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How do we know what we know?

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The IB Theory of Knowledge course is a 100-hour exploration of the questions: What do we believe? What are the reasons we believe? Are these good reasons?
Nick Alchin
High School Principal and Deputy Head of Campus, UWCSEA East

Nick has taught in IB schools since 1995, first teaching TOK and Mathematics at UWCSEA Dover and subsequently at the International School of Geneva in Switzerland. After working as Director of IB at Sevenoaks School, UK, and as Dean of Studies at the Aga Khan Academy in Mombasa, Kenya, Nick joined us in 2012. He has also been a part-time lecturer in Critical Thinking at Nanyang Polytechnic and California State University (Singapore).

IB Chief Assessor for Theory of Knowledge from 2005 to 2010 and Vice Chair of the IB Examining Board from 2007 - 2013, he is a textbook author, IB examiner, workshop leader and consultant who writes and speaks widely on various educational matters.

Nick has a bachelor's degree in Natural Sciences from Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, postgraduate certificates in Engineering and Education from Wolfson College, Cambridge and Manchester College, Oxford and a Master’s in Educational Leadership from the Open University.


How do we know what we know?

The importance of the IBDP Theory of Knowledge course

In light of apparent controversies like climate change: How do we know when we should trust scientists?

In light of the Charlie Hebdo affair and the subsequent news coverage: How do we know how to judge the reporting of important news events?

In light of a recent report that some 50% of the world’s wealth is owned by 1% of the population: How do we know how to balance the competing goods of freedom and equality?

In light of cultural diversity and multiple perspectives: How do we know how to hold true to our own values while remaining open-minded?

In light of the UWC mission: How do we know how to act to build a peaceful, sustainable future?

These are not easy questions to answer. Some of them have been asked and written about since at least the Greeks and The Upanishads, and recur every generation; others are new, and reflect the challenges posed by living in the early 21st century. But these, and many other such questions, are the questions that our children face, and if we do not equip them to begin the search for the answers, then we will have failed them. Our aim cannot be to provide answers—we have no monopoly on the truth, and in any case we are not in the business of indoctrination. The next generation has to find its own answers, and to ask its own searching questions. So what should we do?

I believe that one of the most important things we can do is to ensure that students are aware of the complexity of these questions; and we have a course designed to do exactly that. The Theory of Knowledge (TOK) course is the only compulsory subject in the IB Diploma Programme, and is a 100-hour exploration of the questions: What do we believe? What are the reasons we believe? Are these good reasons?

Our premise is that we cannot know how to respond to complex challenges unless we systematically examine what we mean by know in the first place. And starting from there, there are plenty of important questions that the students can get to very quickly: Do scientists know in the same ways as economists? Can we know ethical truths in the same ways as we know mathematical truths? What are the similarities and differences in knowing via reason, intuition and emotion? Can we know that God exists? Or know that he does not? Is there anything at all that we can know to be true with absolute certainty? If not, why not? And if so, what?

Addressing these questions is far less intimidating than it might seem—because all IBDP students study six subjects, they are already deeply immersed in different and contrasting methodologies, approaches and visions of knowledge. That means they are implicitly addressing the questions anyway—so TOK is a great place to make them explicit, and to critically engage with them without the pressures of course syllabi to follow. The students are, in addition, at that crucial stage of forming their own knowledge about themselves, and together, these academic and personal experiences form a springboard for inquiry. These questions can elicit passionate and heart-felt reactions from students; in trying to answer them they find their own voices and they take a further step in forging their own identities. In discussing their thoughts with others who hold profoundly different views with a conviction equal to their own, they also learn something about other perspectives, about the value of pluralism, and a lot about intellectual humility.

Thus, I believe this is a course closely aligned with our loftiest aims as educators. And so you won’t be surprised to find that classes consist largely of carefully scaffolded and structured conversation. Philosopher Michael Oakeshott, writes that “it is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a contest where a winner gets a prize … it is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure … its significance lies neither in winning nor in losing, but in wagering.

… it is the ability to participate in this conversation … which distinguishes the human being from the animal and the civilized man from the barbarian … education, properly speaking, is an initiation into the skill and partnership of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices, to distinguish the proper occasions of utterance, and in which we acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to conversation. And it is this conversation, which, in the end, gives place and character to every human activity and utterance.1

The assessment of the TOK course tells us a lot. There are presentations on real life situations (which I cannot easily share) and also essays, whose titles are worth examining. Here are some examples:

  • “That which is accepted as knowledge today is sometimes discarded tomorrow.” Consider knowledge issues raised by this statement in two areas of knowledge.
  • “A skeptic is one who is willing to question any knowledge claim, asking for clarity in definition, consistency in logic and adequacy of evidence (adapted from Paul Kurtz, 1994).” Evaluate this approach in two areas of knowledge.
  • “Doubt is the key to knowledge (Persian Proverb).” To what extent is this true in two areas of knowledge?
  • How important are the opinions of experts in the search for knowledge?

These questions allow students to answer with reference to their own interests, experiences, cultures and beliefs. Wikipedia will not help—this is very much about their thoughts, not the thoughts of others. We have found that it is through this sort of opportunity that students are most likely to come to the profound understanding of complexity that we wish them to develop. It’s the clear intellectual flexibility, the capacity to see different perspectives and the resourcefulness needed to shape, re-shape and create their essays that impresses me more than the ideas themselves. Their work leads me to believe our graduates will be more than capable of dealing with whatever new, different, challenging situations they come across—even ones like those I asked at the start of this article. What a great thought!

To read some recent student Theory of Knowledge essays, please click through:

Discarding Knowledge 1.pdf
Discarding Knowledge 2.pdf
Discarding Knowledge 3.pdf
Discarding Knowledge 4.pdf
If all you have is a hammer.pdf
The Historian and the Scientist 2.pdf
The Skeptic 1.pdf
The Skeptic 2.pdf
The Skeptic 3.pdf

“Looking back I realise that Theory of Knowledge is more than just the coursework and the core points. It helps us realise the significance of what we learn in other courses as well—essentially a ‘why’ rather than a ‘what.’” Sreeya Mukherjee, Grade 12

“Theory of Knowledge … caught my attention almost immediately; it was kind of an awakening for me … managing engineering projects means that you constantly have to solve complex problems and challenge the beliefs of others, in order to obtain the best solution. Being able to understand the intricacies of a question and research into them is an engineering skill that I have had to develop; and it had its roots in TOK and IB. TOK really ignited my curiosity with the world.” Jon Chew, Class of 2000

“Theory of Knowledge has the sole purpose of digging deeper and understanding ourselves and identifying our own biases. I can say … it allows us to connect with ourselves … it promotes and encourages students to view a topic from multiple points of view and aims at achieving holistic education.” Raghav Mathur, Grade 11

1 Oakeshott, Michael. “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind.” In Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, 196-98. London: Methuen, 1962.

16 Apr 2015
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