General FAQs

Common questions asked about the TOK course as a whole

What is the TOK curriculum?

The best way to understand the content of TOK is via the TOK diagram, which shows the core theme (‘knowledge and the knower’) in the centre, and the areas of knowledge (AOKs) and optional themes outside this. The areas of knowledge represent the ways in which we categorize knowledge, and the themes are our personal and societal affiliations which determine how we make sense of this knowledge. Both the AOKs and the optional themes play a role in shaping us as knowers.The TOK course identifies 5 AOKs and 5 optional themes. In addition to examining these different elements, you’ll also consider how different perspectives can affect the way we acquire and use knowledge, and the implications of how knowledge is produced and used. Crucial to the TOK course is the concept of ‘knowledge questions’.

What is a knowledge question?

We spend a great deal of time in TOK exploring ‘knowledge questions’ (KQs). KQs can either be first-order questions, or second-order questions. First-order KQs are directly about the world, asking ‘what we know’, and are largely the sort of questions you deal with in your DP subjects. They might include, ‘What were the causes of World War I?’ ‘What is Einstein’s general theory of relativity?’ ‘What techniques did Picasso use to create his Guernica painting?’

In TOK, however, we’re more interested in second-order knowledge, which means, how we know what we know. This could mean, ‘Why do historians' opinions differ about the cause of World War I?’ ‘Why did Einstein argue that imagination was the most important way of knowing?’ ‘Who is qualified to make judgements about artistic achievements?’ It is not always obvious whether a KQ deals with first or second-order knowledge, but it is an important distinction to be able to make, as you will be assessed on your ability to discuss them in the essay.

What are ‘real-life situations’?

We use ‘real-life situations’ (RLSs) both to identify KQs, and support discussion of those KQs. In other words, they are the means by which we ask questions about the world, and the evidence we use to support our answers of those questions. RLSs can be events or issues that we have read about, personal experiences we have had, or the process of learning at school. RLSs can be global, regional, or local; their key characteristic is that they are ‘real’, rather than hypothetical or anecdotal. Grasping what makes an effective RLS is one of the most difficult aspects of TOK, and should be something your TOK teacher works on with you throughout the duration of the course. As a rule of thumb, a good RLS is one that leads on naturally to KQs, and which links easily to the different AOKs and ways of knowing (WOKs).

What different ‘perspectives’ should we be investigating in TOK?

Understanding how knowledge is viewed and processed by people from different perspectives is a key aspect of the TOK course (and part of the ‘knowledge framework’ mentioned here). These perspectives might include the knower’s cultural background, her or his religious background, the point in time they were working, their gender, the language they speak, and the academic tradition they belong to. Understanding that these perspectives alter the way we acquire and use knowledge is one of the most important concepts in TOK, and, indeed, the IB Diploma Programme in general.

What are ‘implications’?

One of the characteristics of an ‘excellent’ essay is that it includes a consideration of the ‘implications of arguments’. This means demonstrating the importance of your discussion by indicating how it shapes the way we gather and use knowledge. Putting this into the context of a RLS, your discussion might explore how algorithms are being used to make increasingly sophisticated decisions in society. The implications of this could be how values are increasingly being calculated by mathematics-based technology, rather than human agents.

What is the knowledge framework?

The knowledge framework is a tool introduced by the IB to help us explore the different areas of knowledge (AOKs). It asks students to consider the following aspects:

  • the scope of the AOK

  • the methods and tools within it that are used to produce knowledge

  • how the AOK can be viewed via different perspectives

  • the relationship of the AOK with ethics.

The knowledge framework does not have to be presented explicitly in your essay or presentation, but the prescribed essay titles may refer to aspects of it, so it’s useful to have an awareness of what it is.

How is TOK assessed?

There is no exam in TOK. Instead, you write an essay, written on a title taken from a list of six prescribed titles, and create a TOK exhibition, in which you select an IA prompt, choose three ‘objects’, and write a 950-word commentary that links this prompt to the objects within the context of one of the optional themes. Both assessment tasks are done individually.

The essay is submitted electronically to the IB, and assessed externally, and the exhibition is marked internally by your teacher, and moderated by the IB. Your overall grade for TOK combines with the grade you receive for the Extended Essay, and you are given a mark out of three, pushing your potential total up to 45 marks for the whole IB Diploma Programme.

TOK is only worth 1.5 points. Why should I invest my time in it?

TOK is described by the IB as one of their ‘flagship courses’. First, it’s one of the unique selling points of the IB Diploma Programme (DP), something that you do that high school students doing other programmes do not. Second, it helps to bring together all the different parts of the DP, allowing you to compare and contrast your different subjects, and getting you to think critically about the nature of each course. This means if you do TOK properly, you’ll be able to answer questions more effectively in those courses, and raise the grades you eventually earn. Third, it prepares you fantastically well for dealing with the challenges of knowledge acquisition in this ‘post-truth’ world of information overload. In short, there is much more to TOK than those one-and-a-half points!

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