David Spooner • 17/06/2020  •  25 min read

IBDP | Objects | Theory of Knowledge | TOK

Theory of Knowledge: Choosing an Object for the TOK Exhibition – Q&A

Thank you for tuning into our webinar series about the new TOK syllabus! This is part two of a follow-up Q&A post where David Spooner, the host of our webinars, has answered all of your questions. If you missed the first half, you can find it here.

After receiving many questions about ‘objects’ as part of the new TOK exhibition, we decided to create a blog post specifically with all of the queries about how to choose an object. As it is a requirement of the new syllabus, there was a lot of ambiguity surrounding examples of what would, or wouldn’t be considered an acceptable object for students to pick. We have created a table to answer each of these queries, and you can click on each one to link to the explanation for each one further down the page.

Is … an object?

Is a religious statue an object?

An object = “a product of knowledge” that is accessible for all but is not generic/symbolic. Does this mean that a Buddha could be an object, if we are concerned with which Buddha (historical context; produced for a purpose/place), but it can’t be a standard Buddha image which we don’t know about?

To respond using the example provided, the statue of Buddha which I saw and photographed during my visit to X would be acceptable, as would the statue of the Buddha that I bought at X’s souvenir shop and which sits in the corner of my family’s salon. Either of these could stimulate the kind of discussion suggested here. However, a generic Internet image of the Buddha would fall foul of the explanation on p.40 of the Guide, which states that “they must be specific objects that have a specific real-world context—objects that exist in a particular time and place”. A generic “Buddha” image downloaded from the Internet only for the purpose of the IA task clearly lacks these contexts, whereas the two instances mentioned above do meet these criteria.

Is a photograph an object?

  • Can all three objects be pictorial artefacts?
  • Is it correct that a photograph can be *of* an object, or the photograph can *be* the object?
  • Yes. This is at least implicitly allowed for by the Guide. For instance, if I as a student am interested in photography, and we have studied the optional theme of “Knowledge and Technology”, I might choose the IA prompt “What role does imagination play in producing knowledge about the world?” and use, as my three objects, three different “iconic” photographs taken by three different photographers at different points in history.

Is a selfie, with the object, an object?

  • Can students be present in a photograph with the object itself?

There are two answers to this question. In the first place, an example is provided in the Guide of a student being present in a photograph: “A photograph of the student playing in an orchestra” (p.42). It may be that such an example was provided in order to include the very possibility of students appearing in photographs together with the object in question, and thus a “selfie”-style photograph of the student that includes the object in question would also fit this description. 

Is a generic internet photo an object?

  • If “why these three rather than others” is key to top marks, won’t students be prevented from gaining top marks by not being able to access a physical object? After all, you’ve explained that a generic photo from the Internet is not accepted.

The Guide clarifies that “a discussion and photograph of a student’s baby brother is an example of an object that has a specific real-world context, whereas a generic image of “a baby” from an Internet image search is not” (p.42). A photograph of a museum exhibit, “such as a historical treaty, where it would not be practical/possible for them to exhibit the physical object” (IBID.) indicates that higher marks are fully accessible even without the actual artefact being immediately available to the student. 

Is a tweet an object? Is a poem an object? Is a speech an object?

  • To me, a poem is an object; if a tweet is an object, then is this also true of a poem? Additionally, if an audio recording is not an object, what about a video of the key moments of a famous speech?
  • What makes a tweet an object?
  • Could you elaborate on taking a tweet by a political leader as an object?

What makes the tweet an object, according to the Guide, is “The specific real-world context of each object” (p.42). A tweet, then, is sent in a specific context (a response to another such tweet, a response to another “real-world” event) and features a date and a time. It makes sense, becomes an “object”, in the context of a particular discussion, or debate, and it would be expected that the student contextualises it thus. Similarly, a poem is written by a specific author and/or is studied (for example, in the context of a Diploma Literature course – in which case, the anthology that containings it could be the object) at a specific place and time. Likewise with speeches, which the student may study in a History or Language and Literature course.

Is a scale model an object?

  • Would a scale model of an object, for example Angkor Wat, work as an object?

The short answer is that, provided the model was not made specifically for the TOK Exhibition, and there is a clearly communicable context for it (“made as part of my Visual Arts class”, “made when I was in primary school”, “made as an entry for a model-making competition in Grade 10” or whatever), there should be no problem with this.

Is a piece of architecture an object?

  • Is architecture taken as an object?

Architecture is a practice, a concept, an area of knowledge for want of a better phrase (substitute “architecture” for “economics,” or “chemistry” or “literature” and it becomes clearer). The structures produced by architects are objects, as are the texts produced by writers, or the supply and demand graphs generated by economists.

Is a piece of music an object?

  • Is a piece of music an object? If yes, would the context matter or its projection/interpretation?
  • Can one of the artefacts for the Exhibition be an audio piece?
  • I have not understood the rationale for why an audio piece cannot be an object for the Exhibition.

To judge by extrapolation based on what is explicitly stated in both the Guide and the Teacher Support Material, the sheet music and/or lyric sheet, or a physical recording, perhaps even a photograph of a recital or concert, would certainly count as objects, in the strictest sense. Given that, the answer to the second question would depend on three factors: firstly, what the other two objects were; secondly, what the chosen IA prompt is; and, thirdly, the theme guiding the analysis/interpretation/commentary. For instance, the knowledge question “How has technology had an impact on collective memory and how is knowledge preserved?” (Guide, p.17) might well produce interesting discussions about if and how recording technology, or transcription technology, has had such impacts. 

Is a company logo an object?

  • Am I right in understanding that the objects must be real and not symbolic (so, for example, something like a logo to represent capitalism would not be acceptable)?

Exactly. The Guide informs us that “For example, a discussion and photograph of a student’s baby brother is an example of an object that has a specific real-world context, whereas a generic image of ‘a baby’ from an Internet image search is not” (p.42), and the Teacher Support Material reiterates the same point (substituting “baby brother” for “teddy bear”). Thus, it is clear that synecdoches (a part representing the whole) are not acceptable because they are not objects, rather they are symbolic representations, such as the one mentioned in the question.  Of course, in one sense all objects “stand in for” something “abstract” (“knowledge of/in X”), and are thus implicitly conceptual in any case, but the point here, as in everything we do in TOK, is that the physical objects illuminate some knowledge issue or other – the focus of the student analysis and discussion has to be knowledge – whereas “capitalism” is a politico-economic umbrella concept. However, within the option of “Knowledge and Politics”, which was perhaps the context for the question, the Guide has this to offer: “Another interesting possible area of discussion could be around persuasion, manipulation, misinformation and propaganda” (p.20). So, conceivably, a corporate logo could be used to illuminate knowledge issues raised in this specific context but, as with every object chosen, this contextualisation would have to be very precise.

Is the periodic table an object? Is lab apparatus an object? Is a lab chemical an object?

  • As a chemistry facilitator, may I use the periodic table or any apparatus or equipment – e.g. digital/analytical , chemicals from the lab – as objects?

Yes. Indeed, one of the reasons for the “provocative stimulation” at the beginning of the webinar was precisely in order to stimulate thinking about if and how we might begin to realise how to incorporate artefacts that we use in our daily (teaching) lives as a way “into” provoking epistemological thought. So, for example, in the case of some of the objects you have mentioned, I can foresee how the periodic table, for instance, may open up interesting lines of inquiry into the knowledge question “To what extent do the classification systems we use in the pursuit of knowledge affect the conclusions that we reach?” (Guide, p.19).

Is an image of a dynamic process an object? / Is an image of a singer an object?

  • Could an image of a dynamic process (such as a captured phase of a dance performance, or an opera singer) be valid as an object?

One of the examples featured on p.42 of the Guide is “A photograph of the student playing in an orchestra”. This would seem to license, then, photographic images as synecdoches for larger wholes. A photograph of a specific opera singer/dancer, taken at a performance one has witnessed, or connected directly to a performance one has witnessed (or studied, if the student studies Dance or Theatre Arts) would certainly seem to certainly fall within the scope of the comment on p.42 of the Guide, “[objects] must be specific objects that have a specific real-world context—objects that exist in a particular time and place”.

Is a video /film an object?

  • Would a scene from a film be an object?

A “still” from a film seen/studied by the student would, in the same way as the “photograph of the student playing in an orchestra” (Guide, p.42), appear to broadly fit such a definition of an “object”. Again, contextualisation is all. 

Can an object be a video/film?

The cover of a VHS cassette (remember those?) or a DVD is quite clearly an object, as would be the reel on which the film was originally printed for distribution to cinemas.

  • Are there any limitations on the type of item that can be used? For example, if we reference a film, do we present a clip vs a DVD vs just the title/reference?

There are, but they are few and far between: p.42 of the Guide tells us that the objects chosen “may be objects that the student has created themselves, but they must be pre-existing objects rather than objects created specifically for the purposes of the exhibition”. One of the samples in the Teacher Support Material features a song, “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holliday, and the student has included in their Exhibition a photograph of the cover of the 7″ single release of the song. This would appear, then, to give the green light to audio, or audio-visual objects such as a song or, in the case of the question, a film, and would seem to license the use of a DVD. Thus a screen-grab of a scene from the film, or the programme from a theatrical production would seem to fall within the acceptable range of what can “count” as an object.

Is a globe an object?

  • Can a model of Earth be used as an object?

Yes. A globe, belonging to the student or their family, or to the school, or a similar model of the Earth would seem to be a token of the same type as mentioned in the Guide: “A basketball used by the student during their physical education lessons” (p.42). 

Is a tattoo an object? / Is a vaccination an object?

  • What would NOT be considered appropriate as an object? Could acceptable objects include a tattoo or a vaccination?

Neither the Guide nor the Teacher Support Material has anything to say about the kinds of things that would not be considered appropriate as objects. Aside from the examples given of what sorts of things objects can be, the Guide only delimits this consideration in the following ways: “Students are encouraged to choose objects that are of personal interest and that they have come across in their academic studies and/or their lives beyond the classroom” (Guide, p.41), and “The specific real-world context of each object is extremely important to the task. It is, therefore, important that students identify specific objects to discuss rather than using generic objects and generic images” (p.42). As has been mentioned elsewhere, perhaps the soundest approach to take, until the first cohort of students has been examined and the moderators’ feedback and the Subject Report have been issued – and thus we have more feedback on questions such as this – is to encourage use of the types of objects exemplified in the Guide (p.42) and the samples provided in the Teacher Support Material.

  • It seems like an object is an arbitrary thing. Will it not create confusion for students to determine what is an object?

The Guide offers the following comments regarding what “counts” as an object: “An extremely wide variety of different types of objects are suitable for use in a TOK exhibition” (p.41).; “The objects may be digital rather than physical objects. For example, students could include a photograph of an object, such as a historical treaty, where it would not be practical/possible for them to exhibit the physical object. Students may also use digital objects such as a tweet by a political leader. However, they must be specific objects that have a specific real-world context—objects that exist in a particular time and place (including virtual spaces). They may be objects that the student has created themselves, but they must be pre-existing objects rather than objects created specifically for the purposes of the exhibition … The specific real-world context of each object is extremely important to the task. It is, therefore, important that students identify specific objects to discuss rather than using generic objects and generic images from the internet” (p.42). The Teacher Support Material offers the following advice: “Students are encouraged to select objects that have personal relevance or that link to areas of personal interest.” The assessment instrument for the Exhibition places great emphasis on the “specific real-world contexts” (Guide p.47) of the objects chosen. So, the short answer to the question appears to be “yes” and, as I commented in the webinar, permitting electronic “objects” would appear to introduce the confusion that the question is concerned about. This is why I mentioned that perhaps the “safety first” approach of insisting upon the use of physical objects might be best for the first cohort of students, until we have seen comments from moderators and the publication of the first Subject Report, which may offer further clarification regarding what does, and does not, “count” as an object.

  • Is the intention that these three objects together represent the methodology of the field? Do the three have to “combine”, or are they independent of one another? In my case, with changed and multiple methods, I can only cover a moment in time, or a particular approach, I feel.

“Students begin their exhibition by selecting one IA prompt and three objects, or images of objects, that show how this question manifests in the world around us. Students must select one IA prompt as the basis for their exhibition. All three objects must be linked to the same prompt … students are encouraged to root their exhibition in one of the TOK themes—either the core theme or one of the optional themes. This can help to provide an accessible starting point for students and can provide a focus to help students narrow down their choice of potential objects” (Guide pp.39–40). Given, then, that the Exhibition is based on a non-thematic knowledge question, but where the objects in the Exhibition are intended to illuminate some aspect or other of the theme chosen (Knowledge and Technology, Knowledge and Religion etc.), there does need to be some aspect of “combination”. In addition, since the assessment instrument places a certain emphasis on their interconnectivity (“Links between each of the three objects and the selected IA prompt are clearly made and well explained,” [Guide p.47]), it makes sense that we encourage students to choose three objects which both individually and collectively illuminate the epistemological issues in the IA prompt. Given that the Exhibition is to be based on either an optional theme or the core theme, the question of the “methodology of the field” does not apply, since there is no “field” to which “Knowledge and Language” or “Knowledge and Indigenous Societies”, or “Knowledge and the Knower” applies, at least in the context of the TOK course.

  • Can/should objects follow a theme (the old KQ rearing its head)? 
  • Do students choose a specialist field based on a subject they have in their DP programme?  
  • If we keep the objects from the same event within a theme, for example history, would it be considered too narrow?

 “Students are encouraged to root their exhibition in one of the TOK themes—either the core theme or one of the optional themes” (Guide p.39). So, they not only “can”, they also “should”, and it is one of the central features of the assessment instrument that the students make clear the connections between each object, and the collective insights, and the IA prompt, and thus the thematic becomes the “skeleton” for orientating the analysis.

  • Do you recommend that the students choose the objects and then link them to the prompts or vice versa? 
  • In what order should students choose – theme–>prompt–> objects or object–> prompt –> theme? 
  • Do students choose the prompt first and then look for objects or the other way around?

“Hide answer” ] The answer to this question rather depends upon how, and whether, we as teachers intend to incorporate artefacts into our regular teaching of TOK and how, and whether, we incorporate activities into TOK that encourage students to reflect upon the epistemological interest inherent in such artefacts. If, as was suggested in this and the previous webinar, we begin to use artefacts as knowledge question discussion starters in our classes, instead of or as well as textual or audio-visual stimuli,, and if we ask students to reflect on objects that they encounter, for example in a TOK Journal or in short, reflective pieces of writing, this will almost automatically generate a “collection” of objects, and reflections upon them, in advance of introducing students more formally to the IA task and the prompts. Choosing a prompt to “fit” the objects would then seem to come more naturally. On the other hand, asking students to first choose a prompt and then proceed to look at the world around them with a view to choosing objects which “unpack” the knowledge issues in the prompt can also yield valid insights. My pedagogical instinct would be to go with the first of these two “strategies” so as to make the IA task as “natural” an extension to daily TOK teaching and learning as possible.

  • Should the three objects unpack the prompt? If so, what is an effective strategy? 
  • Is it important that the three objects represent three distinctly different ways of responding to the prompt?

The assessment instrument for the IA task mentions two criteria (in the 9–10 mark band) which give us some insight into what this “unpacking” might look like. It says “Links between each of the three objects and the selected IA prompt are clearly made and well explained”, and “There is a strong justification of the particular contribution that each individual object makes to the exhibition” (Guide, p.47). As with any knowledge question (the same is true of essay prescribed titles, as it is for the knowledge question guiding the Presentation), the purpose of the analysis is to illuminate/highlight the knowledge issues, or “problems of knowledge” inherent within the knowledge question. Thus, (i) what particular knowledge issue in the IA prompt does this object – rather than any other, similar, object – illuminate, and what does it contribute to the understanding of this knowledge issue?; and (ii) if students choose to spend some of the 950 words providing a brief, summative “tying together” of the objects as a collection, what “conclusion” might be reached regarding the IA prompt as a result of considering the collective insights yielded by the three objects as a collection? 

  • Is there any suggestion that the three objects chosen should be of distinctly different “sorts”? Is there any opportunity to introduce dynamism into what might naturally be static elements?

Neither the Guide nor the Teacher Support Material makes specific mention that the three objects should be of distinct types. The examples given in both cover a wide range of types of objects, and the sample Exhibition files in the Teacher Support Material likewise all feature different types of objects. All this, implicitly at least, would appear to indicate that – ideally – best practice might be to encourage such diversity, on the grounds that, perhaps, different types of objects can “better” bring out the range of knowledge issues within the IA prompts than is possible with three objects of the same type.

  • Can the artifact be something the student has created individually? Or perhaps created as part of a group activity?

The Guide is clear that objects cannot be tailor-made specifically for the Exhibition: “They may be objects that the student has created themselves, but they must be pre-existing objects rather than objects created specifically for the purposes of the exhibition” (p.42). Thus, it may be a creation for a Visual Arts, or Design Technology class, or a model created for one of the Group 4 subjects or the Group 4 Project, or even something made as part of a CAS project. There is no problem provided that – as part of good academic honesty practice – the provenance is stated, that, if the object was made together with others their permission is given for it to be so used by only one of their number, and that credit is given where it is due.

  • Should the artifact have personal significance or can it represent a community or a group?

It can be either or both, and this will depend, of course, on the IA prompt chosen, as well as on how the student wishes to orient their commentary. Arguably, if the student chooses to focus their IA on the optional theme “Knowledge and Technology”, it is more likely that the object possesses communal rather than personal significance (although “My First Ever Computer” might encompass both), whereas if the focus is on the core theme, “Knowledge and the Knower”, it may be that the object possesses only personal significance. 

  • If a student uses a painting created in Visual Arts class as an object for the TOK Exhibition, is that considered “double-dipping” or academic dishonesty, as the same object is used for two different assessments? 
  • So, using an object created for Visual Arts is not considered as “double-dipping”? 
  • If using a Visual Arts object, isn’t there a risk of overlap in what students say in its exploration/explanation during the two exhibitions?

“Double-dipping” refers to using the same complete piece of work for more than one assessment. So, for example, using an entire IA in Chemistry in an Extended Essay, or a section of an EE for a History IA is quite clearly academically dishonest. However, in response to the example given in the question given that a “painting created in Visual Arts class” is only one piece amongst many submitted for assessment, and in ToK it would form only a small part of the IA, the issue of ‘double-dipping’ does not arise. There may well be some small amount of “overlap” in terms of what the student “has to say about” the artwork in question (though it will in all likelihood be unlikely that the student’s Visual Art reflections will have the same epistemological orientation as it will in the ToK IA), but this is largely true of all DP courses – a student’s History IA may well “overlap” with something that s/he writes in an examination paper – but, as I say, ‘double dipping’- refers to the submission of one entire piece of assessment work for more than one complete assessment. All that said, this might be one of those opportunities for an informal discussion, either with individual students or the entire class or cohort, regarding the nature of academic honesty.

  • How should students connect three objects, a KQ and one of the IA titles?

The IA prompts are constructed in the form of knowledge questions already, and the complete list is on pp.40–41 of the Guide, where it is also written that “Students must select one of the ….IA prompts on which to base their exhibition, and all three objects must be linked to the same prompt.” The answer to the question how they should connect these depends upon which option (one of the optional themes or the core theme) the student has chosen as the focus of their IA, and what they decide are the key knowledge issues arising out of the IA prompt that the three objects in some way illuminate. 

  • All three objects should come out of one IA prompt. Can students make connections with more than one prompt?

No. As is made clear on p.40 of the Guide, “Students must select one of the following IA prompts on which to base their exhibition, and all three objects must be linked to the same prompt.”

  • What if a few students choose the same object or objects? Will that be allowed?

No. The Guide (p.39) makes this clear: “students in the same class are not permitted to use any of the same objects”.

  • ¿Qué tipo de preguntas podrían estimular la reflexión y profundización en el conocimiento a través de un objeto físico ?

Puesto que la Exposicion tiene que girar en torno a una de las opciones, o bien uno de los temas opcionales o bien el tema central, cualquiera de las preguntas de concoimiento sugeridas en los relevantes marcos de concoimiento, incluso las preguntas de conocimiento creadas explicitamente para la evaluacion interna, pueden servir para estimular una discusion epistemologica alrededor de un artefacto, dependiendo, claro, en el artefacto en si. Por ejemplo, en el marco de conocimiento para la opcion ‘Conocimiento y lenagaje’, se lee la siguente pregunta de concocimiento: “¿Todo conocimiento puede expresarse con palabras o símbolos?” (p.21 de la Guia en Español). Se puede facilmente imaginar usarse un diccionario, por ejemplo, o un tomo de una Encycopedia para estimular semejante discusion.

About the Author

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.