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Theory of Knowledge. Essay Preparation By Steve Reynolds Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong. Background to the assessed task: Choose one title from a prescribed list of 10 set by the IB. Externally assessed. Word limit – 1,200 – 1,600. Worth 40 points.

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theory of knowledge

Theory of Knowledge

Essay Preparation

By Steve Reynolds

Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong

tok essay

Background to the assessed task:

  • Choose one title from a prescribed list of 10 set by the IB.
  • Externally assessed.
  • Word limit – 1,200 – 1,600.
  • Worth 40 points.
  • The TOK teacher may comment on one draft only.
TOK Essay
tok essay1

Questions are cross disciplinary in nature.

  • Consider knowledge issues relevant to the question and formulate a main idea.
  • THe main idea should make a claim and be subject to counter-claims (the task is more about exploring your arguments than answers; more about demonstrating thinking than being ‘right’)
  • The essay should reach a conclusion.
  • The ideas should show links between knowledge issues…Ways of Knowing and Areas of Knowing.
TOK Essay
tok essay2

Other details:

  • The essay should be legible and well presented.
  • References and bibliography should be included if appropriate.
  • “Common knowledge” (e.g.. “the world is round”) need not be referenced but any ‘factual’ claims (evidence based on fact) or quotations should.
  • Bibliographies, references, maps, diagrams, illustrations and tables are not included in the word count.
TOK Essay
how to write a tok essay

The first thing to decide on is which question to choose! This is a vital first step. Students should consider which question:

  • They find most interesting and enjoyable to explore (motivating).
  • Covers an area that they have most knowledge in (expertise)…though they may want to choose to explore an area they have little knowledge and experience of (curiosity & discovery).
How to write a TOK Essay?
how to write a tok essay1

This presentation focuses on an example of approaches to writing a TOK essay focusing on a question set in 2007:

  • “Can a machine know?”
How to Write a TOK Essay?
tok essay writing stage one

“Unpack the question.” (

  • It is vital to understand what the question is asking (and students should keep reminding themselves throughout their planning & writing so as to stay focused). So:
  • Identify key words in the question.
  • Evaluate the meaning of the question.
  • Identify the Knowledge issues in the question.
TOK Essay Writing – Stage One
unpacking the question

Identify key words:

“Can machinesknow?”

A machine is defined scientifically as a device that transmits or alters energy. Machines can range from a washing machine to a computer.

Knowledge has many definitions relating to information, fact, experience and understanding.

Unpacking The Question

Question arising: What philosophy/ies of

Knowledge shall I refer to?

Question arising: What kind of machine shall I focus on?

unpacking the question1

Understanding (giving meaning to) the question:

“To reflect on the nature of knowledge with reference to how far machines possess it?”

Identifying the Knowledge issues:

  • What is knowledge?
  • How far and in what form can machines possess it?
  • Can humans quantify knowledge in other forms?

Re-writing the question for more personal understanding (but not forgetting I must answer the actual question)


  • My focus on machines will be on artificial intelligence (AI). (Computer Science describes AI as an, ‘intelligent agent.”:A system that perceives its environment and takes action which maximizes its chance of success. AI coined by John McCarthy in 1956.
  • NOTE: After this stage you might realize that this is not the right question for you, in which case choose a different question!
Unpacking The Question
tok essay writing stage two

‘Thought showering’ ideas.

  • What do I need to find out in order to write the essay? Explore and research a range of ideas and themes that might inform my understanding of the question and contribute to the content of your essay. A variety of approaches can be used to organizing research materials & your thinking:
  • Spider graphs.
  • Mind maps.
  • Lists/bullet points.
  • For example:
TOK Essay Writing – Stage Two
thought showers

Option: A mind map that keeps elements of TOK much in focus and raises knowledge issues:

Can AI feel? Does it have, ‘social intelligence’? Dreyfus vs. Newell & Simon.

Alan Turing’s test vs. John Searle. Language processors?



Can a machine know?


Natural Sciences

Logic & reason

Materialist theory of physical mind. Mind is physical therefore can be reproduced.



‘Thought showers'

Computing devices all rooted in mathematical devices. Algorithms at base of AI learning. “Qualification problem”. “Dartmouth Proposal”.

Input from sensors to define world e.g. microphone, camera. Recognition e.g. fingerprint matching.

thought shower mind map in focus

Examples of more detailed notes from the mind map:

  • Emotion: Can AI feel? Can it have ‘Social intelligence’ (e.g. empathy)? How can we ever know if AI feels unless we are also AI? Claim: Newell & Simon’s, ‘Physical symbol system hypothesis’ states that all knowledge exists through symbols and therefore AI has sufficiency to ‘know’. Counter claim: Dreyfus argues humans depend on unconscious instinct (a “feel”) integral to our knowing. Different from purposeful manipulation of symbols by computers/AI.
‘Thought shower’ – Mind Map in Focus
thought shower mind map in focus1

Language: don’t computers have a ‘language’? Language processors recognize human voice? Claim: Alan Turing’s tests including, ‘Polite conversation’. If AI acts as intelligently as humans it is as intelligent. Counter claim: John Searle’s, ‘Chinese room argument’. You can use a book to ‘translate’ Chinese symbols but you still don’t understand it.

‘Thought shower’ – Mind Map in Focus
thought shower mind map in focus2


  • AI roots are in mathematical devices (from abacus). Part of human knowledge is learning. Algorithms are at the base of AI ability to learn. Claim: “Dartmouth proposal” at AI conference 1956, that every part of learning can be defined, therefore can be simulated by computer. Counter claim: “Qualification problem’. McCarthy identified that human knowledge paradigms use assumptions (if one says, “bird” one instantly imagines a small flying, singing creature, though this may not be accurate). Humans know despite lack of certainty/logic (faith as a WOK?).
‘Thought shower’ – Mind Map in Focus
tok essay writing stage three

Having explored and researched ideas, identify a thesis. That is, a ‘central point’ or, ‘main idea’.

  • Distill it to one sentence if possible (and keep that sentence clearly displayed in the study area).
  • Identify sub sections from the thesis (these can be the basis of the paragraphs). Each one is an argument or part argument (claims & counter claims).
  • JUSTIFY all arguments (show evidence).
  • For example:
TOK Essay Writing – Stage Three
the thesis

“Whilst machines can exhibit and utilize elements of knowing, they lack the self-conscious, sub-conscious and emotional traits of full human knowing.”

  • Sub sections:
  • Emotion: Newell & Simon (symbols) vs. Dreyfus (instinct & feeling). Social intelligence & empathy.
  • Math/Logic/Reason: “Dartmouth proposal” vs. “Qualification problem”.
The Thesis
the thesis1

Sub sections:

  • Language: Turing’s ‘Polite conversation’ vs. Searle’s ‘Chinese room argument. Don’t forget to include personal examples/experiences where you can include your arguments.
  • Order sub sections from weakest to strongest argument (to help ensure that in the body of the essay the paragraphs will build to a climax and hold the reader - developmental).
The Thesis
tok essay writing stage four

Structuring and writing the essay.

  • Use the material created so far to write a draft of the essay:
  • State the question.
  • Introduction. This is the “point of entry” for the reader. Attract the reader and focus their attention (might use an anecdote, surprising information or a dialogue to open). Avoid dictionary definitions. Include the thesis in the last sentence of the introduction “thesis first”.
  • Be concise.
TOK Essay Writing – Stage Four
structuring and writing the essay

The body of the essay, broken into paragraphs. Use the sub sections of the thesis as a structural guide.

  • JUSTIFY all claims and statements (show evidence for arguments). Don’t forget to include COUNTER CLAIMS.
  • CLARIFY (make ideas and arguments clear and complete). Don’t generalize.
  • SOURCE claims (footnotes and bibliography where appropriate).
  • VARY sources – facts, personal experiences.
  • CHECK sources for accuracy.
  • COHERENCE – is more important than being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Check for logic and flow in any arguments.
  • LINKS – check that links are made between AoKs and Woks where appropriate.
  • When the body of the essay is completed, check that the paragraphs are in the most effective, flowing order (building the argument).
Structuring and Writing the Essay
structuring and writing the essay1


  • The “point of exit”. Closure for the reader. Conclude the argument by:
  • Summing up.
  • New questions arising (e.g. “Strong AI may herald knowledge in machines on a human scale in the future.”)
  • A final perspective. “Thesis last”. Restate the thesis (it may have changed as the essay has developed).
Structuring and Writing the Essay
structuring and writing the essay2

Now re-read the essay against the assessment criteria. Does the work meet the assessment requirements (have you ‘played the game’).

  • Re-draft the essay as necessary and polish it up:
  • Check spelling and grammar.
  • Tidy presentation.
  • Number pages.
  • Word count.
  • Consistent sourcing as appropriate.
Structuring and Writing the Essay
in summary

“unpack the question” – key words; understanding the question; identifying knowledge issues.

  • ‘Thought shower’ ideas – research, explore, question, imagine. Use spider graphs, mind maps, lists. Record sources explored. Identify links, counter claims and examples.
  • Create a thesis (big idea or central point). Make sub-sections for associated arguments. Justify arguments and include examples.
  • Structure and write a draft of the essay.
  • Re-read, check against criteria, re-draft, polish.
In Summary
the assessment criteria looks for

Criterion A: Understanding knowledge issues

  • Focuses on Knowledge issues (KI) that are relevant to the title
  • Demonstrates understanding of the KI
  • Effectively links & compares WoK’s & AoK’s
  • Criterion B: Knower’s perspective
  • Evidence of independent thinking
  • Shows personal, reflective exploration & self awareness as knower
  • Considers different perspectives (counter-claims)
  • Varied & effective examples
The assessment criteria looks for..
the assessment criteria looks for1

Criterion C: Quality of analysis of KI

  • Explores KI with depth/detail and insight
  • Coherently justifies all main points
  • Counter claims explored & evaluated
  • Implications/assumptions of argument identified
  • Criterion D: Organization of ideas
  • Essay is well structured/effective organization
  • Concepts are clear & appropriately refined
  • Factual information is correct
  • Sources are acknowledged
  • References permit tracing of sources
  • Word limit has been met
The assessment criteria looks for..
bibliography essay

  • IB Theory of Knowledge subject guide 2007.