TOK guide

Writing a TOK essay is very different from other pieces of writing you will do. Don’t worry: Here is a step by step guide and a full example essay to get you through it!

Picking a title
Firstly, pick a title. One that immediately sparks something. When reading them through, there will typically be one or two that do not make sense to you at all (it happens to everyone), cross those off straight away. There will usually be one that seems easy, you can go with that one, but in my experience, pick one that also challenges you to think. The easiest one doesn’t always result in the best essays. With the remaining ones, spend a few minutes for each thinking what you could possibly extend it too. Do you have any personal experiences or interests you could possibly relate them too? Did you have any areas of knowledge (AOKs) you would like to use? How would they fit in?

The title will go on top of your document in bold. Well done, that is about 1% of your essay written! Keep reading to score those percentages!

The title chosen is:

“Knowledge within a discipline develops according to the principle of natural selection.” How useful is this metaphor?

Set a Knowledge Question (KQ)
Some more abbreviations for you! A knowledge question is the question you derived from the title, and this will be the question your essay is going to answer. Ideally, create something that incorporates large parts of the prescribed title. TOK knowledge questions typically start with: “To what extent …”. Choosing an open ended question as such will really help you in your conclusion!

A good way to start your introduction would be by introducing the knowledge question, for example like this:

“My knowledge question is as follows: To what extent does the development of knowledge resemble natural selection?”

And well done, that’s another 1% of your essay written! (Of course you can keep finetuning your question as you go along, you never know what some research will bring!)

Picking AOKs
Chosen a title? Great! Let’s get started! Next up is picking Areas of Knowledge (AOK). Typically the title will require you to pick at least two. In order to go in enough depth, I would advise to stick with two and not go with too many or too little. The AOKs are: indigenous knowledge systems, the arts, mathematics, human sciences, natural sciences, religious knowledge systems, history and ethics. Pick two that relate to the title (if any), or ones that you find interesting. I would recommend picking two that can give very different viewpoints too, so that you can have a nice debate going on. For example picking a science and ethics or religion. In this essay, I have chosen to go into the natural sciences and the arts.

Defining the terms
The prescribed titles tend to use some words that are not used on a daily basis, or can have multiple meanings. Even if you are comfortable using some terms, it is important to define them, so that the examiner is on the same page as you are. It could also function as a kind of disclaimer, to make sure the examiner cannot criticise you on not going into certain aspects of the concept or not following his/her idea of the concept. Defining your terms can also help you with the structure of your arguments, as will become clearer shortly. Setting definitions and explaining your interpretation of the concepts thus really helps you, so don’t forget to write them down! This actually makes up a large part of the introduction. A way of doing this is for example:

“I define a discipline as an area of knowledge, and in this essay, natural science and arts will be evaluated. Moreover, it is important to define natural selection. Darwin’s theory of evolution, is based on three main principles: (1) organisms produce offspring with inheritable traits, (2) organisms produce more offspring than can survive due to limited resources and (3) offspring whose traits better suit the environment, survive and reproduce (APS). In my opinion, these principles amount  to the main idea: survival of the fittest. In the case of knowledge, offspring would be the knowledge derived from earlier discoveries/knowledge, which would be the organism. ‘Fittest’ could be interpreted as how much we value certain knowledge based on its applications, provided that it is proven or justified knowledge. Therefore, the ‘fittest’ knowledge is the knowledge that survives.”

In this case, that’s another 8% for the essay writing. Of course you don’t have to write it down in this format first, just make sure you have a good idea and maybe some notes before you get started, so that you have an idea of what you are going to do.

Also note how I have introduced the areas of knowledge very briefly here!

Claims and counterclaims
Next up in the introduction is giving the reader an idea of where you are going to go with your arguments. Make sure you briefly introduce every claim and counterclaim. The next paragraph will go into how to write those claims and counterclaims, but in order to write them, we first need to come up with some. So how do we do that?

We need to make sure we use both of our AOKs in this, and also involve some Ways of Knowing (WOKs), such as imagination, reasoning and intuition. The structure I would recommend is:

  • Introduction
  • Claim AOK1
  • Counterclaim AOK1
  • Claim AOK2
  • Counterclaim AOK2
  • Conclusion

This would mean that for every AOK, we need an argument/claim that answers our KQ/title, and a counterclaim that gives us a different perspective or way of answering it, both within the same AOK. Coming up with such a claim would require you to think about the question critically, and relate it to your personal experiences, things you read, saw on tv, heard, etc.

An example claim and counterclaim relating to the above KQ for the natural sciences (AOK) is:

Knowledge does develop according to the principle of natural selection because the best ways to explain a phenomenon are passed on.

However, when there are two explanations which are equally good, both will be passed on.

After you have created your claims, continue to find examples, real life situations, etc. to back them up. More about writing the paragraphs themselves below.

To introduce these claims and counterclaims, neatly link them up in a logical order to outline where you will go. For example:

“Within the natural sciences, one could argue that it develops according to the principles of natural selection because the best ways to explain a phenomena are passed on. However, it can also be said that two explanations are equally good and therefore both passed on. Within the arts, it can be argued that what we see and think of art is influenced by the applications of the knowledge by our ancestors. However, it can be said that nowadays art is a free medium, which is about personal development, and with social media, everyone can make art. Several perspectives in relation to the natural sciences and art will be discussed, in order to answer the knowledge question.”

And voila, that is your introduction written! The word count for this part will roughly be equal to 250 to 300 words, so that is the first 15% completed!

Writing claims and counterclaims
Writing up the claims and counterclaims can be a bit of a maze, as it is easy to side track on your thoughts. Here is a framework you can follow, which will help you elaborate enough (for those who tend to skip some explanations) and limit yourself from side tracking too much (for those who like to write a lot).

Key sentence: For every claim/counterclaim, start with a key sentence: one sentence that sums up your whole paragraph. This is a good point to start writing your body paragraphs. Make sure to use appropriate signposts too, for example using words like ‘however’, ‘furthermore’, ‘moreover’, etc. Also make sure to mention the AOK you are writing about. An example of such a key sentence would be:

“Knowledge within the natural sciences develops according to the principles of natural selection, as the best models are passed on and used, best being defined as the most valid and simplest.”

Example: Give an example, a theory, a real life example, etc. about this statement to back it up. This shows you have done some research and thinking to relate this argument and validate it. For example:

“Within the natural sciences, multiple theories exist on the same topic, and these theories can be represented by multiple different models, however, only valid theories and the simplest models will be passed on. There is a principle by a philosopher Ockham (Duignan), called Occam’s razor, stating: “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily” (Bylikin, Horner and Murphy).”

Explain: Now go on to explain this example and how it can help to answer the KQ. Make sure you end every paragraph with a concluding sentence summing up your claim. An example of an explanation on the example:

“This means that, if competing theories, both valid and containing the same predictions, the simplest one is better, until new discoveries show otherwise.”

Now, you can bring up multiple examples within your claim. The rest of the paragraph has been worked out below.

Also have a look at involving some WOKs here (see diagram above). These are all possible ways of how we can obtain knowledge. The easiest way to look at them is to imagine yourself in the centre of the diagram, with your AOK on the outside ring. Imagine the ring in between being water with the WOKs being rocks you could jump on to reach your AOK. What rocks will apply to your AOK? Which ones will you need to use and why? Try and incorporate these too!

“Secondly, knowledge within the natural sciences can evolve. As not everything within the sciences can be observed through sense perception (for example, not everything in astronomy can be experimented with or observed, and neither can science be studied on atomic levels), there are a lot of theories which are not proven yet. However, as time progresses (along with technological discoveries), so does science and using new technology and techniques, we can study science to a higher degree of accuracy. This already lead to falsification of theories that scientists of the past came up with. Only the best theories, which are falsifiable, repeatable and justifiable, will develop further (numerous scientific journals are not approved and published). An example is the evolution of the atomic model. The original theory by Dalton in 1808, stating that atoms were tiny balls, was elaborated by Thomson, who discovered atoms were made of smaller things, like protons. More research by Rutherford showed that atoms were mainly empty space and had a dense nucleus. This was taken further by Bohr, who showed there were negatively charged particles around the nucleus in shells. Later, Chadwick in 1932 showed there were neutrally charged neutrons as well (Evolution of the Atomic Model). These discoveries show that knowledge evolves and only the best knowledge survives. Other theories that arose but where proven to be false, like the plum-pudding model by Thomson, are less known and in the first place not taught to the next generation, and is not used for further research.”

Writing the counterclaim follows a similar structure. After you have written both the claim and counterclaim on the AOK, finish the counterclaim paragraph with a mini conclusion. This can be a sentence or two, weighing the claim and counterclaim, stating which one is more powerful and why. These mini conclusions combined will help you with your overall conclusion! An example of such a mini conclusion:

“However, this counterclaim is weaker compared to the claim, since it cannot be definitely concluded which theory will survive. More discoveries might be done in the future, which will falsify one or prefer one theory over another.”

The full paragraph and remainder of the body of the essay, including the claim and counterclaim for the second AOK, can be found below.

The conclusion
Well done on completing most of your essay! Before starting to write the conclusion, first check all the key and concluding sentences: only read the first and last sentence of every body paragraph. Do these include all the main points and are they relevant in answering the KQ? Yes? Great! Now start on the conclusion. Evaluate all your claims and counterclaims and link up the mini conclusions. Think of how valid they are and how strong or weak they are. Use this to formulate an answer to the KQ. Then link this answer to the prescribed TOK title.

“To conclude, knowledge within the natural sciences develops according to the principles of natural selection because the best theories and models survive and develop in further generations. Within the arts this is different. While the most useful knowledge survives, the development of knowledge does not resemble ‘survival of the fittest’, as multiple art styles can exist at the same time, especially in the presence of social media. There are many perspectives to this, like Palmen, and therefore artists, scientists and people with professions in other disciplines, might have opposing ideas. The concluding answer to the question to what extent the development of knowledge resembles the principle of natural selection, could therefore be that the extent depends on the area of knowledge and the freedom within that discipline. An area of knowledge that can easily be falsified, is more likely to develop according to natural selection, as has been discussed for the natural sciences.”

Next, extend your answer to other AOKs than the ones covered in your essay. For which ones does your conclusion apply? For which ones may it be different?

“This could count for subjects like history. However, areas with a lot of freedom that depend more on emotional and personal perspectives, like the arts and ethics, are less likely to develop according to Darwin’s principle.”

Then, relate the conclusion to your own life. How is it significant to you and the world to know about this and to know what you have concluded?

And then you are ready to round off! Just one final concluding statement to link it to the prescribed TOK title, and you are done! (just make sure you stick to all the formal regulations such as spacing, word count, fonts, etc.)

“Knowing this is surely significant. It made me aware of why I know what I know and how knowledge progresses. In conclusion, the metaphor is better applicable to natural science than arts.”

Every TOK essay is different and some titles may lend themselves well to this structure and others not as much so whilst this is a good outline, don’t worry if you feel like you need to deviate from it. This is based on my own experiences in the IB. You are welcome to read this example essay and learn from it, as long as you don’t plagiarise of course.

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