Although the metacognition of individual knowers is not at the center of TOK, the course is a natural vehicle for students to gain familiarity with their own learning modalities and idiosyncrasies; including recognizing what strategies and habits work best, and how emotional factors come into play. This meta-awareness can result in new levels of agency and confidence.

Awareness of oneself entails better understanding of the differing perspectives of others. We are each of us unique. This uniqueness arises from a common human predicament. We are embodied knowers, contingent in time and space, embedded in specific linguistic, cultural and historic contexts. Awareness of this invites a pluralism which recognizes the richness of differing, sometimes parallel perspectives and assumptions.  

30,000 year old paintings of lions and rhinos at Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave, France

30,000 year old paintings of lions and rhinos at Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave, France


The 2015 TOK Subject Guide states that the overall aim of TOK is to: "encourage students to formulate answers to the question 'how do you know?' in a variety of contexts, and to see the value of that question. This allows students to develop an enduring fascination with the richness of knowledge."

And specifically for students to: 

  • make connections between a critical approach to the construction of knowledge, the academic disciplines and the wider world
  • develop an awareness of how individuals and communities construct knowledge and how this is critically examined
  • develop an interest in the diversity and richness of cultural perspectives and an awareness of personal and ideological assumptions
  • critically reflect on their own beliefs and assumptions, leading to more thoughtful, responsible and purposeful lives
  • understand that knowledge brings responsibility which leads to commitment and action.
Francisco de Goya (c. 1797)   The Pupil Knows More (Se sabrá mas el discipulo)  Plate 37 of 80 in the  Los Caprichos  series. Etching aquatint. 

Francisco de Goya (c. 1797) The Pupil Knows More (Se sabrá mas el discipulo) Plate 37 of 80 in the Los Caprichos series. Etching aquatint. 


I tell my class from the very beginning that it does not matter how smart they think they might be compared to others in the room; and it does not matter how much knowledge that I, as their teacher, might have accumulated over the years. Things that count are their own participation, questioning and personal strategies for gradually deepening their own understanding.

Education in any discipline is not a thing that can be given to a student. They must construct it for themselves and then they own it.  Profound, sophisticated and lasting understanding is built up over time. Deep learning entails occasional “aha,” threshold moments where some kind of impasse, or hump, is overcome.  

All students are in medias res. There are no entirely blank slates in the room even when a brand new topic is being introduced. All students have some prior knowledge which brings losses as well as gains. Myths, folk theories and erroneous intuitions may initially block the way. Neuroscience informs us that lasting progress is more like building, repairing, pruning and strengthening the connections of a web, than climbing up the steps of a ladder. Understanding is deep learning that is built over time. Strange as it seems, a good deal of understanding seems to be reconstructed in the moment, on the fly, based on fragmentary cues and half remembered contexts. A lot of everyday experience feels like this.

The learning quest requires a kind of safe stress. It should engender the possibility of failure, the freedom to inquire and question, the space to grapple with and work through complex ideas and, not least, allocated time for rest and reflection. The latter allows students to consider the ultimate generative question, “What else is possible?”

At times there will be resistance or frustration in the air; so much the better. Nobody ever “changed their mind” without some discomfort and without entering the scary, liminal zone that is betwixt and between. Of course, emotional tension must have its release. The teacher must, at times, rein chaos in and provide a safety net. But not too soon; like stand-up comedy, timing is everything!