WHAT IS THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE (TOK)?
As part of the IB Diploma Programme’s ‘core components’—alongside the Extended Essay (EE) and Creativity, Action, Service (CAS)—Theory of Knowledge (ToK) is a mandatory course in your two-year experience. For over 100 hours, you will be immersed in the foundations and concepts of knowledge. While epistemology does play a role in the course, ToK goes beyond this, asking you to explore their own biases and beliefs. After studying the works of philosophers and other great thinkers, you’ll learn how to apply their ideas both practically (using real-life situations) and in the abstract (in relation to the knowledge you are acquiring in your six IB subjects). The goal of ToK is to allow you to develop critical thinking skills around the topic of knowledge, how we acquire it, and how we use/apply it. “What do we really know, and how can we prove it?” is the central question of ToK. Unlike many other subjects, there are no right or wrong answers; instead, you are assessed on your ability to justify and analyze your own knowledge claims.
ASSESSMENT OF TOK
There are two parts of the ToK assessment: a 1,600-word Essay and an 950-word Exhibition. (The Exhibition is a new requirement for students graduating in 2022 and after, replacing the Oral Presentation from previous years.) Each is scored according to different criteria (your teacher can provide these) and then combined for an overall letter grade between A and E. The Essay, which is externally assessed, is worth two-thirds of the final grade; the Exhibition, which is internally assessed by your teacher and externally moderated, is worth one-third. Both are required to pass the course; if you do not submit either the Exhibition or the Essay, or if you receive a grade of E on either, you will not be awarded an IB diploma. The ToK letter grade is then combined with your letter grade on the Extended Essay (EE); the total is converted into a score between 0 and 3 using a bonus points matrix. This numerical score will be added to the aggregate numerical score you earned in the six courses (each out of 7).
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THE TOK EXHIBITION
Typically, the Exhibition is completed and submitted at the conclusion of your first year in the DP. The central question that you must answer in the Exhibition is, “Does the exhibition successfully show how ToK manifests in the world around us?” The Exhibition is made up of two parts: a presentation (which is not assessed) and a 950-word commentary (which is assessed). The presentation may either be in-person or online and is often open to the public, although the specifics are determined by your individual school.
Your ToK teacher will give you 35 IA prompts from which you choose one. Each prompt is given as a question, such as “Why do we seek knowledge?” or “What counts as good evidence for a claim?” This prompt should connect to either the core theme (knowledge and the knower) or one of the optional themes (knowledge and indigenous societies, language, politics, religion, and technology). Once you’ve made these decisions, you’ll choose three physical or digital objects, or images of those objects, to exhibit different ways of addressing the prompt and the theme. Examples of physical objects include a calculator used in math class, your own extended essay, a piece of art (such as a painting or novel), or a piece of jewelry your grandmother gave you. Examples of digital objects include a tweet by a political leader, an online news article, or a piece of graphic design. All three objects must pertain to the IA prompt you choose in unique and evocative ways.
Your public presentation and explanation of your three objects provides you a chance to receive feedback on your choices and approaches to interpreting them in relation to your chosen IA prompt. You can use this audience feedback in your 950-word written document, which must include the three digitally embedded images.
Your teacher will mark your written document on a scale of 0-10 (click here for the rubric). Achieving the highest possible mark on this assessment depends on the following:
- Clearly identifying the three objects and their contexts—and explaining in detail how they apply to the IA prompt.
- Comprehensively justifying the link between each object and the IA prompt.
- Using appropriate and compelling evidence to support the aforementioned link.
- Creating a title for the Exhibition that makes it explicitly clear which IA prompt you have chosen.
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Since the Exhibition is a new requirement for ToK at the time of this writing, there are only a few marked samples of this assessment provided by IB available to show what examiners are looking for. Your teacher can provide these, and more marked samples will likely be available in 2023. However, we can assume that there will be some common pitfalls that students will encounter in their work that you can avoid:
1. Misunderstanding the purpose of the Exhibition. The Exhibition, in some ways, is the opposite of the Essay (explained below). Rather than focusing on abstract or conceptual thinking, you should display how knowledge issues are present in the real world. Therefore, the Exhibition should focus on concrete, applicable examples rather than philosophical ones.
2. Failure to use strong, impactful objects. The three objects you choose are the most important piece of the Exhibition, so you should select them very carefully. A diverse array of objects is advantageous so long as you can clearly and succinctly explain how each one is tied to the prompt without tenuous argumentation or leaps in logic. Be sure to explain the context of each object, citing its source even if is your own.
3. Failure to clearly identify the IA prompt. Not only should your commentary make this explicitly obvious from the beginning (specifically by unpacking the language and concepts underpinning the prompt in your introduction), but your Exhibition’s title should also make it obvious which IA prompt you are addressing.
‘Convincing, lucid, and precise’ are the qualities that define a top-tier Exhibition.
The ToK Essay
At the start of the final year of your diploma programme (Y2), your ToK teacher will give you 6 prescribed essay titles to choose from; these titles concern generalized, theoretical ideas such as: “Can mathematics and science be completely neutral and objective in their pursuit of knowledge?” These titles will specify two areas of knowledge (such as humanities, arts, science, history, etc.) from which you must choose your examples. The 1600-word ToK Essay focuses on conceptual ways of interpreting knowledge represented the different examples you choose. You’ll learn how to formulate and respond to knowledge questions that address different ways of approaching your chosen title. Be sure to address one of the titles pertaining to your specific cohort rather than one from previous years; while you should certainly practice by using titles from previous years, the essay you submit to IB needs to be from the prescribed list your ToK teacher gives you at the beginning of your Year 2.
As with the Extended Essay, ToK has what’s called a ‘Planning and Progress Form’ (TK/PPF) that provides a space for you to comment briefly on the stages of individual guidance your ToK teacher provides. Your teacher will also provide some written feedback to the examiner after the conclusion of the writing process.
The ToK Essay is marked holistically using a set of descriptors that your teacher will explain to you (click here for the rubric) . But here are a few ways to prepare for success on this assessment:
1. Ensure that you ‘unpack’ the Essay title in your introduction and explain its relevance to the specific areas of knowledge that it identifies. The key here is to differentiate how the elements underpinning the title function in each area of knowledge specified in the title.
2. Make sure that the claims and counterclaims you use to address your chosen title are based on specific examples representing the two areas of knowledge prescribed. If you clearly demonstrate that you have considered alternative perspectives by evaluating your evidence from alternative points of view, your essay will be strong. For example, if you are writing about the effects of language on science and mathematics, you should provide examples and perspectives that appear to show opposing effects as well as parallel ones, and then address these examples and perspectives. Similarly, you should choose examples and arguments from a variety of languages and branches of science and mathematics rather than sticking exclusively to one language and one branch.
4. Organize your claims, evidence, and analysis thoughtfully and strategically—and don’t go over the 1600 word limit.
‘Insightful, convincing, accomplished, and lucid’ are the qualities that define a top-tier ToK Essay.
COMMON ToK ESSAY MISTAKES
Here are some errors that students typically make in their ToK Essay that you can avoid:
1. Misunderstanding the purpose of the Essay. As stated, the ToK Essay focuses on conceptual thinking rather than real-world issues. It is not the place to debate politics, ideologies, or ethics. The Essay’s goal instead is to analyze how human beings accept and/or reject knowledge according to the specifications of the title.
2. Misunderstanding the scope of the Essay. The Essay is only 1,600 words long, which does not allow an in-depth analysis of every possible point connected to the title. Doing so would limit your ability to write about the relevant points in sufficient detail; instead, focus on the most pertinent and significant ideas and explore these in as much depth as possible.
3. Failure to write a proper introduction. A strong, concise introduction will focus on three things: stating the title and defining its key terms and ideas, establishing a clear position on the title, and explaining how the prescribed areas of knowledge differently relate to the title.
4. Failure to construct strong argumentation. Be sure to include and address important counterexamples/claims (rather than ignoring them), fully support your own interpretations and their implications, and use well-chosen evidence/examples that are appropriate to your argument, citing the source of each one in your footnotes and bibliography.
ToK is an extremely valuable course for all students and is unique to the IB DP. Its goal is to make us deeply assess the very nature of knowledge and how it manifests—not only in the larger world but also in our personal, everyday lives. The study of philosophers and their theories will allow you to apply your learning in both abstract and practical spaces, culminating in an Exhibition and an Essay that together exemplify your ability to assess the concepts of knowledge and your place as a knower of these concepts.
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