Top 10 TOK tips for IB teachers: Tips 1 to 5

Top 10 TOK tips for IB teachers: Tips 1 to 5

Theory of Knowledge (TOK) is an important part of the International Baccalaureate® (IB) Diploma Programme, providing an opportunity for students to reflect on the nature of knowledge, and on how we know what we claim to know. In this article, IB expert Ric Sims shares...


Theory of Knowledge (TOK) is an important part of the International Baccalaureate® (IB) Diploma Programme, providing an opportunity for students to reflect on the nature of knowledge, and on how we know what we claim to know. In this article, IB expert Ric Sims shares his first five top tips for teaching TOK in your classroom.

Read more top tips from Ric in Part 2: tips 6-10.

Tip 1: Exhibition preparation

This activity encourages thinking about the linking of exhibition objects to the prompt. This is an activity that can be tried in class with groups of two students for practice purposes, and then later in the real exhibition with individual students.

  • Pick a prompt.
  • Try to find three objects that seem to fit the prompt.
  • Create a table with four columns, labelled from left to right: Aspect of prompt; Object 1, Object 2 and Object 3, and list aspects of the prompt that relate to the objects selected.
  • It is not required that each object links to each aspect identified (though it might), it is only required that each object links to one of the aspects.

The advantage of this activity is that it follows the concrete –> abstract model that works well in the TOK classroom. Aspects of the prompt are found by thinking of the actual objects chosen rather than in an abstract manner. If an object does not seem to fit well in comparison with the others, then it can be jettisoned and replaced by another that fits better. Therefore this activity is ongoing and circular.

A real museum exhibition could be used as a model for the TOK exhibition. If in doubt about the suitability of an object, ask whether it could be shown in a museum, so:

  • ✗a full-length feature-film
  • ✓ a short 1 minute clip
  • ✗a novel
  • ✓ the dust jacket of a first edition

Despite appearing in the list of suggestions in the subject guide, be very wary of using a newspaper article as an exhibition object. It cannot be used to make an argument but only as an object perhaps representing the time and place when it was printed (such as the front page of the New York Times the day after the sinking of the Titanic).

Tip 2: Essay preparation

One of the hardest tasks for a TOK student (and yet one of the most important) is to define the key words in their essay title. Again, the best way to do this is not via abstract prior definitions but rather with concrete examples in mind. As a practice, old essay titles, or the specimens, can be used, and this exercise done in pairs (the conversations within the pair constitutes good TOK pedagogy).

  • Pick a prescribed title.
  • Highlight the keywords in the title.
  • Find two concrete examples that seem to fit the title (taken from two different areas of knowledge).
  • For each example and each highlighted key word state what aspect of the example corresponds to the keyword
  • On the basis of the examples, try to summarise an understanding of each keyword.

What may emerge from this exercise is that keywords have slightly different meanings in different areas of knowledge. This is normal in TOK, although the student should be able to say what the meanings have in common (this will form the abstract definition that the student can place in the introduction of the essay).

Any difficulty fitting parts of the example to the keyword may suggest that a better example is needed. Alternatively, it might indicate a systematic issue with the keyword that is worth discussing in the body of the essay – this constitutes a knowledge question. Note again that the procedure is concrete –> abstract.

Tip 3: Course structure

In planning your course keep the following in mind:

  • Keep the course structure simple. TOK is a complex and sophisticated course, but this complexity is best delivered through content rather than course design. Avoid mixing categories by teaching the areas of knowledge through the themes or suchlike. These are quite different parts of the course and are best dealt with separately. The knowledge framework serves as a useful structure for linking different parts of the course together.
  • Mount the exhibition after one year of TOK. This will take the pressure off the second year when there are other hurdles to jump.
  • Don’t forget that the core theme and the optional themes should be covered before the exhibition because that is where they are assessed.
  • Make sure that you devote 50% of the course to the areas of knowledge. The recommendation is 10 hours per area of knowledge. The areas of knowledge are needed for the essay which is 2/3 of the marks.
  • Build in the opportunity for developing essay skills through mini essays and a full length trial essay on old titles.

Tip 4: Core theme

In teaching the core theme keep the following in mind:

  • Much of the knowledge involved in the core theme is not propositional knowledge but procedural knowledge or know how. Avoid narrowing the focus of the course by adopting a too narrow definition of knowledge – being about beliefs or statements that can be true or false. The core theme examines knowledge that enables us to function in the world – it enables us to do things – both in the physical world and in the social world.
  • The relationship between the knowledge of the individual knower and the social scaffolds that are needed to make that knowledge possible is worth discussing in this theme. The obvious example is language, but there are also the roles played by other types of social norm (think of the norms surrounding doing long-multiplication for example). Social norms tend to police the knowledge-making practices of individuals.
  • The core theme also provides space to discuss how to treat the knowledge of others. Taking the knowledge of others seriously, not interfering with their autonomy as knowers, and making an effort to understand them from their perspective (even if you end up disagreeing) are surely social virtues for which the knower is responsible for cultivating.
  • The ethical part of the knowledge framework also suggests that there might be knowledge which we have an obligation to know. Also there may be virtues that apply to ourselves in our knowledge-making that don’t quite make it into the learner profile such as being careful with evidence, epistemic humility, conscientiousness, persistence in our knowledge-making in the face of obstacles and so on.

Tip 5: Knowledge and technology

Things to think about:

  • Resist the temptation to think of technology as meaning just digital technology. Technology has been around for millenia for producing, organising and storing knowledge. One of the most impressive TOK inventions ever is the invention of written language that allows knowledge to travel over great distances and times.
  • Think about how technology allows us to outsource cognition into the environment. We structure our environment in a radical way to enable us to do things (just think about the layout of the school or of your town or city).
  • Think about how technology together with the requisite social practices allows us to make knowledge collectively.
  • Think too about how new knowledge technologies empower one group and disenfranchise others.
  • The power aspect of technology could be explored in how certain groups act as gatekeepers for technologies. In the past this applied to who was permitted by sacred and secular authorities to be literate – written language being a massive social technology. There is no nation on earth where women are more literate than men.
  • Control of digital technology lies in relatively few hands. Think about the implications of the fact that the internet is privately owned (it is), of the fact that the likes of Google, Facebook, Netflix, Instagram etc play a big role in our lives without our having any say in how they operate.
  • Think about the role of technology in the arts and sciences and how it has the capacity to transform these areas of knowledge.

Read more top tips from Ric in Part 2: tips 6-10.

Want to try our new IB Diploma Theory of Knowledge textbook for free?

Written by our experienced author team of examiners, curriculum reviewers and workshop leaders – Sue Bastian, Julian Kitching and Ric Sims – our new Theory of Knowledge textbook is structured to match the new Knowledge Framework, with full coverage of the 2020 Subject Guide, including the Core and Optional Themes, and Areas of Knowledge.

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About the author

Ric Sims has taught ToK for nearly 25 years in a number of European schools in combination with Maths, Music, Philosophy, and Economics. He has extensive experience of curriculum development and he is a leading teacher trainer in ToK. He teaches at Katedralskolan in Uppsala, Sweden.


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