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Planning-Guides for writing a Theory of Knowledge essay

Updated on September 12, 2014

A review of Theory of Knowledge essay guides at

Calvin and Hobbes: On essay writing
Calvin and Hobbes: On essay writing

When preparing to write a TOK essay, the first problem is always to get a handle on the question. Over the years, the TOK Essay Prescribed Titles have been notoriously various and difficult – the wording of them can be so vague and general that students are almost always put off from the beginning. This doesn’t have to be the case.

Some examples of past TOK essay questions

When should we trust our senses to give us truth?

“Moral wisdom seems to be as little connected to knowledge of ethical theory as playing good tennis is to knowledge of physics” (Emrys Westacott). To what extent should our actions be guided by our theories in ethics and elsewhere?

Discuss the claim that some areas of knowledge are discovered and others are invented.

“What separates science from all other human activities is its belief in the provisional nature of all conclusions” (Michael Shermer, Critically evaluate this way of distinguishing the sciences from other areas of knowledge?

To what extent do we need evidence to support our beliefs in different areas of knowledge?

"Art is a lie that brings us nearer to the truth" (Pablo Picasso). Evaluate this claim in relation to a specific art form (for example, visual arts, literature, theatre).

Is there any help out there for TOK essays?

You can scour the internet for a long time before you come to a site which deals directly with the essay questions for your actual year of submission (either May or November of the year) and even then, the author of the site might only provide a short personal summary of how to approach each question. And herein lies the problem for many students: unlike your other IB subjects, there is no official textbook that can help you in a structured way with the specific needs of the essay title you have chosen. Why? Because the questions change every year and no one is prepared to write a book or guide for the set of questions for any given year, knowing that after a year it’ll be obsolete.

TOK essay guides at

That’s where the essay guides offered at can be so helpful. The benefits are immense:

  1. Each guide is written by a tutor who is an expert in his or field and has a vast experience of teaching and so caters for the needs of students
  2. Each guide is on average 3000-3800 words and structured in three parts which is perfect for helping with thinking out the essay before while planning the essay
  3. Each guide breaks down the key command terms of the question to give you a clear focus on what you have to do
  4. Each guide identifies a range of knowledge questions which you should explore as this keeps your essay rooted in TOK and not another subject
  5. Each guide proposes different perspectives on which to base your essay, giving some examples to trigger your imagination and analytic intelligence
  6. Each guide is written in a clear and understandable language so that even if your first language isn’t English, you should be able to grasp the essential demands the question
  7. Most importantly, each guide is linked to the changes in the specifications for TOK as expressed in the new TOK Subject Guide (2015)

At present, essay guides are available for ALL six questions of the TOK Prescribed Titles List for May 2015. You won’t find a more comprehensive guide to writing your TOK essays in any bookshop and you’ll be lucky if you find one as detailed online.

What does a TOK essay guide look like?

Here’s a sample guide, so judge for yourself:

How far are the different areas of knowledge shaped by method as opposed to subject matter?

Understanding the question: The question asks for a focus on its two key terms: 'method' and 'subject'. It's a perennial issue that often disintegrates into the clichéd distinction between the Sciences and Arts whereby the Arts are often downgraded as being the 'soft option'. Why is this? Why do we assume that those AOKs (or subjects) which are defined by method are somehow more superior than those which are more defined by their subject matter or content? A question tailor-made for the Sciences and one or two other AOKs, perhaps Mathematics and History, though it could be argued that method is also important in the Arts. Try to limit yourself to 2-3 AOKs and write in a detailed manner about their 'methods'. Think about the advantages and disadvantages of each method in acquiring, using knowledge and expanding knowledge. Think also about how each method changes over time; about the conditions required for such changes to take place. Avoid simply agreeing with the terms of the question. Reflect on the idea that while there are many Ethical theories to guide our behaviour, these are not really 'methods'; but this doesn't mean that Ethics is defined by its content...

Knowledge Questions: How do we know that a method works? What is the relationship between method and content? How far is method more important than content? What do we mean by the phrase 'there is method in the madness'? To what extent does the content of knowledge depend on method? In what ways do the imperfections of a method reduce the impact of knowledge? In what ways do reason and perception define scientific methodologies? How far does emotion define the content of the Arts and Ethics? What role has language to play in the methodologies of the AOKs?


Natural Sciences: Another question which demands analysis of the scientific method. Look at the inductive approach and the falsification approach. What are the benefits and problems of each? What is the 'content' of the natural Sciences? Data? Observations? Truth?...

Human Sciences: The 'content' of the Human Sciences is to put it simply, human behaviour. How 'scientific' are the methods used to explain this behaviour in different fields such as economics and psychology? How far do these methods yield coherent explanations?...

Mathematics: Mathematicians work according to certain rules of logic and reason to derive answers and explanation. The content of mathematical knowledge is arguably the most abstract and complex of all the AOKs which always begs the question: to what extent is this content applicable to the world? While we may struggle to comprehend Mathematical formulae in their purest form, we should never forget that they are fundamental to the invention of some of the items that we have come to rely on so much...

History: Is there such a thing as a historical 'method'? If there were, presumably historians would disagree as to how it should be used. Perhaps it's more reasonable to suggest that there is no single method to reconstruct the past, but that there are certain rules or protocols that a historian must follow when attempting to do this work. The rules provide a framework for approaching the content of history - primary and secondary sources - without constraining the historian to 'prove' or 'falsify' a hypothesis. What would these 'rules' look like?...

Arts: the content of the Arts is wide-ranging and various. When we experience art, we assume that what matters most is the subject matter and how accurately this represents the world of human experience. When we judge a piece of art, we take into account how it's made, the method involved, but does this always have an impact on our aesthetic experience of an art work? Perhaps the Arts are the only AOK in which we strive for a balance between method and content...

Ethics: It has been suggested above that Ethics is the only AOK which doesn't depend on methodology and even the theories devised to guide our ethical behaviour can never provide anything more than guidelines. If the content of Ethics is moral knowledge, we're faced with some essential questions: where does this come from? How flexible and effective are our Ethical theories in applying their principles to real life situations?...

Religious K S: Knowing a higher power or its influence on human life isn't a matter of 'method' as such but of ritual, but this doesn't mean there's a lack of structure or discipline in a religious approach to the pursuit of knowledge. Consider, for example, the rituals surrounding prayer and meditation as a way of communicating with a God or gods. The problems arise, of course, when someone questions whether the power of prayer and its effects can be verified evidentially...

Indigenous K S: Much indigenous knowledge is gained through the trial and error of experience and handed down through an oral tradition until it becomes so ingrained in the way of life of a community that it becomes shared knowledge and essential to the cohesion and well being of that community. There is little method, for example, in the shamanistic practices of the North American Indians - the use and misuse of this knowledge is, like religious knowledge, largely ritualistic...

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Please note: the essay guide materials presented on this hub have been developed independently and the content is in no way connected with or endorsed by the International Baccalaureate

Theory of Knowledge Essay Resources @ Amazon


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