When asked about what makes IB students better ready for university than others, admissions officers tend to highlight two things, the Extended Essay and TOK. TOK, which is short for Theory of Knowledge could be regarded as the heart and the crown of the IB. It forms the foundation of the whole programme and it elevates the DP curriculum to a level of sophistication not achieved by other qualifications. Sure, it is possible to pursue courses in Critical Thinking outside the DP but they do not have the vision nor the integrated quality found in TOK. Put succinctly, TOK provides an understanding of how and why we learn. It is also an expression of the IB’s learner profile, the TOK student should cultivate and embody the values which every life long learner needs to acquire.
TOK asks four essential questions. What is knowledge? How is it produced? How is it acquired and applied in daily life, and it does so for every main area of human knowledge. It operates within a clear framework for each Area of Knowledge( AoK). It examines the key concepts for each AoK, it looks at the scope of the knowledge produced and how it is applied, it explores the methods by which the knowledge is produced and considers key historical developments as well as the role of individuals and communities within it.
A word of warning, students (and teachers) new to TOK will often find it unsettling and frustrating, at least initially. This is as it should be. One of the tasks of TOK is to challenge accepted knowledge and the assumptions it is based on. It forces students to look at knowledge issues at the most fundamental level and this can threaten long held beliefs. It is often frustrating as it does not seem to provide clear black and white answers. In fact a successful TOK lesson will be one where the student emerges with more questions and fewer answers than they began with. Having said this, those who embrace TOK find that the way they think has changed and that they have gained a new level of clarity and understanding in many areas. TOK will raise your awareness of the problems with the foundations of knowledge and with their possible solutions. It is difficult and demanding but the rewards are well worth it.
A good way of gaining a taste of what TOK lessons have in store for you is to attempt to answer the question: “what is knowledge?” Of course, you could reach for the nearest dictionary and choose to be satisfied with whatever answer is given there. TOK challenges you not to be satisfied with pre-packaged answers but to try and reach an understanding on your own. Let me leave you with a challenge. IBDP students have resorted to using Plato’s definition of knowledge, “justified true belief”, often unthinkingly and for generations. Can you see why a proper TOK student should not be satisfied with it? Happy thinking!