The TOK essay and presentation require you, the TOK student, to identify knowledge issues / problems of knowledge. And this is often not an easy thing to do, and it shouldn’t be – after all you get points for identifying them. In this post, I’ll refer to Knowledge Issues and Problems of Knowledge as KI/POK. Both of these terms mean the same thing.
Possible reasons why it is difficult to identify knowledge issues
From my experience, a difficulty can be found on several levels:
- The terms “knowledge issue” or “problems of knowledge” are rather broad and there is no single, easy definition. And if there is a definition, then this definition itself my cause confusion. Essentially many people do not know what they should be looking for in a KI/POK. The TOK Guide from the IB states that Knowledge Issues include “everything that can be approached from a TOK point of view.” Now what is a “TOK point of view”? Essentially KI/POKs (and thus TOK itself) address all these aspects where we ask ourselves “How do I know?”, “Can I be certain?”, “What are my assumptions?”, “Am I biased?”. The motto of TOK is: “It depends how you see it.” KI/POKs address these aspects.
- Identifying knowledge issues in real life situations (as required by the TOK presentation) itself can be a difficult thing to do – it requires you to make a jump from a concrete real-life situation to a more abstract level. Often students simply repeat the real life problem but do not find the hidden KI/POKs. Their TOK presentation is then a presentation of the real-life issue itself and not about the underlying KI/POK, and this is a problem.
- Some real life situations simply do not contain good KI/POKs, or they are no issues at all. Something is an issue if there are different views on this topic. There is some kind of controversy involved.
How can one identify KI/POKs in real life situations?
I would like to explain the process of identifying knowledge issues by showing you a conversation with a student. I’ve added comments for clarification.
- Student: Can I do my TOK presentation on stem cell research?
Students generally have few problems finding real-life situations. Often they may take topics that were already treated in other courses.
- Teacher: No. You have to do a TOK presentation and not a Biology presentation. This is TOK and not a Biology course.
It is important to avoid presentations that have no TOK relevancy. There is the danger that the student forgets about the knowledge issue.
- Student: But stem cell research is my real-life issue. Are we not supposed to talk about real life issues?
The student is still uncertain about the difference between KI/POK and the real-life situation.
- Teacher: No. You are supposed to talk about a knowledge issue / problem of knowledge which relates to your real life issue. Your real-life issue is only an example which helps you deal with the KI/POK. Of course you have to mention the real life issue in the presentation, but the primary focus of the presentation should not be the embryonic stem cells, but rather the controversy surrounding it.
Many controversial topics are controversial due to the different knowledge that the disagreeing parties have.
- Student: So how can I find a KI/POK inside my real life issue?
This relates to Criterion A in the Assessment Criteria – the identification of a relevant knowledge issue in context to a real life situation.
- Teacher: Try to formulate your real life issue in the form a of a question, which starts with the words “How do I know…”
- Student: OK, I’ll give it a try. “How do I know what stem cell research is?”
The student simply reformulated the real-life issue, without identifying a relevant knowledge issue.
- Teacher: Ask yourself if this is really a good KI/POK. Where is the controversy in this question? Is there really so much public disagreement in what stem cell research is? Are scientists, politicians, religious authorities really debating the definition of stem cell research? Why did you personally consider the question relevant? There has to be a reason why you yourself consider the issue relevant. I think that this is not a question of definition, but that the controversy is somewhere else.
Often students may already have a vague idea that the real life issue indeed contains relevant KI/POKs, but they may have problems clearly identifying them.
- Student: So you are saying that stem cell research is not a good TOK presentation topic? Should I look for another topic?
- Teacher: No. I think that stem cell research is a very suitable real life issue. You have to identify a controversy in the topic. This controversy may help you in identifying the hidden problem of knowledge. Why do different people have different views on the issue? Why do YOU consider the topic relevant?
It is not necessary for the topic to be controversial (in the traditional sense), but there should be several viewpoints to address the topic.
- Student: What about this one: “Is stem cell usage for medicine good or bad?”
- Teacher: This is already a bit better. What area of knowledge are you referring to when you mention “good or bad”?
- Student: This would be the Area of Knowledge Ethics.
Identifying associated areas of knowledge or ways of knowing may help the students apply relevant TOK background from the course.
- Teacher: Now ask yourself: why is this topic controversial? Why do people have different ethical views on the issue?
A topic may be controversial because different people have either a different knowledge or perception of the situation, or they may weigh and value different aspects differently.
- Student: Well, we learned that embryonic stem cells can be used to treat certain diseases. On one hand it can help people live, but on the other hand it requires the creation and destruction of a human embryo. For example, it is possible to treat patients who have Parkinson’s disease by injecting embryonic stem cells.
- Teacher: Yes. But let’s refine the issue a bit more and let’s try to make a clearer reference to the issue of knowledge. What is your personal position on this issue?
- Student: Actually I don’t know myself. There are some points that speak for it, and other points that speak against it.
This is exactly the point of TOK: Critical reflection and analysis of different viewpoints.
- Teacher: Try to formulate this in the form of a question.
- Student: How do I know where to draw the line between the protection of an embryo and the protection of the health of a patient? Alternatively one could ask: How do I know what is more worth, the life of an embryo or the life of an adult?
OK, now we’ve got a possible KI/POK. This is a dilemma situation. Biological note: One could re-use aborted embryos for treating patients, so in this case one is not deliberately killing or even creating embryos for medical use. But then other problems emerge, like the creation of an “aborted embryo market”.
- Teacher: Now we’ve got a problem of knowledge. Let’s take it one step further. What TOK theory could you use to address this knowledge issue?
- Student: I could try to evaluate the issue based on different ethical views, such as utilitarianism, deontology and natural law ethics. I know someone who is strictly against this type of treatment because it is “not natural”. Others say that it is possible to help many people with just one single embryo. This would then be the utilitarian view. Still others may say that it is not justifiable to use one person (the embryo) for the sake of another person. This would be Immanuel Kant’s view.
Here we have a direct link to TOK theory. TOK theory, if used, should be applied to the topic and not simply summarized. The “TOK theory” (as I call it) include the more abstract concepts of the course. They may help in demonstrating the significance of the topic and can help to show that the student understands the KO/POKs.
- Teacher: Yes, this is one possible approach, what are some other possible approaches to the issue?
This is a reference to criterion D of the assessment criteria.
- Student: Maybe I can also investigate why different people have different views on the issue? I could analyze their sources of knowledge / ways of knowing and the reason why they have a particular opinion on the issue. People who are directly affected by the disease may decide differently than others.
One real life situation may indeed give rise to several different knowledge issues.
- Teacher: This is also a possibility, but do not forget to critically reflect on these sources of knowledge. Critical reflection does not mean that you automatically discard the sources of knowledge as “wrong”, but rather that you try to identify strengths and weaknesses of the sources of knowledge.
Some may think that the point of TOK is to blindly question every source of knowledge. Critical reflection is not be be confused with uncritical criticism.
- Student: I have one last question. Are we allowed to state our own opinion on the issue?
Some students still think that the presentation is some kind of research presentation and a summary of other people’s opinions. This is a common misconception.
- Teacher: As a matter of fact, you should state your own opinion. Make the presentation personal. Do not forget to also critically reflect on your own opinion. This is not a research presentation in which you summarize other people’s views. You get points for critically reflecting on these views. And critical reflection means that you evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments, including your own.
What are some examples of KI/POKs?
Here is a brief overview of possible Presentation titles. I did not include associated real-life situations.
Bad Title: Should we search for aliens?
Better Title: Is it justified to spend large amounts of money on research projects such as the search for extraterrestrial life? Are some research projects more important than others? How can we decide on the importance of research projects?
Bad Title: What is propaganda?
Better Title: Where can we draw the line between advertisement, information and propaganda in the area of…… ?
Bad Title: Are emotions good or bad?
Better Title: How do we know to what extent emotions influence our decision making in the area of……
Bad Title: Democracy
Better Title: How do we know where to draw the line between the interest of the individual and the interest of society?