Surviving IB: TOK


From Natalie Yeo and Vernon Yian (both 6.17, class of 2016)

What do you feel about TOK?

Nat: TOK, like IB, is what you make of it. Some dismiss it as bullshit, but insofar as bullshit is logical, it is fair game.

TOK is also often described as philosophy. However, TOK is simplified epistemology – how we know what we know (or what we think we know).

Having said that, TOK is enjoyable as it is relatable – any phenomenon you observe can serve as your Real Life Situation (RLS). It is also fun because, well, no exams, yay.

Vernon: I mostly wanted to use TOK to satisfy my curiosity for strands of knowledge beyond our limited JC/IB curriculum! My presentation dealt with rocks and their inexplicable beauty; and my essay with architecture, poetry, and mathematical intuition.

I gradually realised that TOK bases its concepts (AOK, WOK etc.) on questionable assumptions that do not really hold under inspection. As such, it was also a fun personal quest to see how much I could (try to) dismantle these assumptions, while not endangering my grades.

TOK can be enjoyable if you let yourself explore things that you are genuinely interested in! That being said, it is important know that TOK, like any other artificially-constructed system of epistemology, does not claim to be the ultimate and only perspective by which to view the world–and it would erode our thinking if we treat TOK with too much unquestioning regard.


Most vital survival tips to the TOK presentation

Nat and Vernon: The TOK presentation is vital to securing an A for TOK. Although it “only” accounts for 1/3 of the final TOK grade, it is far easier to secure a 9 or 10 than to secure marks in an essay marked halfway around the world. The presentation is assessed in class. Work the system.

At the heart of the TOK presentation is the Knowledge Question (KQ). Your KQ should be read as a question addressed to a second order knowledge claim, rather than a first order knowledge claim. It should attempt to explore the nature of knowledge rather than knowledge itself. For example, Nat’s KQ was: How are our perspectives shaped by our cultural background?

  • Much of TOK is knowing what they want you to deliver. Determine what the marking points of a TOK presentation are. Some guiding points could be to:
    • Consult your teacher – the presentation assessment format has been revised to help you score better marks. Maximise consultations with your teacher-examiner, as he/she would be more familiar with format, and what high-scoring presentations should look like. You should also be able to determine which parts of your presentation he/she likes and tweak it accordingly!
    • Read and understand the rubrics, as the presentation is ultimately graded according to its performance in specific and individual criterion. When rehearsing/editing, try to internalise the rubrics and ask yourself if the presentation can be considered in the top band of marks.
    • Examine seniors’ presentations and find the commonality between well-scoring presentations. Initiative is key!
    • Listen during lectures! You probably won’t use most of what you hear, content-wise, but you get a feel of what the assessment objectives are, and how IBO thinks you should think.  
  •  Raise assumptions in your KQ – one of the objectives of TOK is to question what you think you know. (Or so we think.) Eg: Assumption that our perspectives are shaped by our cultural background.
  • If there is someone you can work well with, do your presentation in a pair. You can fit more into a 20min presentation than a 10min presentation. A word of caution though, if you cannot find anyone like-minded enough then proceed on your own! Pairs sometimes dissolve into an inefficient mess of who-is-right and I-don’t-get-what-you’re-saying.
  • Take your TKPPD seriously. The TKPPD is the first and only access the IB moderators have to your presentation. Importantly, IB moderates your score based on this document, rather than the presentation itself. It is hence advised to write the TKPPD carefully enough so as not to raise any doubtful eyebrows, which may influence the moderator to deflate your score.


Most vital survival tips for the TOK Essay


  1.  Don’t do a question you can’t answer. If you spend more than a day thinking of what the question means, don’t do it. Also, if you cannot express your cool (but convoluted and contentious) theories of knowledge in 1600 words, save them for your dissertation. Write for your examiner, not for your own enlightenment.
  2.  Pick contrasting AOKs where possible. It makes you seem knowledgeable and makes your essay more… meta.
  3.  You could probably research your essay in a day, and finish the first draft in another. Spend the remaining time making sure your essay is clear and readable! The word count will probably be the limiting factor of your TOK Essay grade.
  4.   Question the question.


  1. Read past essays that have gotten an ‘A’ grade, to get a sense of what the IB examiners deem as good-quality TOK essays. In my year, I helped with publishing a journal of such essays! If this initiative (called ‘Fiat Lux’) is discontinued by the TOK department, it may be useful to ask your TOK teacher for spare copies. However, do not treat these as ‘model’ essays, but more as successful demonstrations of what IB examiners want to read. Picking out consistencies such as paragraph/argument arrangement, components in the introduction, and even footnoting is useful as a starting point.
  2. You cannot avoid using the TOK battery of terminologies (AOK, WOK etc.) even if it may not be the best way to approach the issue. It is likely that the IB examiner would anchor his/her understanding of your essay based on these recognisable terms, and avoiding them may make the essay hard to follow, in the TOK context. Furthermore, explicit usage of TOK terminology is included in the marking rubrics!
  3. Have an idea of the entire essay structure before starting, as it is very easy to get lost without some guiding direction. Specifically, if possible, try to divide the 1600 words into an Introduction, Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis, Conclusion (or some other structure), to avoid word-limit complications.
  4. Don’t be afraid to use diagrams! I used a series of flowcharts (those multicoloured boxes in Word) to explain an argument I felt can be best presented visually. Also, diagrams may substitute for words (to an extent), which helps with the word-count. (Bonus: They’re not included in the wordcount.)
  5. Get friends to proofread your work, as you may be blind to certain flaws in argument that other perspectives can pick out!


One thing to look out for

Nat: TOK Essay final submission is dangerously close to EE final submission. Get it out of the way as soon as you can.

The fallacy that TOK is smoke and mirrors.  

Vernon: ^ TOK is not impossible, but may seem doubly daunting if your time is cleaved over a jumble of competing deadlines.


If I could turn back time…

Nat: I would have started researching on my TOK presentation during the Y5 December holidays.

Vernon: Perhaps consult my TOK teacher more often – the first draft I wrote got a 2/10 because it was not written as a TOK essay should. Such fundamental/directional issues particular to TOK need to be sorted out clearly with your TOK teacher.


They also feel strangely awkward commenting on themselves as Y2Y editors… They will nevertheless attempt to furnish this article with some credibility by saying that they both received As for TOK.

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