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Changing Minds: The Role of TOK in the IB Diploma

Erin Mills

IB Theory of Knowledge Teacher

Uruguayan American School

How do I know what I know? How can I be certain of what I know? What factors influence how I understand and view the world? These questions are at the heart of the International Baccalaureate required course, Theory of Knowledge (TOK). After sixteen years of life experiences and academic learning, TOK encourages students to pause, take a step back, and critically reflect upon these questions. In other words, students learn to “think TOK.” As a core class, the curriculum content of TOK links learning across subject areas of the IB but also transcends these subjects. It’s a tall order for a sixteen-year-old, but when the lessons are dynamic and relevant to their lives, students find themselves “thinking TOK.”

One of the first skills students learn in TOK is to derive questions about knowledge. To facilitate this process, TOK distinguishes between “what we know” which are the areas of knowledge (AOKs), mostly synonymous to the academic subjects of the students, and “how we know” which in TOK is known as the ways of knowing (WOKs). The WOKs are memory, sense perception, language, emotion, reason/logic, faith, imagination, and intuition.

Lessons in TOK often start with real-life situations. From these, we derive our knowledge questions which become catalysts for learning. For example, in a lesson on memory this semester, students started with a memory test in which they tried to recall as many words as possible. Oddly, many of them experienced a false memory, reciting words they thought were on the test. This initiated a discussion on false memories and the reliability of memory.

In a second real-life situation on the same topic of memory, students watched a brief investigative film in which a group of unsuspecting people witnesses a staged murder that appears to be real. In the film’s post-murder interviews, not one witness is able to correctly identify the murderer. In fact, some choose the innocent man. Students began to consider how emotion and other ways of knowing might affect the reliability of memory. After calling memory into question, students then discussed the implications for knowledge.

In class and out of class activities prepare students for the IB’s internal and external TOK assessments. Students participate in Socratic seminars, compose written responses, and create individual or group presentations in which they defend their thoughts on knowledge questions using solid examples and theories to support their ideas while also addressing counterclaims.

To this end, eleventh-grader Ema delivered a presentation in a unit examining authority figures’ influence on the certainty of knowledge. She analyzed to what extent expertise in indigenous knowledge systems can be transferred to another area of knowledge such as the natural sciences. Using the example of the Kwakwaka’wakw indigenous people from the Pacific Northwest Coast, she showed how their sophisticated understanding of ecology led to advances in scientists’ sustainable cultivation of marine food.

The concepts and skills introduced in TOK also transfer to other classes. Built into the curriculum of each academic subject are opportunities to “think TOK.” Students might consider the ethical implications for pursuing scientific knowledge, or the role of memory in historical evidence and the certainty about knowledge it provides. Junior Elsa admits the class can be too theoretical or philosophical at times, but she sees how TOK concepts can be applied in her other classes:

When I was creating a piece about the relationship between self-image and advertising I thought of TOK ways of knowing like authority and language, and this helped me go deeper into what I was trying to express in my work.

TOK can be a challenging class since students must demonstrate an extremely high level of critical thinking; however, as an educator, it is deeply fulfilling to see them reach such reflective, critical conclusions. Ultimately, as senior Maxi succinctly summarizes, “TOK shows me how to think in a different way.”

Bio:  Erin is a Theory of Knowledge teacher at the Uruguayan American School in Montevideo.  

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