Detail of painting by Tim O-Brien from the  site.

Detail of painting by Tim O-Brien from the site.

There are as many ways to teach Theory of Knowledge. No single individual has expertise and ease in every aspect of program. Nor is universal coverage possible within the 100 hours allocated to TOK.

In 2020 all five Areas of Knowledge will be compulsory along with a focus on two of five Optional Themes. Accordingly, teachers make selections and teach to their strengths. The brave model the spirit of TOK by venturing outside “comfort zones.”  

Beginning (and ending) a TOK course with clarity and aplomb is important. It may take several weeks before students are able to take in what the course is really all about. In particular, facility with “Knowledge Questions” and notions of meta-cognition can only be happen over time.    


In the first minutes, even before introducing myself or going through the class list, I engage the class by actually doing some TOK. I start by asking the class to identify  by touch alone three TOK relevant Mystery objects hidden in pillow cases. One of my students referred to this as “Ready…Fire, Aim!”  

Having broken the ice with an intriguing upbeat activity, introductions are made. I briefly take the opportunity to point to the centrality of TOK in their IB Diploma subject hexagon and its relationship to CAS and the Extended Essay. I also remind them that the TOK experience resonates with the IB Learner Profile. 

I reserve a formal introduction of the various Themes and their interconnections with the Areas of Knowledge (and their key elements: Scope, Perspectives, Methods and Tools, and Ethics) for the second or third class. The Essay and the Exhibition may get a first mention too.

Next, I move to Introductions and Common Agreements for class discussion emphasizing that much of TOK consists of questions, we are all responsible for content and, especially in a diverse group, disagreement is very likely. 

I also like to present poems―by Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens―that evoke the TOK experience and always generate lively class discussion. 


Explore mystery objects by touch alone
Introductions and common agreements for discussion
Whitman and Wallace Stevens poems evoking TOK
What do little kids know? 
Octopus intelligence
Feral children and forbidden experiments
Student knowledge claims
Knowing that and knowing how
Justified True Belief
Coherence, Correspondence and Pragmatic Theories of Truth
Figs viewed from multiple perspectives


London Underground
The Map is not the Territory
Allegory of the Cave: Truman Show
Utilizing counterclaims


Why we Retreat? 
Quotes ice-breaker
Brain presentation
Figure Drawing and Medical Illustration workshop

M.C. Escher (1963)   Möbius Strip II.  Original framed vertically. Woodcut in red, black and grey-green, printed from 3 blocks.

M.C. Escher (1963) Möbius Strip II. Original framed vertically. Woodcut in red, black and grey-green, printed from 3 blocks.



A TOK outlook is the opposite of feeling intimidated or bewildered by knowledge issues that always seem to be owned by somebody else. The TOK experience can demystify much of what passes for knowledge in the various academic disciplines. Accordingly, no work of art, literature or music; scientific announcement, historic controversy, mathematical argument, esoteric vocabulary, ethical conundrum or political complexity are forever off limits. If students develop a authentic sense of ownership of the edifice of human knowledge they will never feel alienated and pushed around by alien forces beyond their control. 

Keeping these ideas in mind I tell the students unambiguously that it doesn’t matter how smart you think you might be compared to others in the room and it doesn’t matter what I as the teacher might have read or think. What matters is your own participation in the questioning and the discussions and gradually deepening your own understanding. I tell them that ultimately even their semester grades or final scores on the IB matrix are dwarfed by the importance of the critical thinking tools and mindset that they will take with them to college/university and beyond.

The students, as Whitman stated, “contain multitudes.” They are far bigger than any program―even a great one like the IB Diploma! In two years time, when the dust clears on the prescribed exigencies and particular nuances of TOK, what will count are a deeply rooted capacity for critical thought and the confidence to act―to be a player in the real world and actually make some kind of difference.