Ib Program Tok Essays

Theory of knowledge is a compulsory subject in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme which is, in essence, similar to epistemology courses offered at many universities.

Course description[edit]

Unlike standard academic disciplines, the Theory of Knowledge course uses a process of discovering and sharing students' views on "knowledge questions" (an umbrella term for "everything that can be approached from a TOK point of view"), so "there is no end to the valid questions that may arise", "there are many different ways to approach TOK," "the sheer scope of the TOK course is daunting" and "teachers and students need the confidence to go too far outside their traditional comfort zones."[1] Teachers have freedom to select a teaching methodology and course material that will convey the theoretical foundation of essential concepts and may provide an environment in which these concepts can be discussed and debated. The focus of the discussion should not be the differentiation between "right" and "wrong" ideas but on the quality of justification and a balanced approach to the knowledge claim in question.

The TOK course uses a combination, in no particular order ("many entry points and sequences are possible"):[2]

  • Ways of knowing: (sense perception, reason, emotion, faith, imagination, intuition, memory, and language). How do we gain knowledge of the world, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each way in which we learn of the world and our place in it. Until the fall of 2014, there were only four ways of knowing (sense perception, reason, emotion, and language, but the IB curriculum then changed to include four other ways of knowing: intuition, imagination, faith, and memory).
  • Areas of knowledge (mathematics, natural sciences, human sciences, history, religious knowledge systems, indigenous knowledge systems, the arts and ethics): their distinct natures and methods of gaining knowledge, the types of claim each makes and the issues to consider (e.g., "How do you know that the scientific method is a valid method of gaining knowledge?", "What is the reason for having historical knowledge, and how is it applied in life?"). The IB originally had six areas of knowledge: mathematics, natural sciences, human sciences, history, the arts and ethics. In the fall of 2014, the IB curriculum changed to include two more areas of knowledge: religious knowledge systems and indigenous knowledge systems.
  • Factors that transcend individual ways of knowing and areas of knowledge:
    • Nature of knowing: what are the differences between information, data, belief, faith, opinion, knowledge and wisdom?
    • Knowledge communities: what is taken for granted in a community? How can we decide which beliefs we ought to check further?
    • Knowers' perspective and applications of knowledge: how do age, education, culture and experience influence selection of sources and formation of knowledge claims? If you know something, or how to do something, do you have a responsibility to use your knowledge?
    • Justifications of knowledge claims: why should claims be assessed critically? Are logic, sensory perception, revelation, faith, memory, consensus, intuition, and self-awareness equally reliable justifications? Use of coherence, correspondence, pragmatism, and consensus as criteria of truth.

The TOK course is expected to involve 100 teaching hours over the two years of the Diploma Programme.[3] Having followed the course, students should be competent to analyse knowledge claims and respond to knowledge issues in the context of different areas of knowledge and ways of knowing, expressing ideas accurately and honestly, using examples from their own experiences as learners and in outside life.[4]


Theory of knowledge is assessed in two parts: an externally examined 1,200–1,600 word essay and an internally assessed presentation.[5] Each part is scored using assessment criteria (four criteria for the essay and four for the presentation) that describe levels of achievement (e.g., "The inquiry explores knowledge issues. Most points are justified; most arguments are coherent. Some counterclaims are considered." describes level 5–6 in one of the essay criteria). The total score is converted into a grade from A to E. A similar system is used for the extended essay and students can gain up to 3 points for the diploma based on the grades achieved for TOK and EE. No diploma is awarded if a candidate fails to submit either the TOK essay or TOK presentation, or receives grade E for either the extended essay or theory of knowledge.

Theory of Knowledge
Extended Essay
A3322Failing condition
EFailing condition
Source: The diploma points matrix. May 2015 onwards[6]

TOK essay[edit]

For each exam session the IB prescribes 6 essay titles from which students must choose, e.g., "All knowledge claims should be open to rational criticism. On what grounds and to what extent would you agree with this assertion?"[7] Each title raises generic cross-disciplinary questions about knowledge, and the student is expected to consider the issues raised in the title and reach conclusions about them. The essay should put forward claims and counterclaims, linking knowledge issues to areas of knowledge and ways of knowing,[8] and show evidence of original thinking by the student.[9] Essays over the maximum word count of 1,600 are penalised with a one mark reduction, and any content beyond the 1600th word of the essay is not read by the examiner.[10]

TOK presentation[edit]

During the Theory of Knowledge course, students must plan and deliver at least one (in individual or small group, maximum three students) presentation to the class. The topic should be based on a real-life situation of interest to the student, e.g. "Reliability of media reporting of science", "What makes something a work of art?" and the presentation is expected to show why the topic is significant, linking it to a relevant main knowledge question (KQ), and discussing those issues and examining the implications of approaching the question from different perspectives, given by WOKs (ways of knowing), taken through one or two of the AOKs (Areas of knowledge). Teachers have wide latitude to help with topic selection and identifying suitable approaches. About ten minutes should be allowed for each presenter, and almost any form is permitted (e.g. debates, games, skits, interviews etc.) except reading an essay aloud. If a candidate reads an essay, they are very likely to fail.[11] Your interaction with the audience should not in any way distract its attention from your TOK inquiry. It's better to avoid conditionals defining and announcing your statement as a danger of falling into a philosophical reasoning and sidetracking a real life situation appears right away. Don't forget: you are reporting your personal opinion not what you have found out exploring RLS.[12]

See also[edit]


Theory of knowledge (TOK) plays a special role in the International Baccalaureate® (IB) Diploma Programme (DP), by providing an opportunity for students to reflect on the nature of knowledge, and on how we know what we claim to know.

It is one of the components of the DP core and is mandatory for all students. The TOK requirement is central to the educational philosophy of the DP.

How is TOK structured?

As a thoughtful and purposeful inquiry into different ways of knowing, and into different kinds of knowledge, TOK is composed almost entirely of questions.

The most central of these is "How do we know?", while other questions include:

  • What counts as evidence for X?
  • How do we judge which is the best model of Y?
  • What does theory Z mean in the real world?

Through discussions of these and other questions, students gain greater awareness of their personal and ideological assumptions, as well as developing an appreciation of the diversity and richness of cultural perspectives.

Assessment of TOK

The TOK course is assessed through an oral presentation and a 1600 word essay.

The presentation assesses the ability of the student to apply TOK thinking to a real-life situation, while the essay takes a more conceptual starting point.

For example, the essay may ask students to discuss the claim that the methodologies used to produce knowledge depend on the use to which that knowledge will be used.

What is the significance of TOK?

TOK aims to make students aware of the interpretative nature of knowledge, including personal ideological biases – whether these biases are retained, revised or rejected.

It offers students and their teachers the opportunity to:

  • reflect critically on diverse ways of knowing and on areas of knowledge
  • consider the role and nature of knowledge in their own culture, in the cultures of others and in the wider world.

In addition, TOK prompts students to: 

  • be aware of themselves as thinkers, encouraging them to become more acquainted with the complexity of knowledge
  • recognize the need to act responsibly in an increasingly interconnected but uncertain world. 

TOK also provides coherence for the student, by linking academic subject areas as well as transcending them.

It therefore demonstrates the ways in which the student can apply their knowledge with greater awareness and credibility.

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