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Theory of Knowledge

The Nature of the Subject

It is a commonplace to say that the world has experienced a digital revolution and that we are now part of a global information economy. The extent and impact of the changes signalled by such grand phrases vary greatly in different parts of the world, but their implications for knowledge are profound. Reflection on such huge cultural shifts is one part of what the TOK course is about. Its context is a world immeasurably different from that inhabited by “renaissance man”. Knowledge may indeed be said to have exploded: it has not only expanded massively but also become increasingly specialized, or fragmented. At the same time, discoveries in the 20th century (quantum mechanics, chaos theory) have demonstrated that there are things that it is impossible for us to know or predict.

The TOK course, a flagship element in the Diploma Programme, encourages critical thinking about knowledge itself, to try to help young people make sense of what they encounter. Its core content is questions like these: What counts as knowledge? How does it grow? What are its limits? Who owns knowledge? What is the value of knowledge? What are the implications of having, or not having, knowledge?

What makes TOK unique, and distinctively different from standard academic disciplines, is its process. At the centre of the course is the student as knower. Students entering the Diploma Programme typically have 16 years of life experience and more than 10 years of formal education behind them. They have accumulated a vast amount of knowledge, beliefs and opinions from academic disciplines and their lives outside the classroom. In TOK they have the opportunity to step back from this relentless acquisition of new knowledge, in order to consider knowledge issues. These include the questions already mentioned, viewed from the perspective of the student, but often begin from more basic ones, like: What do I claim to know [about X]? Am I justified in doing so [how?]? Such questions may initially seem abstract or theoretical, but TOK teachers bring them into closer focus by taking into account their students’ interests, circumstances and outlooks in planning the course.

TOK activities and discussions aim to help students discover and express their views on knowledge issues. The course encourages students to share ideas with others and to listen to and learn from what others think. In this process students’ thinking and their understanding of knowledge as a human construction are shaped, enriched and deepened. Connections may be made between knowledge encountered in different Diploma Programme subjects, in CAS experience or in extended essay research; distinctions between different kinds of knowledge may be clarified.

Because the subject matter of the course is defined in terms of knowledge issues, there is no end to the valid questions that may arise in a TOK course. This guide consists mainly of questions that have been found to stimulate appropriate TOK inquiry. It would not be possible or desirable to include them all in a course of 100 hours spread over the two years of the Diploma Programme, though it is expected that all sections of the guide will be covered to some extent.

The guide is organized in four broad categories: knowledge issues, knowers and knowing; ways of knowing; areas of knowledge; and linking questions. The categories are not intended to indicate a teaching sequence. There are many different ways to approach TOK. A successful course will:

  • build on students’ own experience and involve them actively in the classroom
  • ensure that students understand the purpose of TOK and its central role in the Diploma Programme
  • allow the teacher to model the values of curiosity, thoughtful inquiry and critical thought
  • have a structure that is clear to the students
  • meet the objectives of TOK
  • ensure that students understand and are prepared for the assessment tasks.

No teacher can be an expert in every field, and the sheer scope of the TOK course is daunting. Students also can be awed by the size of the questions they are considering. Both teachers and students need the confidence to go a little—not too far—outside their usual “comfort zones”. Then, with a spirit of inquiryand exploration, they can begin to share the excitement of reflecting on knowledge.


 The aims of the TOK course are to: 

  • develop a fascination with the richness of knowledge as a human endeavour, and an understanding of the empowerment that follows from reflecting upon it 
  • develop an awareness of how knowledge is constructed, critically examined, evaluated and renewed, by communities and individuals 
  • encourage students to reflect on their experiences as learners, in everyday life and in the Diploma Programme, and to make connections between academic disciplines and between thoughts, feelings and actions
  • encourage an interest in the diversity of ways of thinking and ways of living of individuals and communities, and an awareness of personal and ideological assumptions, including participants’ own 
  • encourage consideration of the responsibilities originating from the relationship between knowledge,the community and the individual as citizen of the world.


Having followed the TOK course, students should be able to:

  1. analyse critically knowledge claims, their underlying assumptions and their implications 
  2. generate questions, explanations, conjectures, hypotheses, alternative ideas and possible solutions in response to knowledge issues concerning areas of knowledge, ways of knowing and students’ own experience as learners 
  3. demonstrate an understanding of different perspectives on knowledge issues 
  4. draw links and make effective comparisons between different approaches to knowledge issues that derive from areas of knowledge, ways of knowing, theoretical positions and cultural values 
  5. demonstrate an ability to give a personal, self-aware response to a knowledge issue
  6. formulate and communicate ideas clearly with due regard for accuracy and academic honesty.






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