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Theory of Knowledge

Theory of Knowledge is the most exciting, intellectually challenging and significant class in the IB Diploma Programme. This bold, provocative claim needs some substantiation.

Some of you will know that Theory of Knowledge, or epistemology, is a branch of philosophy concerned with how we know. While TOK at IB cannot pretend to be a detailed study of philosophy, it is philosophical in nature, in as much as it asks students to reflect critically and to think deeply about how they know; how certain this knowledge is and can be. TOK is not a subject to be taught, but a cross discipline enquiry.


In class students contemplate how knowledge is made in each of their subject areas, considering the scope, methods and validity of knowledge as well as developing an understanding that the Ways of Knowing – sense perception, reason, intuition, memory, emotion, imagination, language, faith are interconnected. While this may seem rather dry and pedantic on paper, in class, thankfully, it is otherwise. TOK lends itself to a wide range of teaching approaches to engage students in discussion and for these students to establish an intellectual position based on reason.


This week, for example, I am privileged to be hosting a debate between Mr Young and Mrs Wilcox on whether “The canon” in English literature should be taught. I imagine this will involve considering what makes a great piece of literature; which authorities decide this and how reputations are won and lost. But I may be wrong.


Last week Mrs Radoja showed students examples of “bad” art, leading to discussion of what makes art “good”, what the qualities we expect in a piece of art and why.


Mr Warmington has started discussions on the most complex known object in the universe, our brains, by asking students to guess how much a bag of sugar weighs. (Yes, the bag weighs about the same as an adult brain). This initial investigation into measurement opens up an arena of ideas in itself: Why we have measurements, the history of measurements, estimation versus accurate measurement, the use of measurement in science, etc. This then led to inquiries into neuroscience, what we know and are learning about our brains and how they work, and what we might never know about ourselves.


I myself always like to have a lesson on Freud, not only to consider his enduring idea of the subconscious, but also to examine how his methodology has been questioned, as well as demonstrating how science naturally produces paradigm shifts and revolutions in thinking. And, well, to be honest, I just think Freud, along with others, is a figure students should know about before they study at university. TOK is often about joining the dots, of looking at things from other perspectives and making connections.


With this in mind, it is easy to understand why universities like TOK, and students who have studied the IB Diploma Programme.


Andy Pheby

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