The TOK course “at a glance”


The TOK course “at a glance”

The TOK course provides students with an opportunity to explore and reflect on the nature of knowledge and the process of knowing. It is a core element of the DP to which schools are required to devote at least 100 hours of class time.

In TOK, students reflect on the knowledge, beliefs and opinions that they have built up from their years of academic studies and their lives outside the classroom. The course is intended to be challenging and thought-provoking—as well as empowering—for students.

The course centres on the exploration of knowledge questions, which are a key tool for both teachers and students. These are contestable questions about knowledge itself, such as: “What counts as good evidence for a claim?”, “Are some types of knowledge less open to interpretation than others?”, or “What constraints should there be on the pursuit of knowledge?”. While these questions may initially seem slightly intimidating, they become much more accessible when considered with reference to specific examples within the TOK course.

The TOK curriculum is made up of three deeply interconnected parts.

  • The core theme-Knowledge and the knower: This theme encourages students to reflect on themselves as knowers and thinkers, and to consider the different communities of knowers to which we belong.
  • Optional themes: This element provides an opportunity to take a more in-depth look at two themes of particular interest to teachers and students. The given themes all have a significant impact on the world today and play a key role in shaping people’s perspectives and identities. Teachers select two optional themes from a choice of five: knowledge and technology; knowledge and language; knowledge and politics; knowledge and religion; and knowledge and indigenous societies.
  • Areas of knowledge: The areas of knowledge (AOK) are specific branches of knowledge, each of which can be seen to have a distinct nature and sometimes use different methods of gaining knowledge. In TOK, students explore five compulsory areas of knowledge: history; the human sciences; the natural sciences; mathematics; and the arts.

To help teachers and students explore these three parts of the TOK curriculum, guidance and suggested knowledge questions are provided. These suggested knowledge questions are organized into a framework of four elements: scope, perspectives, methods and tools, and ethics. This “knowledge framework” encourages a deep exploration of each theme and AOK. Having these common elements run throughout the different parts of the curriculum also helps to unify the course and helps students to make effective connections and comparisons across the different themes and areas of knowledge.

There are two assessment tasks in the TOK course.

  • The TOK exhibition assesses the ability of the student to show how TOK manifests in the world around us. The exhibition is an internal assessment component; it is marked by the teacher and is externally moderated by the IB.
  • The TOK essay engages students in a more formal and sustained piece of writing in response to a title focused on the areas of knowledge. The essay is an external assessment component; it is marked by IB examiners. The essay must be a maximum of 1,600 words and must be on one of the six prescribed titles issued by the IB for each examination session.

Nature of the subject

The TOK course plays a special role in the DP by providing an opportunity for students to reflect on the nature, scope and limitations of knowledge and the process of knowing. In this way, the main focus of TOK is not on students acquiring new knowledge but on helping students to reflect on, and put into perspective, what they already know.

TOK underpins and helps to unite the subjects that students encounter in the rest of their DP studies. It engages students in explicit reflection on how knowledge is arrived at in different disciplines and areas of knowledge, on what these areas have in common and the differences between them. It is intended that through this holistic approach, discussions in one area will help to enrich and deepen discussions in other areas.

The course is an opportunity for teachers and students to engage in interesting conversations that cross the boundaries of individual disciplines and that help students to reflect on the knowledge they have acquired from both their academic studies and their lives outside the classroom. Students are encouraged to examine the evidence for claims and to consider, for example, how we distinguish fact from opinion, or how we evaluate the credibility of claims that we are exposed to in the media. They explore different methods and tools of inquiry and try to establish what it is about them that makes them effective, as well as considering their limitations.

The following 12 concepts have particular prominence within, and thread throughout, the
TOK course: evidence, certainty, truth, interpretation, power, justification, explanation, objectivity, perspective, culture, values and responsibility. Exploration of the relationship between knowledge and these concepts can help students to deepen their understanding, as well as facilitating the transfer of their learning to new and different contexts.

The TOK course embraces the exploration of tensions, limitations and challenges relating to knowledge and knowing. However, it is also intended that TOK discussions will encourage students to appreciate and be inspired by the richness of human knowledge—and to consider the positive value of different kinds of knowledge. Consideration should be given to the benefits of this kind of reflection on knowledge and knowing; for example, in terms of its potential to help us think more subtly, to be more aware of our assumptions, or to overcome prejudice and promote intercultural understanding.

Knowledge in TOK

Knowledge is the raw material of the TOK course. Throughout the TOK course, there should be ongoing conversations about the nature, scope and limits of knowledge. However, a detailed technical philosophical investigation into the nature of knowledge is not appropriate in a TOK course. For example, there is no expectation that TOK students will be familiar with specific philosophers or philosophical texts. However, it is useful for students to have a rough working idea of what is meant by “knowledge” at the outset of the course—this can then become more refined throughout the discussions.

There are various ways of thinking about knowledge, but one useful way to help students think about knowledge in TOK can be through the metaphor of knowledge as a map. Since a map is a simplified representation of the world, items that are not relevant to the purpose of the map are left out. For example, we would not expect to find detailed street names on a map of a city metro system. This metaphor can help students to see the importance of considering the context in which knowledge has been sought and constructed.

A metaphor such as this can support rich discussions about knowledge and accuracy, about how knowledge grows and changes, and about the difference between producing and using knowledge. It can also prompt interesting wider reflections on the cultural assumptions behind our understanding of what maps are or should be, or the way that the cartographer’s perspective is reflected in a map. Maps and knowledge are produced by, and in turn produce, a particular perspective.

TOK and international-mindedness

The term “international-mindedness” is used by the IB to refer to a way of thinking, being and acting characterized by an openness to the world and a recognition of our deep interconnectedness to others.

The TOK course places a great deal of emphasis on elements that are central to the development of international- mindedness. For example, it encourages students to consider the diversity and richness of different perspectives, as well as exploring the interdependent influence of knowledge and culture.

The course encourages students to be curious about, and to think deeply and carefully about, complicated issues. It encourages students to avoid shallow and polarized thinking, and to avoid making quick judgments. It highlights that sometimes there really are no simple answers, and “that tensions between conflicting points of view have to be lived with, argued about and frequently left unresolved” (Walker 2004: 135).

Through their explorations in TOK, students are encouraged to discover and articulate their own views on knowledge. They are encouraged to share their ideas with others, and to listen to and learn from what others think. Through this process of dialogue and discussion, their own understanding is enriched and deepened as they become more engaged with different beliefs, values and experiences, as well as with alternative ways of answering questions.

TOK also challenges students to be intellectual risk-takers and to question what they hold to be true. In this way, it encourages intellectual humility and encourages students to gain and apply their knowledge with greater awareness and responsibility. Reflecting on how we may be wrong and how the world may seem to someone else helps students to become more aware of the assumptions and values that influence our thoughts and actions. In this way, the course helps students to reflect on their growing understanding of themselves and of the world around them.


The aims of the TOK course are:

  • to encourage students to reflect on the central question, “How do we know that?”, and to recognize the value of asking that question.
  • to expose students to ambiguity, uncertainty and questions with multiple plausible answers.
  • to equip students to effectively navigate and make sense of the world, and help prepare them to encounter novel and complex situations.
  • to encourage students to be more aware of their own perspectives and to reflect critically on their own beliefs and assumptions.
  • to engage students with multiple perspectives, foster open-mindedness and develop intercultural understanding
  • to encourage students to make connections between academic disciplines by exploring underlying concepts and by identifying similarities and differences in the methods of inquiry used in different areas of knowledge.
  • to prompt students to consider the importance of values, responsibilities and ethical concerns relating to the production, acquisition, application and communication of knowledge.

Knowledge questions

  • The TOK curriculum centres around the exploration of knowledge questions. Knowledge questions are crucial to effective TOK discussions as they help to make sure that students are focusing on questions about knowledge itself and about how we know things. Knowledge questions help students to move beyond subject-specific questions or specific real-life situations into the realm of TOK.
  • Knowledge questions are questions about knowledge—about how knowledge is produced, acquired, shared and used; what it is and what it is not; who has it and who does not; and who decides the answers to these questions. Instead of focusing on subject-specific content or specific examples, students focus on how knowledge is constructed and evaluated. In this sense, knowledge questions are distinct from many of the questions that students encounter in their other subjects.
  • Knowledge questions are contestable in that there are a number of plausible answers to them. Dealing with these open contestable questions is a key feature of TOK, although some students can find the lack of a single “right” answer slightly disorienting. In TOK discussions, it is perfectly conceivable that answers to a question may differ—what matters is that the analysis is thorough, accurate and effectively supported by examples and evidence.
  • Knowledge questions also draw on TOK concepts and terminology, rather than using subject-specific terminology or specific examples. Knowledge questions draw on central TOK concepts such as evidence, certainty, values, and interpretation.
  • Knowledge questions underlie much of the knowledge that we take for granted and are often the motivation for many disagreements and controversies. Exploration of knowledge questions can therefore help us to have a deeper understanding of how knowledge is constructed and evaluated in different areas, as well as helping us to make sense of the world around us.
  • Knowledge questions are the key tool for teaching and learning in TOK. The two assessment tasks—the TOK exhibition and TOK essay—centre on the exploration of knowledge questions as both the Internal Assessment (IA) prompts and the prescribed essay titles take the form of knowledge questions. It is therefore crucial that students engage with the exploration and discussion of knowledge questions throughout the TOK course.

Core theme: Knowledge and the knower

  • The core theme-knowledge and the knower-provides an opportunity for students to reflect on what shapes their perspective as a knower, where their values come from, and how they make sense of, and navigate, the world around them.
  • Importantly, this theme does not focus exclusively on the individual knower. It also considers aspects such as the impact of the different communities of knowers to which we belong, and how knowledge is constructed, critically examined, evaluated and renewed by communities and individuals. This includes reflection on how our interactions with others and with the material world shape our knowledge.
  • This theme encourages careful and critical consideration of claims, provoking students to reflect on how we distinguish between claims that are contestable and claims that are not. It highlights the importance of not simply accepting claims at face value, and then explores how this can be reconciled with a recognition that many situations require us to make decisions without possessing absolute certainty.
  • The core theme has been explicitly designed to provide rich opportunities for teachers and students to make links to the IB learner profile. Students are encouraged to consider both the power and the limitations of the tools that they have at their disposal as knowers and thinkers, and to become more aware of their own biases and assumptions. They could also consider what it really means to be open-minded or consider the importance of caring about how knowledge is used and controlled.
  • An interesting focus for discussions in this theme could be misinformation and disinformation, deliberate deception and manipulation, and how we know who/what to trust. This could include reflection on which sources of knowledge (books, websites, personal experience, authority figures, and so on) students consider most trustworthy, and why. It could also include reflection on how advances in technology have brought these issues into sharper focus through, for example, discussion of “fake news” and its machinery.
  • Another interesting focus for discussions could be to explore how we perceive and construct our understanding of the world. This could include consideration of the way that culture can be seen as a lens through which we look at the world, or the impact of filters, image manipulation and propaganda. For example, students could consider at what point filters become more important than what really exists, or the influence of hidden assumptions in shaping us as knowers.

Optional themes

The optional themes allow for a more in-depth look at two themes that are of particular interest to the TOK teacher and students.

Teachers must select two optional themes from the following five options.

  • Knowledge and technology
  • Knowledge and language
  • Knowledge and politics
  • Knowledge and religion
  • Knowledge and indigenous societies

These five themes have been selected because of their contemporary real-world relevance and their rich potential to stimulate interesting and engaging TOK discussions around key areas, such as the justification of, and evidence for, claims.

It is intended that all five of these optional themes will have strong links to, and extend from, the core theme—Knowledge and the knower. Whereas the core theme focuses on the student and the particular communities of knowers that they belong to, the optional themes broaden the focus to five factors that have a huge impact on the world today and that play a particularly key role in shaping people’s perspectives and identities. They raise issues that students are likely to encounter in their lives both within and, importantly, beyond their school experiences.

Areas of knowledge

Areas of knowledge are structures within which much human knowledge is organized. In these areas there are often socially established methods for producing knowledge, as well as norms for what counts as a fact or a good explanation.

Students are required to study all five of the following areas of knowledge.

  • History
  • The human sciences
  • The natural sciences
  • The arts
  • Mathematics

Within their discussions, students should be encouraged to think about, and draw examples from, specific individual academic disciplines that are included within the different areas of knowledge.


The IB Theory of Knowledge Guide, First Assessment 2021

Share this post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *