How to Structure a Theory of Knowledge Essay
The following structure is a very good, step-by-step method you can use on any ToK essay to get very high marks.
Here are the main things to keep in mind when you're using this method:
- Your #1 priority is answering the prescribed title. If you somehow follow this method, but don't answer the question you won't score well. So make sure you keep linking back to the question as you go.
- Try to use original, interesting evidence.
(I have a full a lot of helpful advice, tutorials, evidence videos in my online ToK course, which you're welcome to join if you like. Or, if you just need some TOK Notes you can get those here.)
And I've also made a help page (similar to this) for the TOK presentation, here.
Okay here we go...
The structure on this page will give you a strong foundation for your essay and then we're going to make your essay as insightful as possible.
First, choose your PT and KQ
Before you can begin your real/final essay, you’ll want to look at the Prescribed Title (something like: “What is it about mathematics and science that makes them so convincing?” and think about it.
Get some of your initial ideas down on paper.
Second, choose 1 WOK and 2 AOKs
Now, take your prescribed title and choose two AOKs to explore it with (here are my notes: Mathematics, Human sciences, Natural Sciences, the Arts, Ethics, Indigenous Knowledge Systems, Religious Knowledge Systems, or History). Or you can use WOKs: (again here are my notes: Emotion, Faith, Sense perception, Reason, Imagination, Intuition, Language, Memory). Then you can explore these aspects in your essay.
I normally recommend exploring just 2 AoK's in the main body of your essay and then include a few insights into WOKs around the edges (more on this in a bit).
The essay contains two body sections (or "developments"). Each body section will look at a certain area of knowledge or way of knowing.
To explore the question we chose above, it's pretty easy to choose our AOKs because they are actually listed in the question. We'll be using Mathematics and Natural Science.
The courtroom analogy
The TOK essay is about knowledge (how we come to know things). It helps to think of the essay as though you're showing the most interesting bits of a conversation between two smart people, about how we know things.
Or you could think about it like presenting two sides of an argument, in front of a judge. Each side needs to present evidence.
One lawyer is saying YES (i.e. reason is reliable, with examples) and the other is pointing out the weaknesses in what lawyer 1 is saying (i.e. reason is often not reliable, also with examples).
Your lawyer will make the case that you can’t be guilty of robbing the bank (her thesis), by using several arguments (claims); she’ll show that
- You weren’t there
- You’re are a moral person and
- You don’t have the technical knowledge to pull off a job like that.
However, if your lawyer was a ToK student they would also be explaining reasons why you might be guilty (the counterclaims).
- Someone said they saw you there,
- You admitted to lying to your mom about candy one time and
- You are pretty good at computers.
The lawyers would use evidence to support each of these claims and counterclaims.
Making sure your evidence actually supports your claim is one of the toughest aspects of the essay.
The step-by-step method
The method has 4 sections and 7 paragraphs overall and specific aspects need to go in each.
First, write your introduction, using 150-200 words
-Say 2 interesting things about the prescribed title. "Many people find Mathematics and Natural Science very convincing. However, many of these same people would say that they don't have a strong understanding of either of these two fields. Both of these fields rely on rigorous methodologies."
-Define one or two of the key terms in the title. Here I might define Mathematics and Natural Science. (I would also look up the term "convincing". I might not include that definition in my essay, but I would like to know whether there are any conflicting definitions. That might help me say interesting things later on in the essay--for example in the conclusion.)
-Narrow in on one aspect which is particularly interesting. "This essay with focus on the link between replicability of results, as a source of reliability."
-State your thesis. What is your short answer to the prescribed title, your thesis. (You might decide, by the end of your essay, that your initial thinking was wrong, but you should know the point your claims are going to be supporting).
-Give us a roadmap, a sentence that gives us a preview. This shows us what you’re going to do in your body paragraphs (your "developments"). Tell us AOKs you're going to use and which WOK you will be focused on most. This will make it easy for the marker to know what to look for. An example: “Mathematics can be seen as more reliable because it uses reason. Natural science can be less reliable because it relies on observation. ”
Next write your first development. 2 paragraphs totalling 600 words
-Claim. A claim a topic sentence that outlines your argument about the prescribed title. For example you could claim that, “Mathematics can be relied on because it is a purely logical system.”
-Explain. Elaborate and clarify your claim. “Mathematics is axiomatic and independent of subjective experience.“
-Example. A real life example, to clarify and support the claim from your own experience. Examples should be personal, specific, precise and real. Did something happen in your Science class? Did you have a conversation with your or hear a story from your grandfather? These are evidence from your own life rather than examples from Darwin or Lincoln. So you could talk about how, “In mathematics we learned that the inside angles of a triangle, in Euclidian space, sum up to 180 degrees.”
-Counter-claim. Argue against your claim above. “However, it is possible to come to different conclusions using different systems of mathematics.”
-Example. An example that supports your counter claim. “There are different It is not possible to demonstrate that the interior angles of a triangle equal 180 degrees in Euclidian space, this cannot be proven within other systems, such as spherical geometry or hyperbolic geometry.”
-Link to prescribed title. Quickly sum up the (complicated) insights of this section. “It is therefore clear that mathematics is reliable to an extent, but often it can only show something to be true within one fixed system or approach.”
Now, write another two body paragraphs, looking at your second AOK. Use the same approach you saw in paragraphs 2 and 3. 600 words
-Link to prescribed title.
Finally, write your 'conclusion'. Two paragraphs, totalling 200-250 words
-Your conclusion. Explain what big, general insights have come out of this--your conclusion.
Implications and significance. Also tell us why it's important that we know this. When and how does it matter that we understand this lesson?
-Perspectives and extensions. If you can, try to pull in a very different perspective, on your conclusion. Perhaps you can recognize a very different way of approaching the question, which could have resulted in quite different insights than those you included in your essay. Or you could also mention one or two unresolved questions that this essay has revealed. You could also think of this as explaining some "limitations" or a weaknesses of your essay, but it's also about showing that the conversation isn't over yet. There is more to the question than you've had the room to explore.
Obviously there is a lot more depth that we can go into about what makes a really great TOK essay, but this structure will get you started.
Here are some more ToK Essay tips you might want to consider or you can join my online program if you like www.tokmastery.com
Cite this page as:
Woods, Tim. “How to Structure a Theory of Knowledge Essay” IBMastery. IBMastery, 1 Jan 2016. Web. TODAY’S DATE <https://www.ibmastery.com/blog/how-to-structure-a-theory-of-knowledge-essay>
The IB wrote a good guide to Knowledge Questions in 2009 linked here (they called KQ’s Knowledge Issues at that time). – this guide is well worth a read.
The current ToK Guide section on Knowledge Questions is also very good – linked here.
If you don’t want to read, then you could watch Wendy Heydorn’s YouTube video here (thanks Wendy !).
A Knowledge Question is, simply, a question about knowledge. It’s an enquiry about a problem with knowledge. A good Knowledge Question has 3 main features:
- Focusses on Knowledge, not on the specific content.
- Open Ended – there are a number of possible answers to the question
- General rather than specific – it looks at wider knowledge production rather than a specific case.
Start with the KQ ! Get the KQ right before you write !
The identification of the KQ should be the starting point for writing your ToK Essay, or when formulating your ToK Presentation.
The 2015 ToK Guide gives us an example of how you move from specific content to a good Knowledge Question:
Example 1: Future population growth in Africa
- Not a knowledge question: “How can we predict future population growth in Africa?” This is not a knowledge question because it is a technical question within the discipline of population studies.
- Good knowledge question: “How can a mathematical model give us knowledge even if it does not yield accurate predictions?” This is now sufficiently general and explores the purpose and nature of mathematical modelling.
Let’s look at some possible examples from the May 2015 Essay Titles:
Essay Title #1 : There is no such thing as a neutral question. Evaluate this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.
A weak knowledge question: Are creationist scientists biased by faith ?
A stronger KQ : How can we measure bias in knowledge production in natural sciences ?
A weak knowledge question: is it possible to be a genius artist without much practice ?
A stronger KQ: To what extent is prior learning required for subsequent learning in The Arts ?
A weak KQ: How does culture prejudice the work of a Psychologist ?
A stronger KQ: How can we decontextualise the process of knowledge acquisition in the Human Sciences ?
Essay No. 2: There are only two ways that humankind can produce knowledge: through passive observation or or through active experiment” To what extent do you agree with this statement ?”
- A weak KQ: Why don’t all Physicists agree if they’re all using the same method of investigation ?
A stronger KQ: Does the framework of an identified ‘Area of Knowledge’ presuppose a varying degree of unified knowledge specific to that AoK ?
- A weak KQ: Are Eureka moments passive observation or active experimentation ?
A stronger KQ: Are there forms of knowledge production in addition to passive observation and active experimentation ?
Essay No.3: “There is no reason why we cannot link facts and theories across disciplines and create a common groundwork of explanation.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?
- Weak KQ: Can scientists be religious ?
Stronger KQ: Are disciplines essentially paradigmatic and, therefore, exclusive ?
- Weak KQ: Do scientific methods change participants behaviour when used in Psychological research ?
Stronger KQ: Does the process of knowledge production within any specific Area of Knowledge change that knowledge when interpreted in another Area of Knowledge ?
Essay No.4: “With reference to two areas of knowledge discuss the way in which shared knowledge can shape personal knowledge.”
Weak KQ: Could Einstein’s Eureka moment (the discovery of theory of relativity) really be considered personal knowledge when he had been taught maths and physics by others ?
Stronger KQ: How do we situate the ‘breakthrough’ moments of innovators within a shared knowledge system ?
Weak KQ: was the shift from Newtonian to Einsteinian Physics caused by personal or shared knowledge ?
Stronger KQ: How do we establish whether paradigm shifts are more likely in a loose shared knowledge system ?
Essay #5: “Ways of knowing are a check on our instinctive judgments.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?”
Weak KQ: Is intuition actually a combination of memory and perception when making decisions ?
Stronger KQ: How do we know whether judgments are a combination of various WoKs ?
Weak KQ: Does Lamarck’s theory of Epigenetics mean that instinctive judgments operate independently of the environment ?
Stronger KQ: How can we establish that an instinctive judgment operates as a response to the environment when that judgment may have been inherited from a response to an earlier, different, environment ?
Essay No. 6 : “The whole point of knowledge is to produce meaning and purpose in our personal lives. To what extent do you agree with this statement ?”
Weak KQ: Do religious people have more meaning in their lives than atheists ?
Stronger KQ: Are apparently internal ways of knowing (such as intuition, faith or emotion) more meaningful than apparently externally experienced ways of knowing (such as reason, sense perception or language) ?
Weak KQ: Why do some people seek out meaningless knowledge ?
Stronger KQ: Are meaning and purpose consonant concepts in relation to the acquisition of knowledge ?
These are just starting points for KQ’s for the 2015 essays. If you are writing a May 2015 you should work out themes for your essay in order to write your own Knowledge Questions.
Watch out for the Really Easy Guide to Knowledge Claims, coming soon !