In Theory of Knowledge there are two assessment tasks. The essay is worth two thirds of the total marks and the presentation is worth one third of the marks. International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme students taking their exams in May 2016 will be starting to plan and write their essay on a prescribed title from around now.
This post focuses on the essay and is aimed to encourage and support students writing TOK essays. What follows is general common sense advice based on my own teaching and examining experience, but it isn’t official IB advice – this can be found in the IB TOK Subject Guide and in the IB Online Curriculum Centre (OCC) exemplar material for teachers.
1. Choose your question wisely
IB students will submit an essay under 1,600 words on one of 6 prescribed titles which will be externally examined by the IB. The 6 titles for students taking the IB in May 2016 are available now from your TOK teacher via the IB Online Curriculum Centre website. Choose a title that plays to your strengths and draws on the concepts, ideas, Areas of Knowledge and Ways of Knowing that you have covered during the course.
2. Write an argument plan and a first draft
Your essay is an extended argument and it needs to demonstrate a clear and coherent line of thinking. It’s recommended that you have a thesis statement, supported by a sequence of ideas. Plan the structure of your answer. Planning and drafting is a crucial stage. When you’ve chosen your prescribed title, write a draft and submit this to your teacher. Your teacher is allowed to offer you holistic or global comments.
Perhaps start by thinking through what the Prescribed Title is asking. What are the command terms? What are the key concepts? What arguments could you develop? What would be the counterarguments and how strong are they?
3. Read exemplar essays and know the assessment criteria
It’s important that you know what makes an excellent TOK essay. You teacher will be able to show you exemplar essays with examiner comments. The IB publish 50 excellent TOK essays. It’s a good idea to look at these resources and to try marking one these essays against the criteria before looking at the examiner comments. When you read these you might focus on various themes: the argument structure, the use of examples, the introduction or the conclusion. Then judge your own essay against the criteria.
4. Make the essay knowledge specific
The aim of your essay is to answer the question set out in the prescribed title. One pitfall of essay writing is to write an overly descriptive answer with lots of examples. All the titles focus on concepts to do with knowledge and knowing and the focus of your essay needs to be on a critical analysis of the question. Make sure that you develop links and connections between Areas of Knowledge and Ways of Knowing where appropriate.
5. Offer analysis over description
One of the features of the assessment criteria is quality of analysis. You might sharpen your quality of analysis by doing some of the following: identify assumptions behind knowledge claims or arguments, identity and evaluate arguments and counter arguments, and give serious consideration to the implications of arguments. If appropriate, make use of the knowledge framework. This is a tool for analysis for comparing two or more areas of knowledge so you can make connections in terms of 1) scope and applications, 2) key concepts, 3) methodology, 4) key historical development, and 5) links with personal knowledge.
6. Dictionary definitions and examples
You might want to define your terms in your own words, but avoid dictionary definitions. Instead take a critical approach that reflects your own voice. ‘If by instinctive judgement we mean x, it follows that y…’ Use examples to support your analytical points and evaluate examples. It’s recommended to use a range of examples that reflect your own global perspective, IB learning experience, whether from CAS, one of your 6 IB subjects, an Internal Assessment, or your Extended Essay. It’s advisable to avoid typical or clichéd examples that offer no analysis such as flat earth or Newton’s apple.
7. Sources footnotes and bibliography
Academic honesty is a requirement in all IB subjects. If an idea is someone else’s, acknowledge that with a reference. This isn’t a research essay but you need to cite sources correctly. Use footnotes and a bibliography using the conventional method that you used for your Extended Essay. http://www.neilstoolbox.com/bibliography-creator/
8. Introductions and conclusions
You might look at exemplar essays to see examples of good introductions and conclusions. In your introduction you could include an engaging example, your thesis statement and you might offer some signposting to show the direction of your essay. In the conclusion offer a summary and an evaluation of your answer. Possibly end with a forward looking view.
9. Write the final draft
Write the final draft in the light of your teachers’ global feedback. Present the final version in a conventional 12 point font such as a Times New Roman and double spaced to allow examiners to annotate your essay. You can make your essay anonymous so it only has your candidate number and school number.
10. Complete the PPF form and upload
It’s also a requirement that you complete the paperwork – there is an essay form to fill in the TK/PPF form available to your teacher on the OCC.
Six steps to writing a good TOK essay:
A student guide
1. SELECT A TITLE FROM THE LIST PROVIDED BY THE IB.
Do not instantly seize upon a title that sounds appealing and plunge into it headlong. Instead, read carefully all titles (that is, all topics or questions) on the list. Which one allows you to demonstrate best YOUR understanding of TOK issues and your own critical skills? Remember that you may not change the title to something else that you wish you had been asked, but must respond to what the IB has given.
What are the key words or concepts?
Are there key words of the Theory of Knowledge course in the title -- words such as "belief", "justification", or "truth"? Are you clear about what they mean? Are you aware of ambiguities, or of possible alternative meanings? Think back on class discussions and check class notes.
How are the key concepts related to each other? Put the title into your own words to make sure you understand what is being asked.
2. READ THE INSTRUCTIONS AND THE MARKING CRITERIA.
[Do not skip this step. Do not even consider skipping this step.]
(a) Read the instructions in the title. What exactly are you being told to do?
What are the key words of instruction?
If you are told to "analyse" or "evaluate" a claim, then you are supposed to consider the arguments both for and against it, taking into account any ambiguities interpreting it. Possible responses, for example:
-that the claim is justified in these ways or up to the point, but not justified in those ways or beyond the point . . . or applies to this area of knowledge more fully than to that area;
-that whether or not the claim is justified depends on what is meant by one of its key words or concepts, so that if you understand the key words this way the claim is justified, but if you understand it that way it is not;
-that, although some justification can be offered for this point of view, the claim is really an oversimplification of an issue which needs to be understood with awareness of the following complexities.
If you are asked "to what extent" or "in what way" the statement is justified, then you are being asked the same thing, but in different words. If you are being asked a question directly ("Is x true?"), your response must still take the same approach of considering to what extent or in what ways you consider the answer to be yes or no.
If you are asked to "compare" areas of knowledge or ways of knowing, justifications, methodologies, or the like, you are being asked to examine both similarities and differences in response to the title. Possible responses, for example:
-that the claim in the title is justified to some extent when applied to the areas [or ways, justifications, methods] (similarities), but that the areas [ways/justifications/methods] differ in the way the claim applies (differences).
-that the areas [ways/justifications/methods] of the title share this and that feature of knowledge, but diverge in this and that significant feature, so that the implication in the title is either upheld or refuted.
If you are asked "how" something is achieved (knowing, justifying, drawing distinctions), you are usually being asked about a process or a method, and might respond by outlining steps to be taken and/or difficulties to be overcome. In some cases, the "how" question is simply a variation of "in what way?" -- and that question is in turn a variation of "analyse".
Ultimately, all titles in Theory of Knowledge, no matter how they are phrased, ask you to do the same thing. You are being asked to think critically about major issues of knowledge.
(b) Now look at the general instructions which apply to all the titles, regardless of what the key words of instruction within them may be. These instructions tell you exactly what you are expected to do in your essay:
"Remember to centre your essay on problems of knowledge and, where appropriate, refer to other parts of your IB programme and to experiences as a knower. Always justify your statements and provide relevant examples to illustrate your arguments, and remember to consider what can be said against them. If you use external sources, cite them according to a recognized convention. Examiners mark essays against the title as set. Respond to the title as given; do not alter it in any way. Your essay must be between 1200 and 1600 words in length."
(c) Now read over the criteria according to which your essay will be marked ("External Assessment Descriptors"). Pay attention to the description of the top mark in each of the six criteria in order to set your goals for an appropriate essay. (It does you little good to play a brilliant game of football if you are being assessed on playing tennis.) Note that the first two criteria emphasized in importance by being given double knowledge implied by the prescribed title is at the core of the Knowledge Issue(s) criterion, and that analysis and evaluation are at the core of the Quality of Analysis criterion.
2. GATHER YOUR IDEAS
(a) Now look back to the title you have chosen and start to identify the problems of knowledge that it raises. This is a crucial step. (Look at the descriptions of the zeroes in the Assessment Criteria!) Do you understand clearly what a "problem of knowledge" is? If not, re-read the explanation:
"The phrase 'problems of knowledge' refers to possible uncertainties, biases in approach to knowledge or limitations of knowledge, and the methods of verification and justification appropriate to the different areas of knowledge."
Remember that a "problem of knowledge" is not a problem at all in the everyday sense of the word unless you expect knowledge to be simple and certain (and then the problem may not be in the knowledge but in your expectations!). Uncertainties and difficulties are an integral part of our search for knowledge, and may even (depending on your values) make it more humanly interesting. Do not treat an area of knowledge as inherently inferior simply because it is more difficult to assert that we can know something in that area than it is in others.
(b)Think about how the problems of knowledge raised by your title are relevant to different Areas of Knowledge and Ways of Knowing. Do all cultures see these problems in the same way? What comparisons can you draw, what general conclusions do you reach, and what arguments can be made against those conclusions? What are the implications of your main points? Can you find examples to illustrate your arguments? Counter-examples? Note down your ideas quickly, without trying to structure them yet. Write until your mind runs dry. It will.
(c) Now enrich your immediate ideas by going back over notes from your TOK course to remind yourself of class discussions and material which are relevant to your title. To illustrate your points, gather examples from notes and texts from your other IB courses, the media, people you know, your personal experience, and any other relevant sources. Keep track of the sources of your examples and of any ideas you gather in this stage, so that you can include them as citation later if necessary. Remember, though, that the TOK essay is not a research paper. You will not find your response to the title in a book; books and other sources give you only the raw material which you must shape into your own response.
(d) If time allows, you may want to live with your ideas floating in your mind for a week or so at this point, gathering more as thoughts hit you in class, your CAS activities, or elsewhere.
This step of gathering ideas is often challenging -- and extremely enjoyable, II is a chance to engage your own mind in considering the central TOK question: "How do I know?" If you find ideas interesting or like to reflect on what beliefs or knowledge your life experience has given you, you will probably find this stage of the essay personally stimulating. Moreover, you will be given credit in your essay for pulling together the relevant ideas in a way that reflects your own thinking.
4. ORGANIZE YOUR IDEAS IN PREPARATION FOR WRITING
Now comes probably the greatest struggle of the essay -- to move from scribbled notes of tangled ideas to a plan for an essay that organizes a sequence of arguments which respond clearly to the title. If you find this step difficult, remember that no one is born (as far as I know!) already knowing how to write an essay. It takes concentration and practice to learn to swim, to salsa . . . or to organize ideas for an essay. Allow yourself only a few minutes to wail, "But I can't . . . !" and then settle down to try.
As you put your ideas in to related groups and shuffle them into order, you should identify your THESIS -- that is, the central point or argument which you want to make in your essay. Distil it into a single sentence and write it at the top of your plan. Make sure that every subsection of your essay develops this core idea in some way, including considering counter-arguments to it.
There are many possible ways of structuring ideas in an essay, depending on the topic. Play around with an outline or mindmap until a sequence comes together. There is no formula for a perfect plan. The only essential requirement is that the sequence of ideas must develop your thesis, which in turn must respond to the prescribed title.
5. WRITE THE ESSAY
By now you have done extensive thinking and planning -- but you still have no essay! The actual writing, though, is only a small part of a good essay, and if you have prepared well, it should be straightforward. Keep the following points in mind as you write and revise your draft:
-The marking criteria favour a concise introduction. Know where you want to go and don't use up hundreds of words just getting started.
-Try to develop ideas in proportion to importance in your overall plan. Your essay must be between 1200 and 1600 words in length, so control the degree to which you expand on an idea as you go. Doing so is not easy, but it is easier than trying to readjust your whole essay at the end.
-You are expected to clarify concepts as you are defining terms if necessary. Do not, however, pad out your essay with definitions of terms which are not particularly ambiguous. Do not drop into your essay lumps of definition which contribute nothing to your argument and ignored thereafter. Do not, above all, use a dictionary definition to bypass complexities. Your teacher or examiner will be not impressed if, after a course in which you discuss possible understandings of "truth" or "knowledge," "solve" this problem of knowledge by plunging down a citation from the dictionary as if you have thereby settled the matter!
-Select your examples form a wide variety of sources and cultures. Make sure, moreover, that they really do illustrate the points you are making. A reference to the Copernican Revolution and Galileo, for example, may illustrate a change in beliefs, but it does not demonstrate an understanding of revolutionary thinking within contemporary science. Is there no other example you might find in science in the past 400 years?
-You are welcome to use "I" in a TOK essay. If you are speaking about your own experiences or beliefs, you will probably want to do so.
-Check your facts. Are your assertions accurate? Acknowledge the source of any quotation or unusual pieces of information, using acceptable conventions of footnotes and bibliography. (When in doubt, it is better to footnote too much than too little.)
-Make sure that your conclusion is coherent with the arguments you made. There is no "right or wrong answer" to a prescribed title: Your essay will be evaluated upon the strength of your arguments. An effective conclusion must reflect those arguments.
-Cut out anything that is not truly relevant, to ensure that your essay satisfies the word length requirement.
-Polish the essay as you finish writing. Check for mistakes in sentence structure, grammar, word choice, and spelling. Errors can interfere with the clarity of language and argument.
-Finally, go back over your essay with the general directions and marking criteria in hand for any last improvements
6. HAND IT IN -- AND CELEBRATE!
A good Theory of Knowledge essay demands that you think deeply about questions of truth which thread themselves through all areas of your life. If you have done your best to take a significant question of knowledge and made it your won, you have achieved a goal central to your International Baccalaureate diploma -- and potentially important in the growth of your own thinking. Congratulations! Whatever the mark on the essay may end up being, you have reason for celebration.