chapter taken from 45 Tips, Tricks and Secrets for the Successful IB Student: https://www.amazon.com/Secrets-Successful-International-Baccalaureate-Student/dp/0993418783
41. Tackling TOK – The Essay
Boring. Useless. Naptime. “Wannabe philosophy” – just some of the words I have heard students use to address the TOK component of IB. My own opinion is not of importance, but let's just say I have felt very mixed feelings when it comes to Theory of Knowledge. As with many things in the IB Diploma, TOK has its upsides and downsides. The bad news first: it’s controversial, at times utterly boring, and you might struggle to accept what the course is trying to teach. The good news: it’s less work than the Extended Essay if you want an A grade and there is almost no academic ability involved. Whether you are an A student or an F student it doesn’t matter – anyone can do reasonably well in TOK.
TOK is the only course taken by every IB diploma and certificate candidate around the world. The implications of this are immense. Your work is being compared to the other 200,000 or so IB kids taking it every year. So why do so many students hate the course? I don’t really know where to start – it could be the lack of quality teachers, the “incompleteness” of the syllabus, or the fact that not a single other high school program being taught around the world has anything that even remotely compares to TOK. Moreover, it is frustrating for students how subjective the course can become. It can easily be the case that two teachers in the same school will teach and mark in completely different manners. The classes can become tedious as you start to find yourself questioning things such as your own existence and having endless repetitive debates about “how we know” something. The subject material found in TOK is mostly unfamiliar to both teachers and students, therefore making it all the more difficult to teach.
Out of all my classmates, I probably disagreed with the course more than anyone else (ironically getting the top grade for my essay/presentation). Get this into your head now: no matter how much you hate the course or disagree with it, it should have no impact on your ability to get a top mark. Yes, some will tell you that if you’re positive and interested in the material then you will be more successful. This guide, however, will teach you exactly what to do (and what not to do) in order to succeed – regardless of your personal interest in TOK.
One of the reasons I find TOK so controversial is that some teachers insist on teaching TOK as the (ultimate) knowledge course. As if it’s accepted worldwide that there are four Ways of Knowing and a concrete seven Areas of Knowledge. The fact of the matter is, outside your TOK class, no single other non-IB educated person will know what you’re talking about. Philosophers have debated for years on knowledge issues and will continue to do so. It might be a sad truth, but the TOK diagram is almost “fictional” in the sense that it’s made by the IB, for the IB. I’m not trying to take away the valuable lessons in knowledge that TOK does offer; however, I want you to understand that there is so much more depth and so many more interesting things to learn about knowledge outside the IB course. Just to show you how ambiguous and intangible the course is, in recent syllabuses the “perception” Way of Knowing has been replaced with “sense perception.” This shouldn’t concern you too much, but just keep in mind that whilst you are trying to ace your essay and presentation, there is much more to philosophy and knowledge than TOK tries to teach.
So what will it take? Well, the TOK component consists of a 1200–1600 word essay and a ten minute presentation. I have to admit that both are probably going to end up being extremely dull, but at least you should be happy about the fact that you will be getting very high marks.
The externally-moderated essay is worth 40 points (the presentation is worth only 20), which means that it has twice as much bearing on your final TOK grade. This is probably a good thing as it is externally assessed (no matter how much you irritated your TOK teacher throughout the years, he/she can’t get revenge on you). You should be aiming realistically to get 30 – 35 points, which is not that easy. I have outlined several tips below that will guide you in the right direction.
The essay will require you to show your TOK assessment skills in a prescribed title that you probably would have never chosen if you could have come up with your own essay title. Examples will play a key role in your essay as well as a TOK-based analysis of those examples.
Half of the work in writing a good TOK essay involves choosing a good essay title. Out of the list of ten that the IBO provides, there will be one or two that have potentially more marks up for grabs than the others. Do not make the easy but fatal mistake of saying, “Ah, screw those long questions. The shorter the question the easier it is.” I would actually argue the other way around. Shorter questions tend to carry a lot of ambiguity, whereas with longer questions, you know exactly what you are supposed to write about.
Look for questions that have a lot of TOK terminology in them and ones that will give you an opportunity to provide a lot of “interesting” TOK arguments. Remember that the essay will demonstrate your ability to link knowledge issues to Areas of Knowledge and Ways of Knowing. Don’t go for the questions that you think are interesting to write about; instead, go for the questions you think your TOK teacher would find interesting to read. Anything that specifically asks you to compare, contrast, explain or describe an Area of Knowledge or Way of Knowing is much better than a question that lacks TOK material. If you don’t think that the title suggests problems found in knowledge, then it is best to choose another one.
Take your time when choosing the title. Titles usually come out very early, and you usually don’t need to make your final choice until your second year. Think long and hard about which question will allow you to demonstrate your TOK knowledge best and one that will let you critically assess. As a rule of thumb, the more TOK key words in the title, the better. Also, avoid questions that could have ambiguous meanings. Remember that you will be paying close attention to the terminology in the question and that you will be expected to address every aspect of the question.
Make sure you know exactly what you are being asked to do. Questions that require you to “evaluate” and “assess” a certain claim will require you to provide arguments for and against. Don’t oversimplify the question and make sure to take into account all possible “grey areas.” Furthermore, you need to understand every single word that is part of the question. You may think you know what is being asked, but make sure you look up different interpretations of the word (it’s unlikely that you would include this in your writing, but at least you will be more prepared when you start writing).
If you’re choosing a question that kind of sounds like something you could do a great essay on and you’re hoping you can just edit the title just a tiny bit, well, think again. The title must be used exactly as given, without any form of alteration. If you fail to follow these instructions, you risk obtaining a failing or incomplete grade. Work with what you are given and focus on the title at hand.
Last but not least, don’t be a sheep. Do not think that by choosing a topic that is more popular you will be able to get some good ideas from your friends doing the same topic. Since the essay is capped at 1600 words, there will be literally pages and pages of material to write about, which you will need to filter. Don’t worry about not having good enough examples or arguments. And also, if you were to “borrow” an idea from a friend’s essay that would probably be plagiarism anyways.
Where to start
My best advice to those who are just about to start writing their TOK essays would be to get your hands on as much official IB-TOK material as possible and highlight everything that is relevant to your essay. With TOK, you are limited with the information you can find on the Internet because the nature of the course is too specific. You can try Googling “perception as a way of knowing” and you will find two types of information – stuff written specifically for the IB TOK program, and stuff that other philosophers/writers have to say. Only the former is of any use to you. As you will find out later on, these “Areas of Knowledge” and “Ways of Knowing” are by no means world acknowledged. Only in the IB program will you find such specific classifications.
Nonetheless, do a fair amount of research on your topic within the realm of TOK. Hopefully your school has some TOK books lying around in cobwebs and dust – get those out and make notes on your question. This is the best type of resources because they are written by the type of people who will be marking your exam – the true believers of TOK.
Unfortunately, you will have to be pretty good at convincing your examiner that you know what you are talking about. You need to show strong evidence of the Problems of Knowledge, Areas of Knowledge and Ways of Knowing. My best advice for you is to read the official IB TOK books that have been issued over the years. There is a lot of “fun” activities and rubbish in them, but you’d be surprised at how often you will find a quote here or there that will fit into your essay perfectly (of course not plagiarised).
Organization and Structure
My help here is going to be extremely limited. I’m sorry, but nothing I say will really make you write in a more structured manner or teach you how to organize your thoughts – it is something that you must learn and perfect over time. That being said, make sure you keep the essay title with you at all times on a separate piece of paper. Keep glancing at it from time to time and if you ever think a paragraph or sentence is simply too irrelevant, then take it out.
When you start the actual writing process, be sure to type out the question exactly as it is written, word for word, at the top of your paper (including the question number). Throw everything into quotations and in a bold font. This saves the examiner any confusion as to which question you are doing.
Your structure will largely depend on the nature of your question. If it is a simple compare and contrast between two Areas of Knowledge, then you could spend three or four paragraphs explaining how they are similar, and follow that up by the same treatment of how they differ, leaving a few paragraphs at the end for final analysis and conclusion. If you are asked specifically about different Areas of Knowledge, your approach may be to go through each one and explore how it relates to your topic question. Eventually you will end up forming some sort of concluding argument. Keep in mind that there is no single optimal way to write the essay, you need to use your judgement and decide what suits your essay best.
When your paper is complete, you should be able to read it and applaud yourself on your good transitions and structure. Have some rhythm and don’t jump paragraph to paragraph talking about completely unrelated matters. If you are still struggling, consult an English book that guides you on how to have smooth transitional paragraphs.
The actual writing process should take far less time than the research and the post-writing procedures you have to go through. 1200 words is nothing really. As you would with the EE, try to push yourself closer to the 1600 target and further away from the minimum. If you have done your research and thought about the essay enough, writing it should not be an issue. Rarely will a 1200 word paper get a grade A – show the examiner that you are not a minimalist student.
Don’t mess around when it comes to essay length. You can try and outsmart the IB by lying about the word count, however, that would be incredibly stupid as an electronic version is included. Remember that the word count includes the main parts of the essay along with any quotations. It does not include acknowledgements or references given in footnote form, or the bibliography. At the end of the essay, you should indicate your word count in bold to signal to your examiner that you followed the guidelines.
Your introduction should capture the reader’s attention and summarize what the bulk of your essay will argue. Keep it short but well-written. Avoid any grossly meaningless opening statements and get into it straight away. Remember that you can’t really afford to have a long introduction given the word count limitations, so be sure to establish your topic and provide clarity. Discuss the key concepts and include an insight into the major arguments of your essay. Also, while writing, keep in mind that it is probably best not to expand ideas too far – if you still have words to spare at the end, you can always go back and develop arguments in more depth.
As far as definitions are concerned, be rational. Don’t give the Oxford Dictionary definition of “knowledge” – let about 10,000 other kids make this very mistake. You should know better than that. In fact, don’t use the dictionary unless it’s absolutely vital. When describing concepts such as “knowledge” or “proof,” you are better off using the words of various intellectuals, coupled with your own interpretations rather than a wordy dictionary definition. Don’t be fooled into thinking that by providing a definition, you have cleared up all ambiguities and complications associated with the concept – that would be stupid.
Some will tell you it’s better to write a lot about a little instead of a little about a lot, whilst others will suggest you include as many TOK concepts as possible. The optimal, my experience has shown, is somewhere in between. If there is any specific terminology in the prescribed title then it should be clearly addressed and discussed in the essay. You do need to make sure you tick off an adequate number of Areas of Knowledge and Ways of Knowing, otherwise, the examiner will not know how comfortable you are with the course. At the same time the word limit will not allow you to go through each one by one. Filter out the best material to discuss. Don’t sacrifice quality for quantity. If your essay lacks depth of analysis, your examiner will remember this shallowness in treatment when marking your essay. Clarity is the key – think and write clearly.
Some teachers may warn you against using “I” or “me” in an essay of this sort. This becomes very difficult to do when you discuss your personal experiences and your own beliefs. Try to get around this by avoiding amateur statements like “I believe that... I think that...” and replace them with statements like “judging from my personal experience.... Having witnessed something similar myself...” Catch my drift?
The conclusion is probably the best place to present your personal opinion. Here you are allowed to take a stand because you have already gone through all of the arguments and counterarguments in the body of your essay. Again, avoid being too narrow-minded and show an awareness of a variety of opinions. Also, if you haven’t yet convinced your examiner by the time he gets to your conclusion that you have shown personal engagement, then at least you can achieve this in the last paragraph he/she will read.
Always go back and clean up your essay, making sure you have no elementary spelling and grammar mistakes. Although you will not get punished specifically for having any of that, it can potentially interfere with your structure and the “flow” of your essay.
Ok, this is going to be very difficult to write, but it needs to be put out there. The name of the game is: tell them what they want to hear. Look, I know how you feel. It’s that feeling of wanting to rip your hair out if you hear another person mention their WoKs or AoKs. Now, you can either be a rebel and fight the entire IB system and argue that all of this is complete nonsense. Or, you can be smarter and use this “flaw” within the course to your advantage.
I spent a good year or so arguing with my grade-eleven TOK teacher that much of what we are taught is simply the IB’s attempt to implement an element of philosophy into the syllabus. I would sit there and laugh at questions such as “How do we know?” and “What is knowledge?” – I honestly found it a joke. Then eleventh grade came to an end. My teacher gave me a C for the year and marked my controversial mock oral presentation a pathetic seven out of twenty. I had to learn from my mistakes.
The lesson here is that you are not doing anyone a favour when you try to deny what TOK is trying to teach – you suffer, your classmates suffer, and your teacher will get fed up with you as well. I know it sounds horrible, but it’s one of life’s most valuable skills – the ability to tell people what they want to hear. You need to understand that you are only in this course for a few years, so you might as well suck it up and try to get through TOK as successfully as you can – whether you believe the material or not. That is what truly separates the top TOK student from the bottom. It’s not what you know, it’s what others think you know.
Here’s an example. For my TOK essay I chose a title about the boundaries between various Areas of Knowledge and whether they are permanent. Initially, I wanted to argue that the AoKs are somewhat superficial, and that there exist tens if not hundreds of other methods of classifying knowledge areas into categories. Basically I was arguing that the Areas of Knowledge that we learn about are not exactly correct – they are simply an “IB” classification. After having a talk with my TOK teacher, it became clear that this was not going to sit well with most examiners. While I could have potentially written a wonderfully creative essay about various interpretations of the Areas of Knowledge and what other intellectuals believe, I would not score very high. I needed to focus on what the TOK syllabus is talking about - I needed to write in their language.
This is hard to swallow, I know. I’m not happy that it’s this way, but there is little you can do to change it. Your best bet would be to just play along and outsmart everyone else. Leave your controversial arguments at home and get ready to talk a lot of TOK lingo in your essay. This includes avoiding bias at all costs. Even if you think your country/religion/sex/race or whatever is truly the best in the world – avoid saying so and keep it professional. Your essay needs to constantly focus on knowledge issues, no matter how non-TOK the essay title may seem.
While on the subject of controversial statements, another common pitfall for TOK students writing the essay is to make generalizations. “Muslims do this,” “Americans eat that,” “Women want this,” – avoid making these oversimplifications. You should know that no two people are alike, so don’t make false statements about a group/nationality/country that have no real basis except your own stereotyping. This just reeks of an anti-TOK way of thinking and you don’t want the examiner to know that you are that close-minded. You are going against the whole IB concept of making you an open-minded individual. Be very careful when using words such as “all,” “mostly” and “usually.” To be fair, you are more likely to write these statements by accident, which is fine, as long as you can spot and rephrase them before you send off your essay.
One of the factors that will separate your essay from other students doing the same essay will be your use of examples. Now, this being the IB, you need to make sure your examples are personal, unique and ethically correct. You need examples from other cultures and countries, and they need to appear researched and not just made up.
Now, one of the reasons I strongly suggest that you refrain from sleeping in your TOK class is because you might miss out on potentially good examples brought up by your classmates or teacher. Keep one eye open for anything that could be put into your essay. Go over your notes (if you bothered to make any) and remind yourself of some of the stuff that was discussed in class. Gather examples from newspapers, magazines, Internet or any other relevant source. You will need to filter this by throwing away the “poor” examples and carefully but rigorously summarizing the “good” examples.
Remember that you will be given credit in your essay for not only tying all the relevant ideas and arguments together, but also for drawing on your own life experiences and personal analysis. Make sure you throw in a few cultural and internationally diverse examples here and there. If you’ve lived in hundreds of different countries and speak ten languages, use that to your advantage. Include not only your own experience but also examples from other cultures with which you have become familiar. Your essay could end up in the hands of an examiner living anywhere from Poland to China. Use a wide variety of sources, but more importantly, make sure that they actually clearly portray the point that you are making. Avoid superficial examples that all high school students think of: Galileo, Francis Bacon’s dictum, Inuit words for snow and embryonic research are worn-out examples – be original!
You will often be advised to find linkages in your IB subjects and you are encouraged to point out these connections. In the TOK essay this is also the case. If you are writing about something and then a little light bulb goes off in your head to tell you, “Hey, we actually discussed this in biology class,” then make sure you mention that one way or another. You are likely to be reading great literary texts in your IB English class and learning about some of the most influential people in your history class, so why not see if there is any TOK-related stuff to talk about there.
As far as actual quotations go, I would not overestimate their importance. It’s impressive to show the examiner that you appreciate what some of the greatest minds in the world have had to say about your topic, but another person’s opinion is only worth so much. Use these more as a stylistic device, rather than as a method to prove a point. As a general rule, you can either start with a quote to set the mood or summarize with a quote to have a lasting and memorable impact on your reader.
As long as we are on the subject of examples, I would also warn you to avoid using examples which are not clearly connected to the topic in question. If you have included an example that you doubt has any real significant impact on the essay, then you’re better off taking it out. Similarly, if you can’t remember why you placed that example there, then it means it’s not proving a point – take it out!
As with almost everything else that has assessment criteria in the IB program, the marking criteria is of the highest importance. Read the official IB instructions over and over again. Once you have come close to finishing your essay, sit down and pretend you are the examiner. Give yourself what you think you will get out of 40 points.
Do you have evidence to prove that you know enough about problems of knowledge and that you have experience as a “knower”? Have you included enough examples to illustrate your points? Have you answered the question as it is stated? Did you score 35+ points when you graded yourself against the assessment criteria? If you gave your essay to a fellow TOK student in your class, would he mark it +/- 35 points as well (something I recommend you do if you have helpful friends)?
Make sure you can answer yes to those questions. Pay extremely close attention to the descriptors for top marks in each category. Also, you should note that the first two categories give up to 10 potential marks (twice that of the other categories). For top marks in criteria A, Knowledge Issues, you must have “an excellent recognition and understanding of the problems of knowledge implied by the title” and your “development of ideas is consistently relevant to the prescribed title in particular, and to TOK in general.” Does that sound like your essay? Can you get at least 7 or 8 points?
Take that type of approach for all of the different criteria. Some may be clearer than others. For example to score top marks under criteria D (Structure, Clarity and Logical Coherence), you need to have an essay that is “excellently structured, with a concise introduction, and a clear, logically coherent development of the arguments leading to an effective conclusion.” So, even if you are a great essay writer and can structure your essay flawlessly, you might get all 5 marks in this category no matter how poor your TOK knowledge is.
Keep in mind that there is an actual grading criterion for your use of sourced material. In order to get all 5 marks in criterion F (Factual Accuracy and Reliability), you must have “an excellent level of factual accuracy, and sources that are reliable, consistently and correctly cited, according to a recognized convention.” That is not asking too much of you. Make sure you cite all your work and use a well-known citation method to ensure your bibliography is 100% correct. Remember, even one mistake (such as misuse of quotation marks or italics in the bibliography listings) could cost you one or two marks.
I know it is perfectly feasible to write an entire TOK essay without consulting a single source. While I would normally tell you that this is OK – the fact that there is a specific grading criterion just for sourced material could spell trouble. Be on the safe side. Don’t think, “Oh man, I don’t have a single source, which means no bibliography, which means they have to give me all 5 marks, because there can’t be any mistakes!” Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. There is still the possibility that you will lose marks for not having sources when you really should have. Do the wise thing and make the effort to include a proper bibliography. The IBO does warn that, “Essays which require facts to support the argument, but omit them, will be awarded zero.” Don’t take that risk.
Keep in mind this is not a research paper – the Theory of Knowledge Guide provided by the IB states that ‘neither the [TOK] essay nor the presentation is primarily a research exercise’. Anything in excess of five sources for a 1600 word essay in TOK is a bit sketchy, because you are expected to rely on your own experiences and analysis more. Keep sources to a minimum but make sure you have something there. Please don’t mess up and “accidently” forget to source an entire statement that you just ripped off from a newspaper article. You will probably get caught – and you will definitely feel dumb. That being said, if you don’t bother to look up information, you take the risk of making statements that are clearly false. For example, if you can’t exactly remember what year Columbus discovered America and write carelessly 1294 (instead of 1492) you risk losing a point or two for your lack of research (note: I highly recommend you DO NOT use that example). It’s not a research paper, but if you do use specific sources, then please include a bibliography just as you would for the EE. All the works that you consulted, whether it be online, book, journal or television, should be included in the bibliography.
There is no guarantee that you will get 40 marks out of 40. My advice is to aim for right about there, and hopefully you will end up with 35+ points. If you follow the directions and marking criteria, there is absolutely no way that you should be getting anything less than 30. Make sure you get the easy points and try your best for the harder ones.