WHAT IS THEORY OF KNOWLEGE (TOK)?
Theory Of knowledge (TOK) is a mandatory subject in the IB Diploma Programme. Over 100 hours, the students are immersed in the foundations and concepts of knowledge. While epistemology does play a role in the course, it goes beyond that, asking students to explore their own biases and beliefs. Students study the works of philosophers and other great thinkers, then learn how to apply their ideas both practically and in the abstract. The goal of the course is to allow students to develop critical thinking skills around the topic of knowledge. “What do we really know and how can we prove it?” is the central question of TOK. Unlike many other subjects, there are no right or wrong answers. Rather, students are assessed based on their ability to justify and analyze their own knowledge claims.
ASSESSMENT OF TOK
There are two parts of the TOK assessment: a 1,600-word essay and an exhibition. (This is a new requirement for students graduating in 2022, replacing the oral presentation of previous years). Each is scored according to different criteria and then combined for an overall letter grade between A and E. The essay, which is externally assessed, is worth two-thirds of the final grade; the exhibition, which is internally assessed, is worth one-third. If the student does not submit either the exhibition or the essay, or if they receive a grade of E on either, they will not be awarded a diploma. The TOK letter grade is then combined with the letter grade given to the student on the Extended Essay (EE), which is converted into a score between 0 and 3. This numerical score contributes to their total diploma points.
The TOK essay focuses on conceptual thinking, rather than real-world issues. At the start of the year, students are given 6 essay topics to choose from, which concern generalized, theoretical ideas. For example, one topic may ask a question such as: “Can mathematics and science be completely neutral and objective in their pursuit of knowledge?” Typically, these topics allude to two areas of knowledge (such as humanities, arts, science, history, etc.).
The marking rubric for the essay is made up of four areas, each marked on a scale of 0-10: 1) understanding knowledge issues, 2) knower’s perspective, 3) quality of analysis of knowledge issues, and 4) organization of ideas. The following are the requirements for a student to achieve the highest mark possible in each of the four quadrants:
1. Understanding knowledge issues: the knowledge issues that are relevant to the topic must be the central focus of the essay. The areas of knowledge (as mentioned above) should be strongly connected to the ways of knowing (emotion, perception, language, and reason) in a way that exemplifies the student’s thorough comprehension of the knowledge issues. For example, if a student is writing about the effects of language (a way of knowing) on science and mathematics (areas of knowledge), this should be stated clearly in the introduction, specifically using the terms “way(s) of knowing” and “area(s) of knowledge.” Furthermore, the connection between language and science/mathematics should be the focal point of every example, argument, and counterargument in the essay. Straying from this central concept will result in a lower mark.
2. Knower’s perspective: the student’s understanding and evaluation of the topic is independent, showing their exploration of the knowledge issues is self-aware and self-reflective. The student must indicate that they have considered alternative perspectives and the examples within the essay should be diverse while still compelling. Again, if a student is writing about the effects of language on science and mathematics, they should provide examples and perspectives that appear to show the opposite effect, and then address those examples and perspectives. Similarly, the student should give examples and arguments from a variety of languages and branches of science and mathematics, rather than sticking exclusively to one language and one branch.
3. Quality of analysis of knowledge issues: the topic’s knowledge issues are analyzed in great depth and with considerable detail. The student’s arguments are logical, consistent, and engaging; counterarguments are also explored. The ramifications and assumptions of the topic and theory are identified. For example, if a student relies on the premise that knowledge is a “justified true belief” (a common concept in epistemology), they must state this assumption, acknowledge its limitations, and present the consequences of this assumption on the essay’s topic.
4. Organization of ideas: the essay is well-structured in a manner that clearly answers the question, using proper citations that effectively link evidence to the student’s ideas. Analyses of the arguments and evidence are thorough and coherent. The essay meets the word limit but does not exceed 1,600 words. One point will be taken off in this category if the essay goes over the word limit and the marker will not consider any portion of the essay beyond 1,600 words.
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COMMON TOK ESSAY MISTAKES
1. Failure to understand the purpose of the essay: as stated, the essay focuses on conceptual thinking, rather than real-world issues. It is not the place to argue over politics, ideologies, or ethics. The essay’s goal should be to analyze how human beings accept and/or reject knowledge, according to the specifications of the topic.
2. Failure to understand the scope of the essay: the essay is only 1,600 words long, which does not allow an in-depth analysis of every possible point connected to the topic. Doing so would limit the student’s ability to write about the relevant points in sufficient detail. Rather, students should stick to the most pertinent and significant ideas, exploring those in as much depth as possible.
3. Failure to write a proper introduction: a strong, concise introduction will focus on three things: stating the topic and defining the key terms and ideas, establishing a clear position on the topic, and articulating the areas of knowledge and ways of knowing present in the essay.
4. Failure to construct strong argumentation: there are a host of problems that may befall a student in this category. They include, ignoring important counterexamples, failing to fully support their claims, using improper or inadequate examples and details, and failing to identify the ramifications of their argument.
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1. Clearly identify the three objects and explain in detail how they apply to the IA prompt.
2. Comprehensively justify the link between each object and the IA prompt.
3. Use appropriate and compelling evidence to support the aforementioned link.
4. Create a title for the exhibition that makes it plain which IA prompt they are responding to.
1. Failure to understand the purpose of the exhibition: the exhibition, in some ways, is the opposite of the essay. Rather than focusing on abstract or conceptual thinking, the student should display how knowledge issues are present in the real world. Therefore, the exhibition should center around concrete, applicable examples and avoid those which are more philosophical.
2. Failure to use strong objects: the three objects chosen by the student are the most important piece of the exhibition and should be carefully considered before decided upon. The student should be able to clearly and succinctly explain how each object is tied to the prompt without tenuous argumentation or leaps in logic.
3. Failure to clearly identify the IA prompt: not only should commentary make this explicitly obvious, but the exhibitions title should also make it apparent which IA prompt the student is responding to.
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