How to Write a TOK Essay

How to Write a TOK EssayA TOK essay or a Theory of Knowledge essay is an important essay for the International Baccalaureate students. All IBO students need to submit a TOK essay in order to get the diploma. Together with the Extended Essay and CAS (creativity, action and service), the TOK essay forms the core of the IB Hexagon. The importance of the essay can be gauged by this simple fact that if a student fails to obtain the minimum grade in this essay, he or she might not be awarded the diploma by the IBO. So, it is important that you must know how to write a TOK essay. Not only you must know how to write it but you should also know how to write a good TOK essay so that you may obtain a better overall score in your IB Diploma. The first thing you must know when writing a TOK essay is a different ball game altogether. It’s not a standard essay where you start writing on a particular topic or subject. Neither it is a comparative or explorative essay where you compare or explore two things, themes, characters or subjects. In a TOK essay you need to explore the topic from a different perspective, i.e., from a point of view of a knowledgeable person. This means that you, as an expert, have to demonstrate how the topic is really valid and justifications for supporting it. If you feel it’s contradictory to your knowledge and perception, then you also need to specify and mention why you feel so and what are the evidences and arguments supporting your views.

The following guide will help you in writing a TOK essay.

 How to write a TOK essay:

  • Look at an essay topic as many times as possible. This will help you familiarize yourself with the topic. Remember that a TOK essay isn’t a standard essay and you need clear and rational mind to do it. By reading the topic multiple times, you would be able to have some basic idea on the topic and know what is expected from you. Don’t panic if you don’t get the idea of the topic from the very beginning. It’s normal to experience such kind of feeling, as most of the time, a TOK essay topic will appear a bit absurd to anyone. But as mentioned above, the TOK essay is not the same thing as a standard essay.
  • After you had read the essay topic a few times, try to note what it is trying to convey and what it wants you to convey. For example, you have decided to write on the following topic: “Knowledge is generated through the interaction of critical and creative thinking. Evaluate this statement in two areas of knowledge?” Here you will see that there is a phrase ‘two areas of knowledge’. There are a number of TOK terminologies that are exclusively attached to the TOK essay. You can find them in the official IB TOK guide. Some of them are 'knowers', 'areas of knowledge', 'ways of knowing' and 'knowledge issues'. Let’s break these special phrases and terms one by one.
  • First, we will take ‘knowers’. Here ‘knowers’ stands for “students”. As knowers, you might be having some notions and knowledge about some of the things around you. How far is that correct? Is that free from bias and selection? How do you know that whatever you know is totally correct and can’t be proven wrong? For example, most of us know that there are nine planets in the solar system of which Pluto is the last one. However, in the mid 2000s, Pluto was demoted from the official position of a planet and now it has been grouped in the category of dwarf planets. How does it affect you, the knower? How has your knowledge been changed by this announcement? Do you feel for or against the move? You need to critically examine the facts you know and how to relate them with the TOK topic.
  • After the ‘knowers’ comes the term ‘areas of knowledge’. ‘Areas of knowledge’ means the subjects you are taught in the Diploma program. There are six different subject groups: Natural Sciences, Human Sciences, Mathematics, Ethics, Arts and History. While writing an essay, you need to relate your point of view with reference to the topic of the essay. For example, why do you feel that Mathematics has been a failure or success as far as the generation of knowledge is concerned? Or why do you believe that Arts has little/big role in today’s fast society? 
  • The next term is ‘ways of knowing’. According to the TOK guide, ways of knowing are our senses and faculties by which we know or perceive things as they are. There are four ways of knowing: Emotion, Reason, Sense Perception and Language. All help in assimilation of knowledge and they also help in shaping of knowledge. For example, we might have never seen God but that doesn’t make us non-believers, as most of us believe in God. So, the reason might not always be true in the society.
  • Another important terminology in the TOK essay is the phrase ‘knowledge issues’. Whatever we are seeing or witnessing around us can be grouped under knowledge issue. For example, how do we know that what we know is absolutely true? Another example is that is it always that emotion always leads to wrong and incorrect knowledge in history? Or is it always that by just seeing some general examples, we can understand everything every time in all the things?
  • Now try to apply and relate all these four terminologies in the TOK essay citing some real world examples. For example, in the above topic, it is asked whether knowledge is generated by interaction of critical and creative thinking. It also asks to submit your response from only two areas of knowledge. Now you can say here that sometimes knowledge is generated by just one of them and sometimes by both of them. You need to prove and support your argument by some real life examples. You can take Natural Science and Human Science as two areas of knowledge here. You can present the space shuttle from natural sciences and say that it was mostly due to creative thinking of scientists. Then you also need to provide a counterargument for the above statement. You can say that although the space shuttle was the result of some good creative minds working together at NASA, it ultimately crashed and the entire program had to be scraped. The flaw and defects were detected by critical thinking of the scientists who proposed to scrap the space shuttle program forever, as it was too risky for human life. So sometimes creative thinking might not work.
  • So, you need to present your views and opinion that are open for questioning and further debate. Never try to make a closed-ended statement, as the TOK essay is not about conclusion but rather your point of view on certain matters that’s going around the society and an individual. You need to introduce the topic, explore it, provide some statements in support of the topic and give some real life examples to support the statement. But again, you also need to provide a counter argument to your statement with some examples in support of your argument. After you had made a couple of arguments and arguments with corresponding examples, you need to make a small conclusion before you actually end the essay.
  • The conclusion shouldn’t end abruptly as the TOK essay is explorative and open ended. You should not make a final and definitive statement that this is final and there is no further room for discussion here, as I have proved that so and so is right/wrong or things like that. You should make a balanced statement in the end proving your point of view but leaving it open for interpretation and further debate. For example, in the above topic, you can say that although creative and critical thinking help in the synthesis of knowledge, sometimes it can be seen that knowledge can be generated even without one of the components. And even if knowledge is generated by the two, it doesn’t mean that we have the final gospel truth. Knowledge is ever updating and in a state of change, etc.
  • Once you have finished the essay, check the word count. It should not exceed 1600 words in any way. Of course things like bibliography, footnotes, endnotes, tables, diagrams, labels, illustrations, charts, annexure, etc. are not included in the total word count.
  • You should mention some sources in the bibliography section in either MLA or APA format.
  • Finally, re-read the entire essay several times and make sure it is perfect by correcting all spelling and grammatical mistakes.
  • Check whether you have included four special terminologies like ‘knowers’, ‘ways of knowing’, ‘areas of knowledge’, and ‘knowledge issues’ appropriately in the essay. Also, check for statements, arguments and counter arguments along with supporting examples in the essay body. Your essay should have sufficient number of statements, arguments, counter arguments and they should be well backed up by some solid real life examples. You should try to give a personal touch to the essay. Involve yourself in the essay and use the first person language like “I”, “me”, “mine”, “my”, etc. 

If you follow the above instructions, you will be able to write a decent TOK essay for your IBO diploma preparation.

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