Theory of Knowledge: Making sense of the new syllabus – Q&A

IBDP TOK book cover

Written by David Spooner

David has been teaching TOK since 1999, in a variety of countries including Ghana, the UK, Spain, Finland, Greece, Lebanon, Jordan and Italy. He has been an IB workshop leader since 2004, and has a range of examining experience. In addition to this, he is an IB Verification Visitor and Consultant for schools wishing to adopt the IB Diploma.

26th March 2020

Thank you to the hundreds of teachers who attended our webinar! We hope you learned a lot from David Spooner and that it helped you feel more prepared. As mentioned, he answered all of your questions from the Q&A session which you can find below, organised by theme.

If you missed the webinar, you can watch the recording here.

Planning your teaching 

Will the amount of teaching time spent on the optional and core themes be the same?


What are the current resources available (textbooks, Kognity, etc.) to help plan the schemes of work in advance?


I’ve noticed the phrase “case study” repeatedly used re: new TOK course. To what extent is IB viewing this as a single class lesson (e.g. a 15-minute case study of the supply/demand curve) versus a more extended case study (e.g. a week-long case study of how Covid-19 public knowledge developed in March 2020, incorporating math, science, history as subjects)?


This would be my first time teaching Theory of Knowledge. Would I need any prior knowledge or qualifications in e.g. Language, Technology or Religions to be able to teach these themes effectively? Is it enough to have an open mind and a copy of the Guide?


I wanted to clarify that the TOK Exhibition is recommended to have 8 hours preparation…is that considered group / full class preparation? Surely it isn’t individual…right? Thinking about our large cohort.

Has the IB considered supplementing “DP-subject teacher conversations” with some published resources in order to connect our TOK course to the IBDP diploma classes? While it is clearly IDEAL, So many teachers don’t have time to do this… especially considering the fact that some subject teachers might require lengthy TOK explanations of what knowledge questions even are?



Core and Optional Themes 

Can we see the shadows of personal and shared knowledge in the core theme? Knower (personal), Knowledge community (shared)


Is it deliberate that the optional theme says “religion” which is distinctly different than religious knowledge systems inferred?


Will the optional themes be more specialized in a disciplinary sense? Politics by a Global Politics teacher for instance?


When you say “2 optional themes does that mean that we teach them throughout the whole year 1?” So, if I go with religion and politics I can completely forget about technology or language, for instance?


Could you provide some arguments for and against focusing on the different optional themes?


As a function of core theme – are students going to link it to their subject knowledge or should it be more general?


Would it be crossing any lines to incorporate the topics of language in politics, religious language, or indigenous languages in the Language and Knowledge theme?

Areas of Knowledge


Would it be crossing any lines to incorporate the topics of language in politics, religious language, or indigenous languages in the Language and Knowledge theme?


Now how Ethics is incorporated? This was a crucial AOK.


Does Ethics come into all subjects as well?



Being that KQs of a higher/second order can be responded to via any of the AOKs, and given that the new essay titles are specific to one of the five AOKs, does this mean that essays must pursue a discussion that with examples only specific to the title’s designated AOK?


If there is no counterclaim how can the student come up with a clear conclusion? Is it only based on claim? 


I have a two-part question: what are your thoughts on the new guide’s recommendation that ’10 hours’ be spent on the essay (teaching time I presume). Secondly, the expectation that teachers explicitly ‘not mark’ the essay draft seems out of line with a lot of our lived experience as teachers where we use these IB tasks as summative assessments. What are your thoughts about this?


How can I help students to come up with good examples to reinforce their claims/counterclaims in TOK essay?


Does the essay have to refer to the themes especially the optional themes? And the core theme?


Can you please give an example of how an essay title might look like (given as a Knowledge question)?


Would the students be penalised if they continue using the “old” vocabulary (given that many of the TOK teachers are very entrenched in the old syllabus)?


If WOKs are still going to be in use even if not in the actual “required vocabulary” will “Personal and Shared knowledge” still be used?

Will the essays still encourage comparison of 2 AOKs? Even if those AOKs are explicitly chosen in the title.

If the exhibition has a danger of being relegated to a descriptive one, how does this help in building up analytical skills which are essential in the essay?


Exhibition: Artifacts/Objects 

For the exhibition: would you recommend that students choose their objects first or their prompt first?


Are news articles considered as objects? Are texts considered as objects?


Physical Object?


This “artefact” for the TOK Exhibition… how will the students gain experience working with “artefacts” during the course, based on the core and optional themes, and the AOKs? It seems very different from the work we are asking them to do on how we create, review, assimilate knowledge…


A visit to a gallery or museum?


I am worried about the fact that the Exhibition is descriptive rather than analytical as I think this makes it seem deceptively simplistic. How can this be avoided?


Students should focus on the prompt first in the exhibition – can all the prompts be easily linked to one theme as you recommend?


Same matrix grid? Exemplar material for exhibition? Proof of exhibition? Uploading what for example?


You said that the exhibition is descriptive and not so much analytical…so what is the student expected to do in an exhibition?

How will the IA be moderated?


So, for exhibition we pick three objects and how they are connected by AOK or WOK or both or either?


Has TOK been limited to just objectifying the world in order to understand it? I am lost to understand the purpose of reducing TOK to the minimalist way of thinking? (ref. TOK Exhibition)

With the objects leading to the prompts, will the concept of claims and counterclaims still apply? Is there a particular template for the Exhibition, similar to what was available for the TKPPD?

Exhibition: Commentary/Written task

For the written task accompanying the Presentation of Knowledge artefacts- is there a particular structure for that written task? 


Beyond the required components to be uploaded for moderation for the Exhibition, will there be documentation such as the PPD required?


If there is no need to be analytical, which specific critical thinking skills are we assessing here?


The exhibition commentary is 950 words so about 300 words per object? (Combined with the question “three standalone commentaries or one coherent commentary that refers to all three objects?”)


Do we still have to write comments on the Exhibition form?


How is Kognity building TOK thinking skills throughout their resources and how is this different from the current Kognity resources?

Does Kognity have exemplars for good TOK essays?


How do we encourage students to move from “how do we not know” or “what we can’t know” kind of approaches to constructing “how we can know” approaches and how is this evident in the new Kognity resources?


Students (and staff) often need a text as a crutch. Are you aware of texts in preparation for the new syllabus?

Yes, Kognity is currently in production with sample material already in the ‘Coming Soon’ book. Ask support for access to this book if you don’t already have it! 


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