TOK Essays ¡V Frequently Asked Questions


Here are some questions that students and teachers frequently ask about the TOK essay. Read through these questions and the answers to check that you are doing the right thing.



What¡¦s the most important thing to bear in mind?


The first thing is to BE CLEAR! Most students do not even manage to communicate their ideas clearly to the examiner. Regardless of whether or not your answer is stunningly original or crammed with a variety of interesting examples, if it is clear then you will already have a massive head start over the majority of other students from elsewhere in the world. That is why it is absolutely vital to plan in detail ¡V if you have a clear plan you will write a clear essay. If you start the essay without a clear plan then the chances are you will not do very well.


The second thing is to remain focussed on the question. It is really easy to lose focus and when you do your score will instantly drop. A slight switch from discussing ¡¥what we believe is true¡¦ to ¡¥what is true¡¦ might be enough to make most of your answer irrelevant to the question that you have been asked so you have to be really, really careful here. Always ask yourself whether you are correctly focussed on the question.



If my answer is not completely different to everyone else¡¦s will I lose?


Most good essays will offer well balanced, plausible and convincing answer to the knowledge question that has been asked. Clearly there is not an infinite variety of plausible and convincing answers to any question and so you should not expect your answer to be completely different to everyone else¡¦s and nor should you strive to make it bizarrely and outlandishly strange in an attempt to seem original. A good answer will usually point out that x is true in some case cases because of a certain set of reasons, while it is less true in other cases and pretty much completely untrue elsewhere. Students who take very extreme positions tend not to do so well in TOK because, unlike in English where you can usually find some evidence to back up even the most unusual reading, TOK is meant to be firmly grounded in the real world and so, for instance, it is not really that plausible to argue that we can never know anything because that just doesn't fit with how we live our daily lives. Similarly, answers which are overly simply probably won't do that well because most things in TOK just aren¡¦t that clear cut. For example students who claim that Art is completely subjective and that we can never know whether one painting is better than another have trouble when accounting for how the IB award some students Level 7s in art while failing others.


So in this sense your essay might be balanced in the same way as someone else¡¦s but the difference between your essay and everyone else¡¦s should be in exactly how you strike that balance, exactly which discriminations you make and the kinds of evidence that you use to persuade me that your answer is correct. The more convincing your position: the better you will do.



How many examples do I need?


In terms of number of examples there is no set answer. However, in a 1600 word essay you should try to have about 4-6 main body points with one clear example that is central to each one. The best marks will not go to those students who have lots of examples but those who choose examples that support their point really well and then go on to consider the counterclaims against this position (possibly using the same example or a different one) and then respond to this counterclaim (again using the same example or a different one - however three examples in paragraph might be getting a bit too much).



How important is it to talk about myself?


It is important to demonstrate personal engagement, indeed the highest marks will really only be awarded to essays that create a sense that the writer has really engaged and got to grips with the question that they have chosen to answer. However, there are a number of different ways to do this. Using the personal pronoun ¡¥I¡¦ and talking about something that has happened to you is one way to do this but it will not score highly unless it is a strong example that convincingly supports the point you are trying to make. For example, you will are unlikely to get any points for a personal example about your summer holiday or your Mum¡¦s noodle soup unless it clearly and convincingly supports your answer to the question.


Other ways to demonstrate personal engagement and independent thought are by offering personal definitions of key words and researching original examples that you have come up with yourself rather than the obvious example or the one that everyone else in your class is using because that is the one that the teacher gave you.


Ultimately the best way to demonstrate your personal engagement with the question is through your tone of voice and the sense that you have really ¡¥got¡¦ what this question is asking and honestly offered your own answer to it. However, this can be hard to identify for an examiner so it is probably best if you try to cover all of the different methods mentioned above in order to come across as a student who is thinking for themselves and relating this question to experiences in their own education.



Should I offer definitions of all the words in my title?


Obviously not ¡V beginning your essay with a list of personal definitions does not make for a very engaging start. However, there may be some terms in your question title that it is important to define and so you might need to start by doing this. In these case it is best to offer a brief personal definition (avoid!), but be careful with going into any more detail than that. Otherwise the best way to show that you understand what the words in the title mean is to continually link back to the key words from the question throughout your essay. Just like in an English essay you would usually do this at the beginning or end of a paragraph but the best students will be able to make the link clear throughout.


One handy trick to bear in mind when thinking about definitions is that, considering different definitions of key words can actually be a good way of incorporating different perspectives into your essay. For example, if your essay question asks you whether progress is equally possible in the sciences and the arts then how you answer that question might depend on how you define progress and a good structure for the essay might be to start by considering one definition of progress (i.e. progress from one perspective) and then go on to contrast this with the answer that we get if we consider a different definition of progress from another perspective.



Is it a good idea to argue that it¡¦s impossible to know anything at all?


Generally no ¡K TOK examiners tend to be quite dismissive of essays that argue either that we can¡¦t know anything at all or that you can have your ¡¥truth¡¦ and I can have my ¡¥truth¡¦ and that these truths are both true. The first of these approaches is often called ¡¥lazy scepticism¡¦ and the second ¡¥easy relativism¡¦ and you can see that the names imply that these are not particularly impressive positions to adopt. This is not to say that it¡¦s impossible to be sceptical about knowledge and argue that there are problems with it because clearly there are. It¡¦s also not to say that it¡¦s impossible to argue that in some situations the ¡¥truth¡¦ might actually be different for different people. However, by and large TOK is looking at how we can know things despite the problems we face when acquiring with knowledge or in spite of the different opinions that exist. TOK is in many ways a pragmatic and realistic subject that is trying to move away from creating the impression that we just can't know anything at all. As such, the best essays will admit that the acquisition of knowledge may not be straight-forward, but will go on to consider how we can overcome these obstacles in the successful pursuit of knowledge.



Do I have to cover every AOK and WOK in my essay?


No, you won¡¦t have enough space. However, you should start by considering all of the AOKs and WOKs when you begin planning your essay and then narrow it down to the 2 or 3 AOKs or WOKs where you can say the most interesting things. Make it clear that this narrowing down is a conscious decision that you have made and you can even briefly explain the reasons why you have made the choice that you have, if you think that it is relevant. Remember that the highest marks will go to the students who explore a few really key ideas in depth rather than those who try to cover everything. Remember also that the best and most original ideas are not necessarily going to be the ones that spring to mind first so try to use AOKs or WOKs that not everyone else is using ¡V as long as they work.



So how do I know which AOKs or WOKs would be good ones to pick?


In general, it can be good to compare an AOK where a statement 'x' really applies well and contrast that with one where it doesn't or doesn't seem to. So for example 'All knowledge is subjective' seems to fit well with The Arts and Ethics, but less with Maths and Science so if you just talk about The Arts and Ethics then you are just going to have an essay that keeps saying ... and this is also true in Ethics, and we can see another example of subjectivity in the Arts, etc. It would be much better to say that this is true in the arts because of xyz reasons and not true in Maths because of abc reasons.


If you are really confident with TOK you might try inverting an obvious stereotype about an AOK and seeing if you can find examples where that isn¡¦t true. For example, most students¡¦ first reactions are that the Arts are a subjective subject whereas Maths is a subject which contains objective, universal truths. While there is some truth to this stereotype it is not true all the time and the best students will be able to explore where that stereotype breaks down and why it breaks down. For example, while judgement in art is subjective, some truths ¡V e.g. that this picture was painted by Da Vinci - are empirical and so we can have objective agreement about them. Additionally, even the subjective truths aren't allowed to be absolutely anything - even my Mum doesn't think that my Primary School paintings are as good as Da Vinci's. This kind of subtlety is what marks out the best answers.


In addition, do not make sweeping statements about aspects or areas of knowledge that imply that what you are saying is always and absolutely true without exception. Instead, phrase things in a way that acknowledges the limitations of your own knowledge and experience: for example ¡¥Accepting for the moment the premise that ¡K then we can say ¡K¡¦



Do I have to use TOK words like ¡¥Areas of Knowledge¡¦ in my essay?


Yes you do as this will demonstrate a good understanding of the course but be wary of just throwing them in everywhere: judicious and correct use of TOK terminology is better than going over the top. The words that should come up more frequently are the key words from the question to show that you are remaining focussed on the question and not getting distracted by anything else.



Do I have to include any Philosophy or Philosophical words?


No - the IB have made it clear that TOK is not a philosophy course, instead it is meant to be grounded in the real world and your own experiences as a student. As such you should try to avoid including complex philosophical points unless you really understand them and they really are fully relevant to the essay, even then it is often to put these points into your own words rather than quote philosophers because TOK is about you thinking for yourself rather than quoting someone else¡¦s thoughts.



Do I have to research the quotations in the question title?


It is a good idea to know where the quotation came from, who said it and why but you wouldn¡¦t necessarily include any of this in your essay. In fact, the quotation may not really be relevant at all to the essay question as they are sometimes just used to give you a flavour of the what the essay is about. For example in the ¡¥What I Tell You Three Times is True¡¦ question ¡V the number ¡¥three¡¦ and the fact that this comes from Lewis Carroll are not necessarily as important as the point about repetition and so detailed research into the works of Lewis Carroll will not really help you with this question.



Can I use quotations from famous people to back up my argument?


Students often like starting essays, concluding essays or supporting points with quotations from famous people like Oscar Wilde or Albert Einstein. The fact that these people are experts tends to lend an air of credibility to your argument. However, the opinion of someone like Oscar Wilde is only going to be relevant in certain, very specific circumstances, for example, if you are exploring aesthetics (the theory about what makes beautiful things beautiful) then it might be worth considering Oscar Wilde¡¦s perspective on this topic as he was an artist¡K but you have to remember that his view is only one perspective and just because Wilde said it, it doesn¡¦t mean that he has the best or most convincing theory about beauty. You should also remember that, outside of the topic of aesthetics, it might not be a such good idea to quote Oscar Wilde at all: his opinions on how to live a good life, for example, can be sharply witty and sound quite appealing ... but we need to remember that he did die penniless and alone in Paris so is he really someone that we want to listen to?


Similarly, Einstein is a hugely important figure in the history of science and it might be worthwhile quoting him if you were exploring the forces that drive or inspire genius. However, again you should bear in mind that Einstein¡¦s personal statement about what inspires him is not necessarily something that is going to be true of all thinkers. On top of that you should remember that it has been almost 100 years since the publication of Einstein¡¦s last great work, the General Theory of Relativity, so if you are looking for an up to date comment on the nature of scientific knowledge then it might be best to look elsewhere.


In general the rule with quotations is that you should only quote from someone when they are an expert in the relevant field and even then you have to bear in mind that their opinion is nothing more than that, an opinion. Just like your opinions have to be backed up with evidence and proof, so do the opinions of experts¡K just because Einstein said it, it doesn¡¦t mean it¡¦s true until you show me the proof. One danger you should also be aware of if you quote too much is that the expert¡¦s voice can come to replace your own and so you should only quote opinions sparingly. One additional way to prevent the expert¡¦s voice from dominating your essay is to use quotations from them in your counterclaims; if you go on to disagree with the expert then that¡¦s usually a clear indication that you are thinking for yourself.


Finally, be careful where you get your quotation from. ¡¥¡¦ might be a repository of thousands of fantastic and completely accurate quotations but it doesn¡¦t create a great impression of your ability to select reliable sources so try to find the original source for your quotation and quote that!



Do I need to include different perspectives in my essay?


Definitely, although remember that ¡¥different perspectives¡¦ can mean a range of different things. One nice way to include different perspectives is by considering the question from the ¡¥perspective¡¦ of the different AOKs. So, for example, you might answer the question from the perspective of the sciences and then compare this with the perspective of the arts ¡V this is a particularly nice trick because it also enables you to draw in some comparisons between the AOKs at the same time. However, there are other perspectives that you considering and exploring different cultural, political, philosophical, historical and intellectual perspectives or different schools of thought within an AOK can lead to a more interesting and more convincing essay.



Do I have to distinguish between ¡¥personal¡¦ and ¡¥shared¡¦ knowledge in my essay?


It¡¦s definitely a good idea to consider these ideas in your planning but, as with anything, you should only really include them if they are relevant to your essay. One effective way to include these different kinds of knowledge in your essay is to treat them as different perspectives on the same issue. For example, if you are looking at whether it is possible to make progress in the arts then the answer might be quite different depending on whether I am talking about progress at a personal level (clearly I can get better at drawing) or at a shared / communal level because it¡¦s not entirely clear what it would mean for art overall to get ¡¥better¡¦. This links nicely with the previous point as a way of considering different perspectives on the same issue and can be a good way of killing two birds with one stone.