TOK and University

As we discuss in the aims of TOK, the course is highly regarded by universities, who greatly value its content, and, even more so, the skills it hones, such as critical thinking, autonomous learning, and interlinking different knowledge contexts. As Dr. Jamie Hampson of Exeter University in the UK, puts it, “TOK students tend to be more adept at understanding different perspectives, and effectively evaluating different knowledge claims. We value IB Diploma students highly, as they seem particularly ready to take part in discussion and debate”.

It’s worth playing up this point, and really emphasising what students have gained from undertaking TOK, because not everyone has the privilege of drawing on this fantastic course in order to promote themselves. Here are some suggestions of how students can signpost their TOK learning, for inclusion in applications and interviews for university.

Inspiring thinkers

Your TOK course should feature a plethora of inspiring thinkers - from the past, and still working today - whose ideas have shaped the way we view and understand the world. Students can pick out a handful who they have found particularly interesting, be ready to discuss their main theories and approaches to knowledge, and why they found them particularly engaging or surprising. A few examples of interesting thinkers (and one of their key ideas) include:

See also the examples we suggest of thinkers that are applicable to other DP subjects.

Inspiring ideas

In addition to the theories put forward by specific thinkers, TOK is packed full of big ideas and concepts based on shared knowledge. Some of these go back centuries; others define the time we live in now. Being able to mention a few of these proves not only that students have been engaged by the course, but also that they have a stake in the intellectual world. Here’s the sort of thing that would work:

  • Rational and empirical approaches to understanding the world in general, and within different areas of knowledge

  • Deontology versus consequentialism when it comes to producing ethical knowledge

  • Whether it’s ever possible to produce objective historical knowledge that isn’t determined by our perspectives

  • The extent to which knowledge from one field can be used to generate knowledge in another - for example, using scientific methods to understand art, or whether valid historical knowledge can ever be ‘imagined’ as it might in literature

  • How unconscious biases shape the way we produce knowledge

  • Whether language as a method of reliably conveying knowledge is being undermined by social media

Real-life situations that resonated

If your course is built carefully around engaging, up-to-date, RLS-centred lessons, then students should have come across many events, issues, and experiences that resonated with them. The more significant and contemporary these are, the better, as they form the perfect talking point in a university-admission interview. Examples of recent news stories that are particularly well-suited for TOK include the following:

  • A BBC article, reporting that Frances Arnold, the Nobel-winning chemist, withdrew a recent paper because its results were unreproducible

  • A Guardian article, looking at the different ways in which the Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortes is perceived by different governments and interest groups today

  • An Atlantic article arguing that smartphones have changed the way we perceive space

  • A BBC video, asking various questions about the visually impaired, including, “If you’re blind, what do you see when you dream?”

  • A Guardian article, exploring what the ‘right’ level of skepticism is when it comes to celebrity endorsements of pseudoscientific products and treatments

  • An Aeon article exploring in detail the legacy of Margaret Mead, and the reasons why she was vilified for her assertions about non-Western cultures

How the TOK course changed your students

TOK should force students to challenge their own assumptions, reevaluate experiences they have had, and arrive at profound realisations about the sources and uses of their knowledge. In short, TOK should change the way students think, and being able to refer to that, and assess its significance. This represents an immensely impressive attribute during the process of application. Students could ask themselves these questions in preparation for a discussion about the value of their DP education:

  • What aspects of TOK made you realise that there can be more than one approach to understanding the world?

  • How did the course help you to understand that by ‘thinking differently’, new knowledge can be produced more effectively?

  • How did TOK help you to assess the importance of knowledge, and the implications of not accessing reliable data and information?

  • What did you learn about the role of different perspectives (including your own) during the course?

  • What personal experiences were you able to draw on and re-evaluate during the TOK course?

  • What aspects of the course did you find challenging in terms of forcing you to alter the way (and what) you think?

Note that several of these points link back to the aims we identified for the TOK course. If you’ve built your course around a realisation of these, then this will support your students as they reflect on what they’ve gained from TOK at the end of the course.

How TOK enriched their DP subjects

Elsewhere in this guide we’ve looked at how TOK integrates with the rest of the DP, although we’ve approached this mostly via the perspective of a teacher. Your students, also, should be able to talk extensively about how TOK has enriched their understanding of their other subjects. Aspects they could be ready to talk about include:

  • Does your study of TOK make you think knowledge in your different DP subjects is more or less subjective?

  • How much overlap of knowledge (in terms of the content itself, and how it is generated) is there between your DP subjects?

  • What constitutes an expert knower in your different DP subjects, how does this differ between them, and when can you call yourself an expert?

  • How has knowledge developed over time within your different subject - and does this indicate that knowledge is only ever provisional and uncertain?

  • How does the way knowledge is represented alter its meaning in your subjects?

Using their essay and/ or exhibition as a central feature of their application

Many universities ask for a portfolio of work to be included in applications. TOK essays and exhibition are ideal for this purpose, obviously assuming that students have worked hard to create something effective. Students should include a rationale of why they included their work, perhaps explaining how it explores one or more of the questions we’ve posed above.

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