Kafka overcoming writer's block by Robert Crumb

Kafka overcoming writer's block by Robert Crumb

At the end of Reason as a Way of Knowing, students encountered the grading criteria and made first pass at Drafting a mini essay.  Later in Vera Drake: Saint or Serial Killer students wrote a longer structured assay on an ethical theme.

In the Platonists vs. Formalist written assignment and Isaiah Berlin's pluralism written assignment, students, again, tackled nuanced topics. These were medium length pieces that closely modeled writing large chunks of a final essay.

Before launching the Final Essay drafting season, students are again given access to the official guidelines and criteria: 

  • The precise role of the teacher and other assessment details from the latest TOK Subject Guide
  • Prescribed Essay Titles 
  • Essay Grading Criteria
  • TK/PPF Personal Planning Form


A. Carefully examine the prescribed essay title

  1. Which title/prompt are you planning to answer?
  2. What is the title asking?
  3. What are the specific words and terms in the title that you need to define? 
  4. How do the definitions you chose affect the arguments that you’ll be able to make? (Are there other legitimate ways to define key terms that might change your answer/argument?  (These other ways of looking at the issue could be used for enlightening counter-arguments.)

B. Choose WOKs, AOKs, real-life examples for your chosen title

  1. Select aspects of the topic that you can write about knowledgeably—according to your own areas of academic strength and personal experience. Think about classes that you are passionate about and which might provide good examples; think about your life interests (tennis, dance, political activism, travel etc.) that could provide direct personal knowledge examples; and think about any multicultural or non-Western perspectives you have gained—these are always good for counter arguments.
  2. Which WOKs and which AOKs do you think would best allow you to address your chosen title clearly and comprehensively?
  3. Each WOK you choose should have its own separate paragraph (or more) of explanation. Each AOK should be connected to one or more of the WOKs.
  4. What succinctly developed examples (as opposed to mere mentions) could you use for each WOK and each AOK?

C. Brainstorm your Knowledge Questions

  1. Take a few moments to remind yourself that a Knowledge Questions is about knowledge itself.  A Knowledge Question is open, general and contentious, so that it will always merit discussion and evaluation rather than a single, definitive response.
  2. Consider what assumptions are being made by your definitions of the terms in the title.
  3. Consider what aspects of our capabilities and fallibilities as Knowers can be related to your title.
  4. Think of a couple of smaller scale, focused Knowledge Questions of your own that will help you explore the topic. 

D. Just before you start writing the essay

  1. Write down your main point/argument.
  2. Write down Counter Arguments that would be relevant to help us understand what we can (or cannot) know about your subject?
  3. Know how these points/arguments relate to your definitions, assumptions, and the overall goals of your essay.




Unmodified full title, definitions, background assumptions, overview of arguments


WOK/AOK 1 -- examples, relevant concepts (additional KQs)
                  Counterarguments-- examples, relevant concepts (additional KQs)

WOK/AOK 2 -- examples, relevant concepts (additional KQs)
                  Counterarguments -- examples, relevant concepts (additional KQs)

Additional Examples


Summary overview -- without introducing any new arguments, reiterate what you have explored and where it leads us.



1. Never modify, and always write out in full, the prescribed title.

2. Do not neglect to mention (at least twice) in your essay, “Ways of Knowing,” “Areas of Knowledge” and, especially, “Knowledge Questions.”

3. Specific (not hypothetical) examples must always be used to back up your knowledge claims and assertions. Mere mentions do not cut it. Think in terms of succinctly worked through examples. There is a “sweet spot” with the length of worked through examples. 3-5 sentences should suffice. Do not waste word count by describing a single example at very great length.

4. At some point during your TOK essay you should differentiate between “Personal Knowledge” and “Shared Knowledge.” Feel free to use the “I” word, but do not overdo it. “Shared knowledge” should be given the most prominence in your essay when read in its entirety; but without neglecting “personal knowledge.”

3. Make sure that you have counter arguments (that are also backed up with worked through examples). Phrases like “on the other hand” are precisely what you need. This shows superior critical thinking, not hesitancy. You are not “trying to win” in your TOK essay. Knowledge questions are, by their nature, open-ended and invite alternative perspectives. Do not make your entire essay a watertight, linear argument from a single point of view. Rather, reading it should feel like an adventurous exploration-- a delicious, surprising, lively “to and fro”!

4. The prescribed question is really a big fat Knowledge Question that is impossible to answer in 1600 words. Your task is not to respond to the whole thing; but to select aspects of it that you can write about comfortably—according to your own areas of academic strength and personal experience. You do this precisely by constructing a couple of smaller scale, more narrowed down Knowledge Questions of your own that you will explore realistically in the 1600 word count.

5. Constructing the Knowledge Questions, and narrowing down the Ways of Knowing and Areas of Knowledge and compelling worked through examples and counter-examples, is your task! There is no perfect formula for this.

6. You can start at either end.  Your chosen title may inspire Knowledge Questions that can be refined and you will be on your way.  On the other hand, specific examples, Ways of Knowing and certain Areas of Knowledge may pop out first. This sounds more scary and chaotic but this is what usually happens. In your initial planning you can start with these specifics and then reverse engineer by construct some pertinent Knowledge Questions around them.

7. In the Introduction to your first draft you should set the scene; by telling the reader your Knowledge Questions and general approach in advance.

Your Conclusion is important too it should contain a fine balance between resolution and the tensions that always remain in a good TOK essay.


  • Any dictionary definition—even worse if earnestly and pedantically cited
  • Phrases like, “Since the dawn of time...”
  • Simply quoting a famous philosopher or other authority out of context and then saying, “therefore”...
  • The conspicuous absence of any multi-cultural or international point of reference.
  • Presenting an essay lacking even a single reference to a direct experience that arose during one of your IB classes.
  • Enormous paragraphs or no paragraphs at all
  • Unjustified broad generalizations
  • actual errors... double check everything
  • Banal examples like dead pet stories, school gossip or Disney film characters
  • Using obscure terms without even briefly explaining them
  • Unintentional tautology (circular reasoning)
  • Procrastinating to the last moment so that you unable to edit your own work with a fresh critical eye


During my own time as a TOK examiner, grading hundreds of randomly selected  essays from all over the world, it was very often obvious when a teacher had, for whatever reason, taken a completely hands off approach, and left a weaker student to sink or swim. Over the years some very precise guidelines for the role of the teacher in preparation and planning have evolved. These interventions are clearly defined in the Subject Guide. They are more than mere suggestions from the IBO, since they must be documented on the TK/PPF Personal Planning Form.



Every TOK Examiner knows that in each examination session there are brilliant students from around the world whose essays are a provocative delight from beginning to end. These essays(with, perhaps, some minimal editing) really are “almost fit for publication.” 

At this level, there is some sense that “all bets are off.”  The written criteria are at least partially transcended.  There is a kind of free-spirited audacity in the selection of examples and deliberate playfulness in pushing the logical implications in novel directions. The reader is taken along for the ride , with twists an turns and the to and fro of multiple perspective and counterclaim.  At the uppermost levels there is nothing less than virtuosity. Well-chosen, non-cliched, varied, artfully worked through examples can actually astonish! Like a great short story the details can be savored and remain with the reader.


The Mona Lisa as an art example in a TOK essay is a cliche. Duchamp's 1919 Dadaist version L.H.O.O.Q. is not. The title is an obscene pun in French:  Elle a chaud au cul. 

The Mona Lisa as an art example in a TOK essay is a cliche. Duchamp's 1919 Dadaist version L.H.O.O.Q. is not. The title is an obscene pun in French: Elle a chaud au cul.