What is IB ToK?
Theory of Knowledge (ToK) is one of the core components of the IB Diploma Programme. It is mandatory for all students and the ToK requirement is central to the educational philosophy of the IB Diploma.
The ToK course provides an opportunity for students to reflect on the nature of knowledge, and on “how we know” what we claim to know. Students will be required to think deeply and philosophically about what knowledge actually is; where it comes from, what it is constituted of, and the role of bias in shaping our views and beliefs.
How is IB ToK assessed?
Students will complete two personal projects (a ToK “exhibition” and a 1600 word ToK essay) to help demonstrate their understanding of the course.
The exhibition portion requires students to create an “exhibition” (presentation + commentary) of three objects that illustrate how ToK manifests in the world around us.
The exhibition is marked internally and moderated externally and is worth ? of the marks.
The essay focuses on a conceptual issue in ToK. Students will work with their teachers to choose one of the prescribed titles, which is usually connected to the question that is at the heart of ToK study: “how do we know what we know?”
The essay is marked externally and is worth 2/3 of the marks.
What is the purpose of IB ToK?
By encouraging students to think about where knowledge comes from, the ToK course helps students gain an appreciation for the interpretative nature of knowledge.
By having an understanding of the various biases that inform beliefs and judgements, students will be better equipped to be more critical of the “knowledge claims” they encounter on a daily basis.
This is a particularly useful skill to develop in our world of information overload. Information that poses as knowledge is a growing topic of concern in our society, and ToK students will benefit from having a discerning eye for truth and a willingness to investigate for themselves whether or not knowledge claims are valid.
In addition, the ToK essay task encourages an academic approach, which will help students become more familiar with a university-style essay. This will ease the transition to academia, especially for those required to write essays for their chosen university course.
What is the ToK Exhibition?
The “ToK exhibition” task was introduced in 2022 to replace the “ToK presentation”. Take care not to confuse the two, as there are many resources online referring to the now outdated “ToK presentation”. Even though you will be required to do some presenting for the ToK exhibition, the main piece of work is a written commentary on three objects of your choice that relate to the ToK syllabus.
The ToK exhibition comprises two components:
- In-class presentation (follow the guidance from your school)
- Written commentary (950 words total)
The title of the written commentary will be connected to the ToK syllabus, and is often phrased as a question e.g. “What counts as good justification for a claim?” You will work with your teacher on coming up with an appropriate title/question.
You will then be asked to select three specific and unique objects which relate to the title. Advice may vary between schools but generally the chosen objects are of a specific time and place and may also be personal e.g. My primary school Qur’an.
Your task is to describe the objects and write a little about their histories and/or personal significance to you. You will move on to explain why you have included these objects in your “exhibition”, and how you think the object has enabled you to explore and understand ToK concepts.
It is crucial that you are clear in your communication and provide adequate justification for the inclusion of your objects. Don’t spend too long describing the history of the object. A brief summary is fine. Save the rest of your word count to explain how the object connects to the ideas you have been studying and what it reveals to you about ToK.
The ToK essay – how to perform well
1. Choose a title that suits your academic skills and interests
You will work with your teacher to choose a prescribed title. Usually a selection of titles are published each year, and you will choose the one that suits you best. Make your choice based on both your academic skills and interests. You want to play to your strengths and you also want to be interested in your topic, otherwise the essay could become a long, hard slog for you.
2. Understand the ToK key terms
It is worth searching online for a full glossary of ToK terms, but the following are a great starting point:
- Areas of Knowledge (AoKs). You will select two of the following for your essay: History, Human Sciences, Natural Sciences, Arts, Mathematics, History
- Ways of Knowing (WoKs) - Language, Sense perception, Emotion, Reason, Imagination, Faith, Intuition and Memory. WoKs are to be woven into your essay to connect to your chosen AoKs. Referencing 1-2 WoKs in your essay typically recommended.
- Real-Life Situations (RLS) – these are the pieces of evidence you will use to connect your chosen AoKs to the ToK essay.
- Prescribed title – the title, or prompt, of your essay.
- Knowledge questions – questions about the nature of knowledge that help shed light on your prescribed title. Knowledge questions are one of the most important features of your essay. Rather than simply answering the prescribed title, you should focus on “knowledge questions” which will in turn help you gain perspective on the title.
3. Follow the recommended essay format and structure
One important thing to note about the ToK essay is that it doesn’t follow a typical essay format. While it broadly contains an Introduction, Body and Conclusion, there is a precise, “ToK” way of doing things within each section. For instance: there are specific requirements for the introduction, the main body paragraphs need to be organised in a particular manner, and the conclusion is more than just a summary of your argument.
Students have to grapple with some quite big ideas within a tight wordcount, so breaking down the essay into smaller component parts is particularly helpful.
Firstly, get clear on your “knowledge questions” that relate to your prescribed title. For the highest level essays, the mark scheme specifically calls for a “sustained focus” on knowledge questions, in order to shed light on the prescribed title. If you only answer the prescribed title without giving adequate treatment to your knowledge questions, you will lose marks.
You will need to explain what your knowledge questions are in the introduction, and you will need to refer to them throughout your essay as you investigate your chosen Areas of Knowledge.
In the body of your essay, you will be asked to make claims and counterclaims about each Area of Knowledge you are investigating, before coming to a conclusion.
I won’t go into too much detail on structure and format as advice varies slightly from school to school, but if you’re feeling stuck, here is an outline I recommend:
P1 - Introduction (briefly respond to title, define terms, and outline knowledge questions that you hope to answer)
P2 - Claim for AoK 1
P3 -Counterclaim for AoK 1
P4 - Claim for AoK 2
P5 - Counterclaim for AoK 2
P6 – Conclusion (summarise your findings, explain why your findings are significant, consider alternate perspectives and/or a way in which your findings might be explored by someone else)
Suggested writing style for the ToK essay
“if you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself” – Albert Einstein
While I don’t recommend that students dumb down their essays into child speak, I want to stress that it is absolutely vital that students are clear with their communication and that they understand what they are writing about.
I am consistently struck by students’ attempts to make their essay “impressive” with wordy, complex sentences and lengthy quotes from academic publications, without the faintest idea of what they are writing about. To score highly on this essay, clarity and cogency are critical. Focus on these qualities first.
While this is an essay that could be seen as a bridge to academic study, at the sentence level your writing should be straightforward and clear (especially in the first draft). The structure of the ToK essay is quite complex to begin with, so don’t add additional complexity where it’s not necessary. You can always refine the essay later by adding some academic touches, such as providing additional evidence and including a handful of adventurous key terms from the course.
Beware of excessive use of secondary sources in your early drafts as well – having lots of quotes can quickly become confusing and can eat into your word count. I recommend creating a separate quotes document so you can keep your essay document clean.
IB ToK Tutors
Keystone has a range of specialist tutors who can assist students approaching IB ToK. The ToK tutors we work with can ensure students think broadly about the subject they are focusing on, considering all angles and approaches carefully. Tutors will follow guidelines set out by the exam boards and therefore will be unable to directly review, edit or provide written feedback on the ToK.