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Knowledge Questions

At the heart of TOK is the concept of ‘knowledge questions’, or ‘KQs’. These are, as the name suggests, questions about the way in which we produce and use knowledge, and they help us to link the real world to the world of TOK.
The key to understanding knowledge questions is to divide them into two different types: first-order, and second-order knowledge questions. The former ask direct questions about the world, and the latter ask questions about how we know about the world. In TOK, of course, we are more interested in second-order knowledge questions. The table below shows the difference between these two forms.
What they ask
How they are typically worded
Context in which they are asked
First-order KQs
Narrower - related to a specific aspect or field within individual AOKs
Questions that are directly about the world
“What we know”
Diploma subjects
Second-order KQs
Wider - can encompass one or more entire AOKs
Questions that are about how we acquire knowledge, and use it
“How we know”
Exploring knowledge questions help students to develop an understanding of the course, including how TOK manifests itself in the real world, how perspectives shape the way we view the world, and the implications of arguments about knowledge. Encouraging students to ask and discuss knowledge questions are therefore key to helping them to understand the key aspects of the TOK course and the assessment tasks.
Here are a few examples of how that might work when applied to a range of real-life situations or subject-specific questions. You should be able to see clearly that although first-order KQs are not our focus in TOK, they can form a useful stepping stone to identify second-order questions.
Real-life situation or subject-specific question
Link to
First-order KQ
Second-order KQ
A Conversation article, which discusses how much of our botanic knowledge was established by colonial means, and the way Kew Gardens in London are trying to address that.
Knowledge and indigenous societies, the natural sciences
In what way did Botany advance in the 19th century?
How should ethical considerations shape the way we acquire and use scientific knowledge?
A New Republic article which discusses the problems with the way people seem to be getting more and more politically polarized.
Knowledge and the knower, knowledge and politics
What are the current voting patterns in the United States?
To what extent do we make our political judgements based on objective evidence?
A Guardian article about how the artist Edward Hopper managed to convey the loneliness that many people are now experiencing in Covid-19 quarantine.
Knowledge and the knower, the arts, human sciences
What themes did Edward Hopper deal with in his art?
How can art be used to understand and make sense of contemporary events and issues?
An Independent article which reports on the reaction to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s assertion that representations of Jesus shouldn’t always be white.
Knowledge and the knower, knowledge and religion
What evidence is there about the ethnic origin of Jesus?
How do our personal and societal perspectives shape the way we envisage religious ideas and concepts?
A Huffington Post article exploring the rise of a new social media platform, which claims to offer users an ‘unbiased’ environment in which to air their views.
Knowledge and language, knowledge and technology
How do social media platforms control the content that is posted by users?
Do social media platforms reinforce or break down our biases about the world?
An Atlantic article exploring the moral implications of naming places and things in the US after Confederate leaders.
History, human sciences, knowledge and politics
How widespread is the naming of statues and other monuments in the USA after Confederate leaders?
How do our ethical outlooks shape the way we view the past?
Discussing the issue of population increases in a geography lesson.
Human sciences
What is the rate of population growth throughout the world?
What can we tell about the world from statistics alone?
A lesson looking at different ‘bases’ used in mathematics.
What is the reason for the ubiquity of base 10?
How can we use different paradigms to understand mathematical knowledge?