Nord Anglia Education
Nord Anglia
11 March, 2020

What is the Theory of Knowledge?

What is Theory of Knowledge | Nord Anglia Education - What is the Theory of Knowledge
What is the Theory of Knowledge? How do we know what we know? This is a core concept of the Theory of Knowledge, a part of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. Here is our guide.  

There’s so much more to learning than simply memorising a list of facts and figures before reciting them in examinations. Developing intelligence requires an understanding of the quest for knowledge and how to apply that to real-world scenarios.

That’s where the Theory of Knowledge comes in. An essential part of holistic education in the 21st century, we’ll discuss the core methodology of the Theory of Knowledge, the subjects it covers, and why it’s vital to those looking to study the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme.


What Is TOK in the International Baccalaureate Programme?

The Theory of Knowledge, or TOK as it’s commonly known, forms an essential part of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, which is taught in many Nord Anglia Education schools. It sits alongside the subject groups of the IB, representing one of three additional core requirements – the others being Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS) and the Extended Essay (EE).

The TOK course is mandatory for all students on the IB programme. It involves 100 hours of instruction before a two-part assessment process (which is detailed in the section “TOK  assessment and grading”).

What Does Theory of Knowledge (TOK) Mean?

The Theory of Knowledge is concerned with understanding what it means to “know”. Rather than study a particular subject, TOK looks to pursue more conceptual ideas of what it takes to acquire knowledge and how to apply that to real-world scenarios.

TOK is heavily associated with epistemology. A branch of philosophy, epistemology studies the nature of knowledge, belief and truth.

For those who choose to embark on a TOK course, you’ll look to discover how we know what we know. A central part of the Theory of Knowledge is teaching the justification of knowledge. Learning the concept of critical analysis, TOK teaches students to reflect on areas of knowledge and how to question that knowledge.

Critical analysis is woven into all parts of a TOK course. Other aims include:

  • Making a connection between the construction of knowledge, academic disciplines and the real world
  • Creating an awareness of how communities and their individuals develop knowledge
  • Developing awareness and enthusiasm for the diversity of cultural outlooks and mindsets
  • Increasing awareness of personal ideological assumptions and how to critically analyse them
  • Appreciating the responsibility that comes with knowledge

In a world where sources of information are plentiful, TOK can provide students with the tools they need to scrutinise knowledge and identify the truth. Fundamentally, a student who has undergone a TOK class should be asking:

  • How do we know?
  • What counts as evidence of X?
  • How do we judge which is the best model of X?
  • What does theory X mean in the real world?

Knowing About Knowing

Typically, the TOK curriculum is broken into three key components that address the aims of the course. The first of which is “knowing about knowing”.

Fundamentally, the TOK curriculum teaches students to look at how we know what we claim to know. The way a TOK does this is by encouraging students to analyse “knowledge claims” by asking “knowledge questions”. Here is an explanation of the distinction:

Knowledge Claims  

When someone makes a claim about what they think they know, this is known as a “knowledge claim”. The job of a student of TOK is to examine exactly how that person can say they know it. When it comes to succeeding at TOK, you first need to be aware of the kind of knowledge claim that’s being made. TOK is concerned with two:

  • A knowledge claim about how the world is or how it works

Known as first-order claims, these are statements made within an area of knowledge. They are mainly concerned with individual subject areas.

  • A knowledge claim about the nature of knowledge itself

Referred to as second-order claims, these are knowledge claims that are examined in TOK and look at the essence and status of different areas and ways of knowing.

A TOK class intends to study the validity of knowledge claims, focusing on second-order claims.

Knowledge Questions

To scrutinise a knowledge claim, students are tasked with asking probing knowledge questions. These questions are at the very heart of the TOK course. Identifying and proposing knowledge questions is essential to success.

There are many ingredients to a good knowledge question, but fundamentally they don’t exist to question a particular thing people “know”. They need to be open, general and focus on how we arrive at knowledge itself. The ultimate knowledge question is one we posed above – “How do we know what we know?”

Shared Knowledge vs Personal Knowledge

Within this core component of the curriculum, students are also informed of the distinction between shared knowledge and personal knowledge.

Shared Knowledge

This refers to the accumulation of many bodies of knowledge, each of which is shared by many people at once. These are constantly challenged and contributed to by individuals, but don’t depend on the actions of any individual. A core of knowledge around a subject already exists; it can either be checked and amended or stay the same.

Many of the IB’s core subjects are essentially collections of knowledge. Take biology. Its body of knowledge can be accessed and challenged by anyone. Contributions from individuals add new pieces of knowledge, but without it, that body of knowledge would still exist.

Personal Knowledge

Gained through experience, practice and a range of circumstances, personal knowledge is the makeup of any individual’s perspective. This could include academic work such as individual research or information learned through formal education, but personal knowledge is also steeped in what someone has learned beyond academia. This includes skill, like how to play the piano, or things you’ve learned about life through everyday experiences.

Contributing to your personal knowledge means everything from your interests and values to your location and age.

Ways of Knowing in TOK

Ways of knowing explores the different methods we use in order to gain knowledge and then process it. TOK divides our ways of knowing into eight:

  • Sense perception
  • Emotion
  • Language
  • Reason
  • Imagination
  • Faith
  • Intuition
  • Memory

A TOK course challenges students to explore the ways of knowing, both individually and as a network to acquiring knowledge. At times, they can work in tandem to positively bring about gaining knowledge. In other cases, ways of knowing will be in direct conflict of one another – an example being reason and faith. 

Areas of Knowledge in TOK

The second part of the course is “areas of knowledge”. Imagining a tree where knowledge forms the trunk, areas of knowledge represent eight different branches. Each branch contains a unique subject of knowledge. In this part of the course, you’ll be exposed to many of these areas of knowledge, considering what the knowledge is and how each of them goes about gaining that knowledge.

The eight areas of knowledge are:

  • Mathematics
  • Natural Sciences
  • Human Sciences
  • The Arts
  • History
  • Ethics
  • Religious knowledge systems
  • Indigenous knowledge systems

Students are tasked with using their knowledge of the ways of knowing and applying that to each of the areas of knowledge. The key is to critically question the way in which knowledge is gained, asking the same questions posed above: “How do we know?”, “What counts as evidence?” and so on.

One example could be applied to natural sciences. Reason is acknowledged as the way of knowing in this field – but are there other ways of knowing in natural sciences?

TOK Assessment and Grading

Once a student has undergone the required amount of instruction, they can undergo the assessment and achieve and grade. Throughout the assessment, students will be expected to demonstrate the ability to:

  • Formulate, analyse and look to answer knowledge questions
  • Understand how areas of knowledge generate knowledge
  • Consider how ways of knowing contribute to shared and personal knowledge
  • Identify and analyse how knowledge claims are justified
  • Show an awareness and understanding of the existence of different perspectives and how they relate to your own
  • Study the connections between knowledge claims and knowledge questions, ways of knowing and areas of knowledge
  • Show an awareness of how the TOK framework can be applied to a real-world example

The assessment is broken down into two parts:

  • Essay – 67% weighting of the final grade
  • Presentation – 33% weighting of the final grade

The Theory of Knowledge course contributes to the overall International Baccalaureate Diploma score for that student. Together with the Extended Essay, the TOK can contribute a total of three points towards their Diploma score depending on their performance in the essay and presentation.


Using the Theory of Knowledge framework, students are able to develop the rigorous set of skills required to question the very essence of all the knowledge they encounter. All Nord Anglia Education schools strive to include the principles of TOK, regardless of whether they deliver the International Baccalaureate Programme, helping to develop the next generation of inquisitive minds. Find out exactly how your nearest Nord Anglia Education school does that on our schools page.