What is Theory of Knowledge in the IB and how does it work?


History, Philosophy, RE & Theory of Knowledge

July 6th, 2017

Last updated: November 30th, 2021

What is Theory of Knowledge in the IB and how does it work?

In this blog, Calum sets out the principle ideas and terminology of the Theory of Knowledge course, a mandatory part of the International Baccalaureate Diploma. He de-mystifies some of the language used in the ToK and explains the way that ToK works, giving a clear guide to students seeking to understand the basics of the course.

What is Theory of Knowledge?

Theory of Knowledge (TOK) is one of three core elements in the International Baccalaureate (IB). What distinguishes the TOK from other subject lessons is that it is not a study of a specific body of knowledge. Instead, TOK gives students the opportunity to reflect on the acquisition and production of knowledge, question the claims that we make about knowledge and inquire into the nature of knowledge itself.  

How do the Theory of Knowledge tools work?

Theory of Knowledge involves “critical thinking and inquiring into the process of knowing”. The process of knowing is the way in which students and ‘knowers’ in general acquire, produce and gain knowledge. TOK is designed to allow students to analyse and evaluate the process of acquiring knowledge in the different domains, disciplines or branches of knowledge, known as the areas of knowledge (AOK) (see below). Each AOK is distinct in the knowledge that it claims to produce and the methods it uses to arrive at that knowledge. This means that when examining AOKs, students will analyse a range of methodologies, called ways of knowing (WOK) (see below). TOK students investigate how these ways of knowing function in the process of acquiring knowledge within the different areas of knowledge.

Areas of Knowledge (AOK)

  • mathematics
  • natural sciences
  • perception
  • human sciences
  • the arts
  • history
  • ethics
  • religious knowledge systems
  • indigenous knowledge systems

Ways of Knowing (WOK)

  • language
  • sense
  • emotion
  • reason
  • imagination
  • faith
  • intuition
  • memory

Ultimately, the aim of TOK is to allow students to engage thoughtfully and critically in the Diploma Programme by analysing the key characteristics of the six courses that they study. Students are to reflect on how the knowledge in different disciplines is arrived at, whether disciplines differ in their methods and what they have in common. Within the language of TOK, this means that students are encouraged to compare and contrast different areas of knowledge and the ways of knowing that they utilise to gain knowledge. They should be critical and evaluative of the success of the ways of knowing in acquiring knowledge and also the value of the different claims that the areas of knowledge make.  

Seeking Knowledge about Knowledge

The investigations of TOK students are based on examining knowledge claims by way of knowledge questions. It is therefore important for any IB student to have a firm grasp of what these terms mean.  

Knowledge Claims

All knowers make claims about what they think they know: “I know that the world is round” or “I know how to perform long multiplication”. This is known as a knowledge claim. The TOK student is to examine “how we know what we claim to know”. TOK students should be aware of two different types of knowledge claim. Firstly, the claims that knowers make within different areas of knowledge and, secondly, claims that are made about knowledge itself. It is important that these two types of knowledge claims are identified and examined rigorously in both essay and presentation assessments. The two types of knowledge claims in TOK are:

  1. Claims that are made about the way the world is or how it works. These are first-order knowledge claims. They are knowledge claims that are made within particular areas of knowledge. E.g. “There are an infinite number of prime numbers” or “The mitochondria functions in the process of respiration at the cellular level”
  2. Certain claims are made about the nature or status of knowledge itself. These are second-order knowledge claims. These are claims that students examine using the tools of TOK. E.g. “Mathematical knowledge is certain” or “Natural Sciences employ the soundest methodology for acquiring knowledge”

Analysis and evaluation in TOK assessments does not deal primarily in first-order claims. These claims fall within the remit of particular subject lessons. Mathematics lessons explore whether there are in fact infinite primes and biology lessons explore the function of the mitochondria. TOK, on the other hand, explores the certainty of mathematical knowledge itself or the validity of the scientific method. TOK students assess the validity of knowledge claims. To delve into second-order claims about knowledge, students ask probing questions known in TOK as knowledge questions.  

Knowledge Questions

Knowledge questions are good quality inquiry questions. They are open ended and general questions about knowledge itself. These questions are at the heart of the TOK inquiry process as they frame student’s inquiries in the TOK essay and presentation. This cannot be stressed enough, as in the IB syllabus it states “an essay or presentation that does not identify and treat a knowledge question has missed the point”. The first knowledge question a TOK student may hear is: “how do we know what we know?” This is a good example of a knowledge question as it is … a) about knowledge. It is not specifically about a particular thing you know. Rather, it is asking us how we arrive at knowledge itself. It will lead us to discuss and analyse different Areas of Knowledge and the Ways of Knowing that are employed to produce knowledge in general. b) open. It does not have a single, easily identifiable correct answer. There are instead multiple answers that must be arrived at by way of an argument. c) general. It is non-specific. It does not relate to one specific example or item of knowledge. but requires investigation and the forming of judgements. Knowledge questions that a TOK essay or presentation will ask will be related in some way to an area of knowledge. Some examples would be:

  • Is all history biased?
  • How certain is scientific knowledge?
  • How true are economic models?
  • Is mathematics a language?
  • To what extent does religion shape morality?

A good way to test whether the question you identified is a bona fide knowledge question, check if it meets the criteria above. Is it open? Is it general? and is it about knowledge? Students will have to identify a knowledge question to form the basis of their argument in their assessments. It is important that a student has their knowledge question firmly in mind before they write. A strong knowledge question is the key to a strong TOK essay. For a useful good guide to what makes a strong knowledge question, look here.

More about Calum

Calum qualified as a teacher in Religious Education in 2016, and now works as a tutor with Owl Tutors.

Calum is passionate about Philosophy and leads a Religious Studies department in a school in South London. He is well versed in the epistemological schools of thought and an expert in Theory of Knowledge.

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Theory of Knowledge

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3 responses to “What is Theory of Knowledge in the IB and how does it work?”

  1. Avatar for Pedro Cruig Pedro Cruig says:

    Essays over the maximum word count of 1,600 are penalised with a one mark reduction, and any content beyond the 16h word of the essay is not read by the examiner.

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