A New ToK

Towards a new ToK.

I think that it’s time to rethink ToK, and start to design a ToK that more closely embodies the values of IB, and is a closer fit with PYP and MYP. I know that the Curriculum Group have just introduced the new syllabus after years of consideration. However I propose a more fundamental change to ToK, changes which start to redefine our current use of the term “to know”.

Originally I started this article by quoting the aims and definition of ToK from the 2015 ToK Guide (these quotes are now included at the end of this article). However, after some thought I realised that for a successful ToK course we need to return to the actual aims of the IB. ToK is the core of IB DP, as such it should exemplify the core purpose of the IB, and the DP.

Over the years the aims of IB have been various, but of a consistent theme. My favourite variant was “to understand that others with their differences may also be right”, the current “Education for a better world” makes the aim of IB abundantly clear. As such, I think that we should have a ToK course which seeks not only to understand knowledge production and acquisition, but also has a conative element. This would be a ToK course which looks at how knowledge inter-relates with behaviour, exploring how knowledge is used in the real world. If we are to fulfil the aim of IB it is not sufficient to just ‘think’ about a better world, but also to understand how those thoughts translate to behaviour. It is only by looking at the link between knowledge and behaviour that we can really start to have an “Education for a better world”.

Let’s get rid of “Areas of Knowledge”.

The starting point for building a new ToK is to look at the division between AoKs and WoKs, when does a WoK become an AoK ? At first glance the AoK’s don’t make any sense. The ToK Guide describes them as ‘knowledge frameworks’ which are the product of a process of knowledge production. I fully accept that they are widely accepted as ‘real frameworks’ within most education systems, but that doesn’t mean that we should accept them as a reality when we are studying the process of knowing. I have 2 main objections to the AoK’s:

  1. They are not distinct knowledge frameworks, but are actually inter-related processes of knowledge construction. Their current presentation leads many students to see them as distinct, and in some cases mutually exclusive (how often have we heard the question “Which AoK should I use?”)
  2. We do not experience the world through distinct AoK’s (and therefore they’re idealised ‘knowledge constructs’), and we don’t understand our world through distinct AoK’s. The process of knowing, and being a knower, is far more hybrid than the current model would suggest.

The AoK’s are actually recent social constructs, they describe a fairly recently accepted way of categorising knowledge. We don’t have to go back too far in human history to find AoK’s which are no longer culturally accepted, the same process of replacement will happen with our current classification system. Rather than just explaining the cultural process of classification to students (I wonder how many teachers do that), we shouldn’t legitimise the classification itself as it is not how we become knowers, and more importantly it is not how we go on to become knowledge actors.

It’s like the current ToK course is a study of how library books are arranged on the shelves, and not how the readers feel and act after reading the books.The AoK’s are just culturally convenient ways in which we classify knowledge which has been socially approved. They are temporal in geographic space, time and culture. When looked at this way they start to become antithetical to many of the themes of IB DP.

Are WoKs about meaning or transmission ?

I have long wondered whether we know about our world through the identified WoKs (even if they work in combination), I have long suspected that the ToK course is describing the medium of knowledge rather than the process of knowing in itself.

The ToK Guide tells us that the WoKs are “the tools that answer the question “how do we know?” and on the other hand they help us answer the question “how do I know?”” . I think that they answer the question “by what means do I receive data ?”, but not how do I make that data meaningful to me ? As we only become “knowers” when we add meaning to the data that we receive. A new ToK course should look at the processes by which we add meaning to our world, meaning links to motivation, and only then can we start to understand the link between knowledge and behaviour.

What’s wrong with current WoK’s ?

Perception is to knowing what ink is to the story. Ink is the medium, but the message varies by the receiver. This has been a persistent problem in both Cognitive Psychology and Neuro-Psychology – we can study the means by which data is recieved, but how we make sense of that data is far more complicated. Perception is the medium, not the making of the message (or knowledge).

Language is another medium, like perception. Language can stay the same but meanings can vary. The knowledge of language varies by recipient at level of interpretation (e.g. how many meanings of same word?). Language is one way of labelling experience, it is not experience in itself.

Reason is a useful process of decision making for computers, but has limited relevance to human experience. We could start with the Monty Hall Effect (much loved by ToK Teachers), or look at the work of Dan Ariely (try Predictably Irrational). However, my starting point would be in the fields of Evolutionary and Ecological Psychology, a basic premise here is that we seek knowledge, and incorporate knowledge, according to a set of motivational factors which could be environmental, biological or socio-cultural. As such, the human condition is very rarely one of knowing through reason (which is why Spock was such a great contrast character in Star Trek !).

I am less concerned with Faith, Imagination and Intuition as Ways of Knowing because I think essentially they are all Emotion based knowledge processes. I contend that essentially we become ‘Knowers’ through Emotion, and as such it is the umbrella for all Ways of Knowing – it is the sole way of knowing. I think that Memory should remain as a WoK, as it is the key way in which we interpret our emotions.

The motivation to attend to a phenomenon, and then to perceive that phenomena, and then to interpret the perception is essentially emotional. The motivation is derived from a personal interest which changes our level of arousal (emotion). Essentially we become knowers because we are emoting humans. As such I propose that we replace the current WoKs with a more detailed understanding of a range of human emotions. I have outlined my first thoughts on this framework below.

Human experience is not lived through WoKs & AoKs, it is neither compartmentalised nor labelled as such. Human experience is a far richer, and more complexly interpolated, phenomenon than the ToK structure suggests. Obviously any course on the process of knowing needs to simplify this complex experience, however my concern with ToK as it currently stands is that we disembody the self from the process. I propose that an ideal type model of WoKs should place The Self at the centre of the process, it is after all The self which undertakes the ‘knowing’ that we are studying.

The inclusion of Personal Knowledge and Shared Knowledge in the current specification is a welcome move in the direction of a new self based ToK. However, I propose that all knowledge is essentially ‘Personal Knowledge”. The actual act of ‘knowing’ is by it’s very nature ultimately individualised, personal, and to an extent private, this is why we have differing interpretations, meaning and behaviours stemming from the same ‘knowledge’. This point is essential if we are to have an education “for a better world” (and to “understand that others with their differences may also be right”).

Self as the central WoK ? No Self is the MoK – a new ToK diagram.

The Self should be at the centre of the ToK Diagram, the Self is actually the ‘Means of Knowing’ (the MoK). I’m starting to imagine a ToK Diagram which looks a little more like the Vitruvian Man. The ToK course needs to include a Cartesian discussion around the inter-relationship of mind-body, of experience and materialism. This is the key way into starting to unravel the complexities of relativity which are inherent to the notions of ‘internationalism’ which so many of our students encounter within International Schools.

Once we place the Self as the MoK, then we can start to envisage a new set of WoKs which are the means by which humans understand their world, and make sense of the ‘knowledge’ around us. These new WoKs  are the actual WoKs by which we become ‘knowers’:

New WoK’s.

  • Love

which includes commitment, care, attachment, protection, and intuition.

  • Desire

which includes greed, materialism, hope, aspiration, risk and imagination.

  • Difference

which includes fear, caution, narcissism, xenophobia, identity based aversion.

  • Memory

which includes history, familiarity, security, and learning.

  • Kinesthetic

which includes physical, tactile, muscle memory, corporeal.

  • Social connection.

which includes social norms, collective behaviours, cultural beliefs.

Readers of this article may get the impression that I am a great critic of ToK, this is not the case. I am huge fan of ToK, I strongly believe in the importance of the course, and the potential for students to have a great experience on the course (please do read my About page). It is my commitment to the course which has led me to think about how the course needs to develop in the coming years. These are the opening thoughts in a conversation, I would very much welcome your thoughts.



Definitions of ToK from 2015 Guide:

The 2015 ToK Guide defines ToK as: “TOK is a course about critical thinking and inquiring into the process of knowing,” later in the guide in relation to WoKs it says “The WOKs have two roles in TOK:

  • they underlie the methodology of the areas of knowledge
  • they provide a basis for personal knowledge.

Discussion of WOKs will naturally occur in a TOK course when exploring how areas of knowledge operate. Since they rarely function in isolation, the TOK course should explore how WOKs work, and how they work together, both in the context of different areas of knowledge and in relation to the individual knower. This might be reflected in the way the TOK course is constructed. Teachers should consider the possibility of teaching WOKs in combination or as a natural result of considering the methods of areas of knowledge, rather than as separate units.”


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