By Tim Waples, Upper School English and IB TOK teacher
Theory of Knowledge (TOK) is a required course in the International Baccalaureate Diploma program that asks students to question and reflect upon the process of acquiring knowledge and how they know what they know. It’s a little bit of theory and a whole lot of fun.
When people ask me what “Theory of Knowledge,” or “TOK,” is, I often say, “It’s a critical thinking course.” But what exactly is “critical thinking?” Suddenly I’m questioning my own knowledge:
I think I know what “critical thinking” is, but I would hate to have to define it! And just like that, I’m doing TOK: I’m thinking about my knowledge, how it is useful to me and how I very frequently
encounter limits to what I know. Once we begin thinking about our knowledge, it becomes difficult—and undesirable—to stop.
So, is TOK as much and as little as “thinking about knowledge?” The very first homework assignment of the class asks students very simply to write down one hundred things that they know. So simple, and yet so difficult. After an initial rush of “facts,” we often find inspiration lacking: “I know I know a hundred things, but I can’t think of any!” We find ourselves checking off the objects in the room, fast-forwarding through our daily routines, painstakingly struggling toward 100. And when we look at our lists, we find little shortcuts, like “The sky is blue,” or “2+2=4,” when the truth is that we are too often blind to the assumptions that make our shortcuts “work.” (So, for example, can 9+5=2? Look at a clock before you answer!) This first assignment reveals to us that our minds are amazing engines of knowledge, memory, attention, creativity, and possibility; but they are also balky office machines that rarely operate under ideal conditions: We are forever confronted by our own awkwardness and limitations.
Three Basic Questions
I tell my students that TOK can be captured in three basic questions:
- “What do I know?”
- “How do I know it?”
- “What happens when different people know different things?”
Those questions, along with the distinction that TOK draws between “personal knowledge” (like knowing your favorite color or flavor of ice cream) and “shared knowledge” (like knowing that Country Day was founded in 1941), requires that our class be shaped by the knowledge of all the people in the room, not only the teacher. TOK has to be a student-centered, discussion-oriented class. From year to year, but even from section to section in the same year, each class is going to be its own distinct one-of-a-kind event. Teaching—or taking—TOK means being open to the perspectives of each of the people in the room, noticing how they overlap, discovering when they differ, or even disagree, and then finding out what happens next.
If you ask students about TOK, it won’t be long before they mention “Inquiries,” the two-page essays they are required to submit every other week. What is wonderful and horrible, according to students, about the Inquiry assignment is that they are absolutely free to write about anything they want, as long as they are analyzing their knowledge: what happened in TOK or any other class, family traditions, sibling or friend relationships, college visits or standardized test anxieties, technology and social media, travel experiences, current events or their wide-ranging activities and interests, from sports to arts to summer camps or jobs. In an Inquiry, students generally ask a question and do their best to answer it, which might include recognizing the limitations or variations inherent in their answer, or how their answer has changed over time, or how it differs from the ways others might answer the same question. I think students love the freedom they have to write about anything, and I know they sometimes hate the responsibility of being required to find and develop their own topics, when it’s easier (but so much less interesting and revealing!) to be told what is required. I hope that having this frequent and flexible assignment makes it easier for students to reflect on their thinking and their writing, to see their knowledge changing, and to communicate with me about their progress. I know that each year—every week, actually, since my two sections alternate deadlines—I am grateful for the energy, curiosity, passion, anxiety, and genuine reflectiveness that my students share with me in their writing. And I am grateful every year that many of my Upper School faculty colleagues from across the disciplines come to visit, to discuss the ways that their own knowledge and experiences have shaped them. Right along with the students, I’m inspired and entertained by these visits, from Mr. Mick Stukes discussing Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem or the paradoxes inherent in the concept of infinity, to Dr. Tony Lombardino sharing the latest insights of neuroscience, or conducting an illusion which tricks us into “feeling” the sensation of touch in a rubber hand placed in front of us.
Each day in TOK, my students and my colleagues remind me that our knowledge allows us to be wise or foolish, to be kind or callous, to be globally minded or self-interested. Each day in TOK, I’m reminded that my knowledge is a powerful tool, but one that is incomplete without the awareness of others, and one of the few things that I can be sure of is that each day my knowledge is changing. Although I’m confident that I know at least a hundred things, I know that trying to demonstrate it reveals the complexity and beauty and individuality of our knowledge.