IB Theory of Knowledge (TOK) 2018-03-20T00:26:19+00:00

IB Theory of Knowledge (TOK)

Reflection on such huge cultural shifts is one part of what the TOK course is about. Its context is a world immeasurably different from that inhabited by “renaissance man”. The course is a flagship element in the Diploma Programme that encourages critical thinking about knowledge itself, to try to help young people make sense of what they encounter.

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Our Global Information Economy

It is a commonplace to say that the world has experienced a digital revolution and that we are now part of a global information economy. The extent and impact of the changes signalled by such grand phrases vary greatly in different parts of the world, but their implications for knowledge are profound.

Reflection on such huge cultural shifts is one part of what the TOK course is about. Its context is a world immeasurably different from that inhabited by “renaissance man”. Knowledge may indeed be said to have exploded: it has not only expanded massively but also become increasingly specialized, or fragmented. At the same time, discoveries in the 20th century (quantum mechanics, chaos theory) have demonstrated that there are things that it is impossible for us to know or predict.

The TOK course, a flagship element in the Diploma Programme, encourages critical thinking about knowledge itself, to try to help young people make sense of what they encounter. Its core content is questions like these: What counts as knowledge? How does it grow? What are its limits? Who owns knowledge? What is the value of knowledge? What are the implications of having, or not having, knowledge?

What makes TOK unique, and distinctively different from standard academic disciplines, is its process. At the centre of the course is the student as knower. Students entering the Diploma Programme typically have 16 years of life experience and more than 10 years of formal education behind them. They have accumulated a vast amount of knowledge, beliefs and opinions from academic disciplines and their lives outside the classroom. In TOK they have the opportunity to step back from this relentless acquisition of new knowledge, in order to consider knowledge issues. These include the questions already mentioned, viewed from the perspective of the student, but often begin from more basic ones, like: What do I claim to know [about X]? Am I justified in doing so [how?]? Such questions may initially seem abstract or theoretical, but TOK teachers bring them into closer focus by taking into account their students’ interests, circumstances and outlooks in planning the course.

TOK activities and discussions aim to help students discover and express their views on knowledge issues. The course encourages students to share ideas with others and to listen to and learn from what others think. In this process students’ thinking and their understanding of knowledge as a human construction are shaped, enriched and deepened. Connections may be made between knowledge encountered in different Diploma Programme subjects, in CAS experience or in extended essay research; distinctions between different kinds of knowledge may be clarified.

Because the subject matter of the course is defined in terms of knowledge issues, there is no end to the valid questions that may arise in a TOK course. This guide consists mainly of questions that have been found to stimulate appropriate TOK inquiry. It would not be possible or desirable to include them all in a course of 100 hours spread over the two years of the Diploma Programme, though it is expected that all sections of the guide will be covered to some extent.

TOK activities and discussions aim to help students discover and express their views on knowledge issues. The course encourages students to share ideas with others and to listen to and learn from what others think.

The guide is organized in four broad categories: knowledge issues, knowers and knowing; ways of knowing; areas of knowledge; and linking questions. The categories are not intended to indicate a teaching sequence. There are many different ways to approach TOK. A successful course will:

  • build on students’ own experience and involve them actively in the classroom ensure that students understand the purpose of TOK and its central role in the Diploma Programme allow the teacher to model the values of curiosity, thoughtful inquiry and critical thought
  • have a structure that is clear to the students meet the objectives of TOK ensure that students understand and are prepared for the assessment tasks.

No teacher can be an expert in every field, and the sheer scope of the TOK course is daunting. Students also can be awed by the size of the questions they are considering. Both teachers and students need the confidence to go a little—not too far—outside their usual “comfort zones”. Then, with a spirit of inquiry and exploration, they can begin to share the excitement of reflecting on knowledge.

Relationship to Diploma Programme Subjects and CAS

Diploma Programme subject guides are reviewed on a seven-year cycle. As new guides emerge, they will include references to the relationships between their subjects and TOK. TOK’s own relationship to subjects, and to CAS, makes up much of this guide. Nevertheless, it may be appropriate to mention one or two principles here.

Students experience both TOK and their Diploma Programme subjects, so it is advisable that the teachers of each have some idea of what the others are doing. Indeed, there can be reciprocal gains from shared understandings. As well as making connections with TOK questions (knowledge issues) as they work through their own courses, subject teachers may suggest some theoretical concerns that could be taken further in the TOK classroom. Reflection on CAS experiences includes a focus on what new knowledge students have learned. Conversely, TOK teachers will often seek to ground discussion of knowledge issues in actual examples taken from students’ experience elsewhere in the Diploma Programme.

International dimensions In many ways TOK is ideally placed to foster internationalism, in close harmony with the aims of the IB learner profile. The TOK aims embody many of the attributes needed by a citizen of the world: self-awareness; a reflective, critical approach; interest in other people’s points of view; and a sense of responsibility.

Global controversies often rest on significant knowledge issues that can provide useful starting points for TOK explorations, depending on students’ interests and awareness. TOK activity, in turn, can contribute significantly to the understanding of these large questions.

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