The TOK is a term commonly used within IB circles. If you find yourself wondering “What is that?”, you are not alone.

Many parents and students have the same question when they are getting started with the IB diploma. Unlike ‘traditional’ subjects, like math and science, the TOK have very few counterparts. Especially in academic levels below the IB diploma, like the MYP and IGCSE.

What is the TOK

The TOK, which stands for Theory of Knowledge, is a core subject in the IB curriculum. Students are required to pass this subject to receive their IB diploma.

Though it forms part of the IB curriculum, it is unlike the subjects found in the six subject groups. For subjects like Biology and Economics, students are generally taught new subject knowledge. The more they study, the more they know about the subject matter. But, in TOK, this is not exactly the case.

The TOK studies the process of knowing and explores the questions about knowledge. During lessons, teachers do not impart new knowledge in the form of subject content. Instead, they prompt students to reflect on knowledge they have learnt over the years.

This approach highlights the plurality of perspectives, beliefs, and values. Being aware of other perspectives, students are called to evaluate their own perspectives and question them.

The curriculum and its parts

The TOK curriculum comprises of three parts: the core theme, five optional themes, and five Areas of Knowledge (AOK)

The core theme investigates how individuals, and communities, acquire knowledge. It invites students to examine the relationship culture and communities have with knowledge. Through introspection, it also encourages students to consider how perspectives, especially their own, are gained and shaped.

Next are the optional themes. There are five optional themes in the TOK syllabus, however students will only learn two. The five optional themes are: (1) Knowledge and technology, (2) Knowledge and language, (3) Knowledge and politics, (4) Knowledge and religion, and (5) Knowledge and indigenous societies

The optional themes give students insight into factors with a significant influence on the world. Exposure to these themes widens the focus beyond themselves.

The last component of the TOK is the areas of knowledge, or AOK for short. Each AOK has a unique nature and may use different means to acquire knowledge. IB students are likely to be familiar with the AOKs as they mostly correlate with the six subject groups in IB.

The five areas of knowledge IB students will study are: history, human sciences, natural sciences, mathematics, and the arts.

The TOK curriculum has a core theme, five optional theme, and five areas of knowledge.

How is the TOK assessed

Over the years, the way the IB has assessed the TOK has changed. In January 2020, the IB announced an update to the TOK assessment structure. This update retired the TOK Presentation and introduced the TOK Exhibition.

The TOK Exhibition tasks students to illustrate how TOK presents in the world. Students will first choose a prompt from a list of 30 IB-released prompts. Then, they will select three objects that relate to the prompt and write a brief commentary explaining why they chose these objects. Upon submission, the school teachers will grade the scripts first. It will then be sent to the IB for moderation.

Alongside the TOK Exhibition, students also have to complete the TOK Essay. The TOK Essay is not new to the IB curriculum. At the start of each school year, the IB will release a list of six essay titles. From the list, students will select one title to write an essay on. This essay requires them to elaborate on the areas of knowledge relating to it. The TOK Essay, unlike the Exhibition, is externally graded by the IB.

So… how important is it?

It is very important! Student’s TOK grades can directly impact their final IB diploma grades.

Relying on the subjects alone, students can only score a maximum of 42 out of 45 points. The missing 3 points are awarded according to the student’s TOK and Extended Essay grades. The number of bonus points students receive is determined using the following matrix.

The TOK, together with the EE, determine how many bonus points they receive at the end of the IB.

It is not important only for its bonus points. As an IB core, the TOK is a compulsory subject for all IB students. So, if students want to receive their diplomas, passing the TOK is a must.

Putting academics aside, the TOK is important as it broadens a student’s horizons. By recognising that the world is not monochromatic but in vivid technicolour, TOK nurtures students to be global citizens. One that is sensitive, understanding and respectful to the perspectives held by others.