Surviving IB: ToK

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The ToK course is perhaps one of the least easily digestible aspects of the IB, and a good number of students pass through the entire course and at the very end, still claim they didn’t know what the hell they were talking about the whole way. As daunting as the title ‘Theory of Knowledge’ may appear, it states quite clearly what the course is, and what it isn’t, which if anything is a pretty good landmark with regard to how you should approach it. ToK is a course about knowledge – how it is acquired, what it tells us, in what ways it may fail, et cetera. If you don’t appear to be addressing some aspect of the nature of knowledge in your work, it’s probably a good indicator that it may not be the most robust topic to choose. ToK is not ‘kinda like philosophy but weird’ as I’ve heard it put by some, nor is it ‘complete bullshit’ as I’ve heard it put by others. With that said, here are some general points and guidelines for both components which may be helpful to note.

  1. ‘Areas of Knowledge’ are inevitably somewhat arbitrary categories, as are ‘Ways of Knowing’ – despite this, you will have to work (largely) within the structures that the IB has delineated, even if you may think that indigenous knowledge systems are a useless distinction, or that intuition is a lazy man’s amalgamation of several other WoKs. Fortunately, based on how the syllabus is structured, you’re pretty much free to select only the AoKs and WoKs which satisfy your own expectations, rather than grappling with more obscure content which may not prove as productive.
  2. Teachers will often disagree with each other on matters of presentation style, essay frameworks, et cetera. Having seen different people do well using completely different guidelines and argumentative styles, the most important advice I would provide regarding this is to be consistent in following the guidelines which make sense to you, and ensure that you personally understand your points and can defend them against scrutiny. Personally, I never once found myself using the IB’s proprietary vernacular of ‘Ways of Knowing’ during the course, because I found it hindered the clarity of my argument and felt meaninglessly tacked on. In essence, as long as you’re sure your argument is logical and presented in a logical fashion (and there are often multiple valid ways of positing the same argument), everything else should fall into place. This is slightly less true of the presentation, as some teachers may have very strong opinions on certain matters of presentation which can and will factor into their evaluation of your grade. In this case it may be beneficial to consult the teachers whom you know will be assessing your presentation if possible, or seniors who have been assessed by them.
  3. Perhaps as a result of the above-mentioned ambiguities surrounding what ToK entails, many students often become strangely uncertain of themselves, even when making entirely logical arguments, because ToK has become one of those subjects that students just agree ‘doesn’t make sense’. In fact, ToK in many ways forces you to make more sense than a lot of other subjects, in that the course requires a much more rigorous investigation of the logic under-girding an argument. While a lot of other subjects may allow you useful generalisations and contain some implicit assumption of mutual content knowledge between marker and student which removes a lot of unnecessary explanation, ToK forces you to bring a lot of these cogs which generally aren’t seen into focus. Every link along the chain of logic being formed should be unfailingly questioned regarding its scope, assumptions, exceptions, et cetera. In general, such a practice is the basis of forming the counter-points which provide much of the evaluative aspect of both components, and is an indispensable skill.
  4. Both the presentation and the essay are liable to evoke massive mental roadblocks. In my experience, this comes about usually because of a desire to feel as if you’re making progress quickly. What tends to then occur is that a framework is hastily put together so that one can start working on the specific research and examples, and somewhere down the line, problems start cropping up because of some structural flaw that went unaddressed earlier. Do not make this mistake – at best, you’ll invariably end up being frustrated having wasted a lot of time and effort finding arguments you realise aren’t actually relevant or epistemologically robust, and at worst, you’ll submit a piece of work which may contain major structural flaws. Take your time with the framework, the potential arguments and counter-arguments, and any other potential features like your RLS before moving into specific research into examples and such.
  5. Keep a research document! You will likely come across a lot of different and interesting ideas as you conduct your research, and you never know which may come in handy as your presentation or essay evolves. I would suggest taking note of everything you find even remotely interesting, even if 90% of it doesn’t make it into the final draft. In general, I find there are two kinds of research: general and specific. I tend to do quite a bit of general research (just reading up anything vaguely related to my topic) in order to craft a good framework, before moving into specific research (looking for examples and authors to substantiate certain claims) after I’m done with my framework.

The Presentation

While the presentation only constitutes a third of the final grade, it’s also a much less volatile component than the externally assessed essay, so try to squeeze whatever marks you can out of it, because unexpected circumstances can make externally marked components something of a crapshoot.

When choosing a partner for the presentation, keep in mind that a partner is in many ways a double-edged sword. What may be painless as a solo presentation may devolve rapidly into unproductive argument over choice of RLS or validity of perspectives. At the same time however, a partner may prove invaluable in simply having more time to present and another brain to toss ideas around with. Personally, I would recommend having a partner because it allows one to delve deeper into a topic, but both are totally viable options.

Below is a very general framework for the presentation which may be useful; keep in mind it is not necessarily the most succinct nor is everything enclosed strictly necessary depending on the topic. Moreover, it may be more suitable for a 20-minute presentation than a 10-minute one.

  1. RLS

Officially, the RLS is supposed to be your spark to derive the KQ but in practice, honestly the other way works just as well. There are teachers who may prefer novel Real-Life Scenarios and Knowledge Questions which haven’t been covered a million times by past students (don’t do Sapir-Whorfism) so this may be something to keep in mind. Generally, your RLS should have some form of active debate surrounding it. In fact, being too confident of which perspective will ultimately prevail regarding your RLS before fleshing out all your perspectives is generally an indication that your RLS is too ‘settled’ to provide a rigorous exploration of perspectives.

I would suggest a succinct but informative (a) Summary of the RLS before addressing the (b) Knowledge Concerns of the RLS, wherein you explain the epistemological dilemmas raised by your RLS, from which you move into the (c) Derivation of the KQ from the RLS. Linking these two explicitly is critical in ensuring the examiner understands the logic behind your choice of KQ and can award you the relevant marks.

  1. KQ

Personally, I found finding an RLS to fit my KQ easier than the other way around. If proceeding in that fashion, make sure you link the two early, before venturing into the perspectives themselves, and ensure you’ve chosen a robust enough RLS that all your perspectives provide at least a somewhat insightful view about it. Be flexible with your KQ, and don’t be afraid to change it to fit your RLS rather than finding the perfect RLS for your original KQ (it might not exist). The construction of the KQ, while certainly a critical component of the presentation, does not in any way need to be settled early. In fact, it was one of the last things that I remember tweaking, after having done up all the perspectives. Having said that, do consult your ToK teacher and friends about the general idea of your KQ before moving forward, because while the specifics may be settled later on, structural issues such as limited scope or lack of debate regarding the matter are not easy issues to resolve once the work has moved past this stage.

After having laid out the KQ itself, it may be wise to follow this immediately by (a) Defining the KQ, in order to provide the examiner with the specific definitions from which you’ll be arguing your points. These definitions are not merely there to fill space – they can and likely will be used as a means of evaluating your perspectives. Keep in mind though, that differences in opinion regarding the definitions of certain concepts may in themselves become the bases of particular perspectives.

  1. Perspectives

In constructing perspectives, it may be useful to branch out the answers to your question into every conceivable permutation, even ones which you may not think sound immediately logical. Depending on how your question is phrased (‘to what extent is X…’ or ‘is X…’ would be the norm), you may argue differing extents or Yes/No based on different evaluations of the question’s conditions, different equivocations and definitions, et cetera. Perspectives may also arise out of a questioning of the more fundamental principles of your question, though this, if done carelessly, may come across as irrelevant. Read widely and more often than not, you’ll find that some scholar on Jstor has already conveniently packaged your argument much more eloquently than you could have hoped to. The breadth of approach when it comes to arriving at different perspectives is very large and can’t feasibly be covered in such a general article, so don’t be afraid to approach the subject from a different angle than what has been outlined. Always be sure to back up each claim with a suitable example, and always strive for clear, even if seemingly obvious or mundane, illustrations of your argument.

After explaining your perspective, generally a (a) Counter-Perspective is useful in showing to the examiner your critical thinking and ability to evaluate arguments. You may elect to follow this with a counter-counter perspective, but in practice I’ve rarely seen it done, or necessary. A counter-perspective is separate from a completely different perspective in that generally, a counter-perspective serves to illustrate the flaws in the perspective, based on the paradigms established within that perspective, whereas a new perspective tends to redefine the paradigms more fundamentally and argue from that position. That being said, this is a fine and sometimes arbitrary line, so use your own discretion. Following that, a (b) Link to RLS should be used to show the relevance of the perspective and its implications on the scenario you’ve selected. Subsequently, another possibly beneficial addition is a (c) Link to Other AoKs, wherein whatever was discussed in the perspective is broadened to show its application in other fields. This serves the purpose of demonstrating that your KQ and RLS is in some sense relevant to fields outside your discussion, and may be useful in avoiding evaluation as overly narrow in scope. In general, the discussion should develop from the most obvious perspectives to the most abstract.

Repeat this process 2-3 times.

  1. Conclusion

Before moving into the conclusion proper, I found it useful to provide a small section on (a) Implications on Knowledge, which are the key insights after having explored the perspectives from which the conclusion may be distilled. It’s a good opportunity to insert interesting and novel thoughts which may not fit anywhere else in the presentation, and also smoothens the transition between perspectives and conclusion. That being said, it isn’t explicitly necessary.

Your conclusion should address both your RLS and provide a satisfactory epistemological conclusion beyond the RLS itself. It should arise explicitly out of insights that have been provided to the examiner prior to you moving into the conclusion itself, and should appear as a natural culmination of your discussion, rather than something tacked on at the end.

The Essay

Unlike the presentation, the essay component isn’t nearly as formulaic in approach, and thus is somewhat harder to provide specific advice about, as the demands of each question tend to be quite specific.

In general, consider your question wisely based on your own interests and insights regarding them, and make sure you understand all the implications of the essay title before selection. The teachers will provide an unpacking of each title which should prove useful in this process. Having selected a title, aim for AoKs which provide interesting comparison with one another. Depending on the question, this may imply having differing methodologies, aims, necessities, et cetera. It may be useful to consider whether or not the two AoKs you’ve chosen may provide a lopsided amount of discussion towards one AoK before proceeding, although this isn’t explicitly a negative.

1600 words is also not a huge allotment, so at every point, try to be succinct – you’ll likely end up over-writing and having to cut words (my final draft pre-editing was close to an EE), but this is to be expected.

  1. Introduction

Whether or not you elect to construct a secondary question out of the essay title is up to you. I’ve personally never seen the point of doing so since it sets up additional unnecessary demands to address, but different teachers hold different views on the matter. In my opinion, your introduction need only contain the AoKs you’ve chosen for discussion, and the relevant definitions required throughout your essay. I would suggest spending a considerable amount of time mulling over your definitions, because the arguments will tend to be constructed around the definitions, and hence, a lot of essays live or die by the precision of their definitions. More specific definitions which may appear irrelevant until later may be defined as they become relevant, and need not be in the introduction.

  1. Main Body

Don’t be afraid to interpret the question in a less orthodox way, granted you’re able to justify to what ends you’re doing so in your essay (there is no single correct answer to each essay title). In my own essay title about whether creativity was necessary at every stage in the process of knowledge production for instance, I’d chosen the Arts as my AoK, and found using a traditional interpretation of ‘stages’ difficult. Instead, I elected to divide the process of artistic knowledge creation into the significance of a work’s emotional evocations, sensory evocations, and impact on cognitive paradigms. None of these ‘stages’ were necessarily discrete, nor were they temporally bound, as stages are often implied to be. Despite this, the framework resulted in much more fruitful discussion than my previous attempt at utilizing a more traditional idea of ‘stages’.

I found it more suitable in my essay title to discuss the two AoKs completely separately with a mini-conclusion-summary at the end of each, only drawing the two into contact in my conclusion. Depending on the essay title however, this may not be the best approach. In general, try to sustain a level of debate throughout the entire essay – this usually occurs by placing your arguments in a logical sequence in which each new point complexifies the previous, until a conclusion is eventually reached. In other words, try to make sure the paragraphs aren’t simply coherent in themselves, but work together logically to lead the reader naturally towards your conclusion about that AoK or the question in general. Don’t be afraid to question the assumptions of the question, though I would suggest to only do this towards the end of your essay.

ToK is one of those subjects which really benefits a lot from having a multiplicity of opinion, so talk to your friends about your content or get them to read it over for you. You may also benefit from perusing the ToK magazine (Fiat Lux) if you’re struggling to put your ideas together in a convincing manner.

  1. Conclusion

Once all your body paragraphs are done, your conclusion should be the easiest part of the essay to write. Address the question directly and summarise the positions you’ve arrived at in a single succinct paragraph. You may also use the concluding paragraph to discuss further implications on knowledge which arise from your conclusion.

Ultimately, the ToK course is rather difficult, and slightly nebulous (read: full of crap), but it’s not as formidable as it may appear. All the best!

 

Tan Aik Wen is from the graduating batch of 2017. A 45-pointer and Humanities Scholar, his other notable accomplishments include having failed SL Math in Year 6 and being unable to properly process dairy.

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