect you'll find yourself able to agree with:


  1. Things are not always what they seem to be: we must examine, analyze, and evaluate thoughtfully.
  2. Certainty is difficult to come by -- even in simple cases -- and whenever we're absolutely sure of things, we need to be especially careful.
  3. Part of human nature seems to be that we are searching for truth, but it is hard to say that we know we have found it.
  4. Many standards, judgments, opinions, and beliefs are defensible, but some are not. 
  5. I have considered carefully several different positions on a particular subject and know and can justify what I believe to be the case. 

Together, these statements (adapted from an official TOK training session I attended) form what we might call the stance of critical reflection.


This position contrasts with two other common stances. The first of these is that of certainty & prejudice, which embraces ideas such as "Things that are obvious must be true," "My own culture or tradition's way of seeing things is always better than any other," and "I know what I think is right and will pick-and-choose among evidence to fit my conclusion." The second stance is that of relativity & skepticism, which embraces ideas such as "Nothing is ever what it seems to be," "There is no such thing as truth, let alone absolute truth," and "Any and all points of view or opinions are equally valid (or invalid)." 


Some students love TOK; others don't. Some students come to view it as their favorite class, as the one they've been waiting for. Finally, they say, a class that considers the really big questions. Other students, however, find it maddening, frustrating -- or sometimes even a little threatening. This class will ask you to look carefully at the assumptions behind what you know and believe. That can be liberating, but it can also be quite challenging.


On the last day of the class I ask students to complete course evaluations. One of the questions I ask them is to give some advice to incoming TOK students. Two of the most common responses:

  • Keep an open mind. Be ready to be flexible in how you see things.
  • Do the reading. It really does help.

Now for some nuts-and-bolts about curiculum & assessment...


There are three components to the TOK curriculum:

  • Ways of Knowing: Sensory Perception, Reason, Emotion, and Language
  • Areas of Knowledge: Natural Sciences, Math, The Arts, History, Ethics, the Human Sciences
  • Knowledge Issues: These are questions which touch on concepts such as Evidence, Proof, Justification, Verification, Uncertainties, Limits, Perspective, Bias, Authority, Power, Responsibility, Culture, Worldviews, etc. To help us keep in mind that a knowledge issue is a question, we'll often use refer to them as Knowledge Issue Questions (or KIQ's, for short).

It's important to note that while the TOK Subject Guide lists four "official" ways of knowing and six "official" areas of knowledge, this shoudn't be understood as meaning there are no others. For instance, many people would list Intuition as a way of knowing, and some might argue that Spirituality and/or Religion should be included as areas of knowlegde.

The primary summative assessment for each unit is a formal Essay. These essay assignments, due at the end of each unit, will give you experience in the kind of writing required for TOK's IB External Assessment.

There are two major IB-required assessments:

  1. Internal Assessment. The Oral Presentation. 10-minute oral on a TOK-related topic of the student’s choice. This assessment occurs throughout the first semester.
  2. External Assessment. The Essay. 1200-1600 word essay on one of 10 “prescribed titles" (topics). This assessment concludes the course.

These two assessments comprise your overall mark in TOK. Like the Extended Essay, TOK is graded A-E (not 1-7). In combination with your performance on the EE, TOK can yield up to three bonus points towards the total needed for the Diploma. The TOK Subject Guide contains a points matrix that will illustrate how the points are combined.



IB Theory of Knowledge
Colorado Springs School District 11
William J. Palmer High School
301 North Nevada Avenue
Colorado Springs CO 80903 USA

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