TOK is a course about critical thinking and inquiring into the process of knowing, rather than about learning a specific body of knowledge. It is a core element which all Diploma Programme students undertake and to which all schools are required to devote at least 100 hours of class time. TOK and the Diploma Programme subjects should support each other in the sense that they reference each other and share some common goals. The TOK course examines how we know what we claim to know. It does this by encouraging students to analyse knowledge claims and explore knowledge questions. A knowledge claim is the assertion that “I/we know X” or “I/we know how to Y”, or a statement about knowledge; a knowledge question is an open question about knowledge. A distinction between shared knowledge and personal knowledge is made in the TOK guide. This distinction is intended as a device to help teachers construct their TOK course and to help students explore the nature of knowledge.
TOK plays a special role in the Diploma Programme by providing an opportunity for students to reflect on the nature of knowledge. The task of TOK is to emphasize connections between areas of knowledge and link them to the knower in such a way that the knower can become aware of his or her own perspectives and those of the various groups whose knowledge he or she shares. TOK, therefore, explores both the personal and shared aspects of knowledge and investigates the relationships between them.
The raw material of TOK is knowledge itself. Students think about how knowledge is arrived at in the various disciplines, what the disciplines have in common and the differences between them. The fundamental question of TOK is “how do we know that?” The answer might depend on the discipline and the purpose to which the knowledge is put. TOK explores methods of inquiry and tries to establish what it is about these methods that makes them effective as knowledge tools. In this sense TOK is concerned with knowing about knowing.
The individual knower has to try to make sense of the world and understand his or her relationship to it. He or she has at his or her disposal the resources of the areas of knowledge, for example, the academic disciplines studied in the Diploma Programme. He or she also has access to ways of knowing such as memory, intuition, reason and sense perception that help us navigate our way in a complex world.
It is easy to be bewildered by the sheer diversity of the knowledge on offer. For example:
- In physics, experiment and observation seem to be the basis for knowledge. The physicist might want to construct a hypothesis to explain observations that do not fit current thinking and devises and performs experiments to test this hypothesis. Results are then collected and analysed and, if necessary, the hypothesis modified to accommodate them.
- In history there is no experimentation. Instead, documentary evidence provides the historian with the raw material for interpreting and understanding the recorded past of humanity. By studying these sources carefully a picture of a past event can be built up along with ideas about what factors might have caused it.
- In a literature class students set about understanding and interpreting a text. No observation of the outside world is necessary, but there is a hope that the text can shed some light upon deep questions about what it is to be human in a variety of world situations or can act as a critique of the way in which we organize our societies.
- Economics, by contrast, considers the question of how human societies allocate scarce resources. This is done by building elaborate mathematical models based upon a mixture of reasoning and empirical observation of relevant economic factors.
- In the islands of Micronesia, a steersman successfully navigates between two islands 1,600 km apart without a map or a compass.
In each case above there is clearly knowledge at work, although the collection as a whole illustrates a wide variety of different types of knowledge. The task of TOK is to examine different areas of knowledge and find out what makes them different and what they have in common.
At the centre of the course is the idea of knowledge questions. These are questions such as:
- what counts as evidence for X?
- what makes a good explanation in subject Y?
- how do we judge which is the best model of Z?
- how can we be sure of W?
- what does theory T mean in the real world?
- how do we know whether it is right to do S?
While these questions could seem slightly intimidating in the abstract, they become much more accessible when dealt with in specific practical contexts within the TOK course. They arise naturally in the subject areas, the extended essay and CAS. The intention is that these contexts provide concrete examples of knowledge questions that should promote student discussion.
Discussion forms the backbone of the TOK course. Students are invited to consider knowledge questions against the backdrop of their experiences of knowledge in their other Diploma Programme subjects but also in relation to the practical experiences offered by CAS and the formal research that takes place for the extended essay. The experiences of the student outside school also have a role to play in these discussions, although TOK seeks to strike a balance between the shared and personal aspects of knowledge.
Recognizing the discursive aspect of the course, the TOK presentation assesses the ability of the student to apply TOK thinking to a real-life situation. The TOK essay gives the opportunity to assess more formal argumentation prompted by questions of a more general nature.
TOK is a course in critical thinking but it is one that is specifically geared to an approach to knowledge that is mindful of the interconnectedness of the modern world. “Critical” in this context implies an analytical approach prepared to test the support for knowledge claims, aware of its own weaknesses, conscious of its perspectives and open to alternative ways of answering knowledge questions. It is a demanding course but one that is an essential component not only of the Diploma Programme but of lifelong learning.
The ways of knowing
While there are arguably many ways of knowing, the TOK course identifies eight specific ways of knowing (WOKs). They are language, sense perception, emotion, reason, imagination, faith, intuition, and memory. Students must explore a range of ways of knowing, and it is suggested that studying four of these eight in depth would be appropriate.
The WOKs have two roles in TOK:
- they underlie the methodology of the areas of knowledge
- they provide a basis for personal knowledge.
Discussion of WOKs will naturally occur in a TOK course when exploring how areas of knowledge operate. Since they rarely function in isolation, the TOK course should explore how WOKs work, and how they work together, both in the context of different areas of knowledge and in relation to the individual knower. This might be reflected in the way the TOK course is constructed. Teachers should consider the possibility of teaching WOKs in combination or as a natural result of considering the methods of areas of knowledge, rather than as separate units.
The areas of knowledge
Areas of knowledge are specific branches of knowledge, each of which can be seen to have a distinct nature and different methods of gaining knowledge. TOK distinguishes between eight areas of knowledge.
They are mathematics, the natural sciences, the human sciences, the arts, history, ethics, religious knowledge systems, and indigenous knowledge systems. Students must explore a range of areas of knowledge, and it is suggested that studying six of these eight would be appropriate.
The knowledge framework is a device for exploring the areas of knowledge. It identifies the key characteristics of each area of knowledge by depicting each area as a complex system of five interacting components. This enables students to effectively compare and contrast different areas of knowledge and allows the possibility of a deeper exploration of the relationship between areas of knowledge and ways of knowing.
The overall aim of TOK is to encourage students to formulate answers to the question “how do you know?” in a variety of contexts, and to see the value of that question. This allows students to develop an enduring fascination with the richness of knowledge.
Specifically, the aims of the TOK course are for students to:
- make connections between a critical approach to the construction of knowledge, the academic disciplines and the wider world
- develop an awareness of how individuals and communities construct knowledge and how this is critically examined
- develop an interest in the diversity and richness of cultural perspectives and an awareness of personal and ideological assumptions
- critically reflect on their own beliefs and assumptions, leading to more thoughtful, responsible and purposeful lives
- understand that knowledge brings responsibility which leads to commitment and action.
TOK and International-Mindedness
“Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself.”
Knowledge can be seen as the shared legacy of mankind, a legacy which has been shaped and influenced by a wide range of cultures. This era of increased global interconnectedness promises unprecedented possibilities for interaction and enhancement of mutual understanding arising from the nurturing of international-mindedness.
The Chinese anticipated a period of “Tai”, a time when communication between individuals and the world at large is totally open and people are receptive to new ideas. The TOK course provides an ideal vehicle for such global exchange and beneficial action through its examination of shared and personal knowledge in an atmosphere of critical and reflective inquiry.
We have inherited rich traditions from indigenous knowledge systems, stretching back to the origins of our societies and cultures. Africa, where the human adventure began, has transmitted a treasure trove of wisdom. The Swahili proverb akili ni mali (“intelligence is wealth”) and the Gikuyu saying, “wisdom is ahead of might”, represent the clear call for the primacy of good thinking for humans to survive and flourish. Early African cultures celebrated diversity, a model for our times. The Asante proverb from West Africa tenabea nyinaa nse reminds us that all dwelling places are not alike and the Swahili kila ndege huruka na mbawa zake encourages every bird to fly with its own wings.
Responsible action underpins this respect for diversity. This is also seen in the Australian aboriginal idea of “Dreamtime”, which promotes a sophisticated ecological perspective, including a celebration of nature’s bounty in multiple art forms and careful stewardship of the earth’s resources.
Ancient Asian civilizations have bequeathed profound insights which continue to guide our thinking. The Chinese were among the first cultures to recognize knowledge (“Shi”), its power, and the deep respect for learning and the wise sage figure permeates educational systems in that part of the world. The understanding of the self is seen as the essential foundation to effective membership and action in ever expanding spheres of community. The Indian concept of “Brahman” links the individual knower to a boldly conceived “universal spirit”, a sense of human and cosmic unity.
The Chinese sage, Confucius, inspired a tradition of inclusive and merit-based education allied to critical thinking: “A gentleman can see a question from all sides without bias”. Inheriting the inquiring spirit of Indian Vedanta, the Buddha boldly linked human suffering and dissatisfaction not only to a craving for physical and worldly pleasures but also to an attachment to ideas, opinions, and beliefs, to be replaced by a more dynamic and open-minded approach to knowledge construction. Greek thinkers introduced the notion of political democracy and the important foundations of modern science and mathematics, while their dramatists confronted audiences with complex characters and multiple perspectives. The deep understandings of these traditions were preserved and enriched in the golden age of Islamic civilization in the 10th to 12th centuries CE, a renaissance of learning and artistic flowering that continues to inspire our knowledge quest.
Students and teachers today are the inheritors of this grand journey. The path ahead, as usual, presents us with both opportunities and challenges. The TOK classroom invites a unique partnership of learning, for global controversies often rest on significant knowledge questions that can provide useful starting points for TOK explorations and TOK, in turn, can contribute significantly to the understanding of these large questions. The IB vision of internationally minded individuals implies a global engagement, embodying a commitment to address these 21st century challenges. TOK exists at the very core of the quest, as we strive toward an enlightened and fulfilled humanity.
It is expected that by the end of the TOK course, students will be able to:
- identify and analyse the various kinds of justifications used to support knowledge claims
- formulate, evaluate and attempt to answer knowledge questions
- examine how academic disciplines/areas of knowledge generate and shape knowledge
- understand the roles played by ways of knowing in the construction of shared and personal knowledge
- explore links between knowledge claims, knowledge questions, ways of knowing and areas of knowledge
- demonstrate an awareness and understanding of different perspectives and be able to relate these to one’s own perspective
- explore a real-life/contemporary situation from a TOK perspective in the presentation.
From Diploma Programme Theory of knowledge guide, International Baccalaureate, Cardiff, Wales, 2013