Knowledge questions

Knowledge questions

Knowledge questions are central to the course in general, and the essay and presentation in particular. It’s therefore vital to build up an understanding of what they are, and how to handle them. Students get confused about knowledge questions because they think they are more than what they actually are.

The evolution of knowledge questions

The IB has always asked TOK students to consider this concept, but has never quite decided on how best to label it. At various times, ‘knowledge questions’ have been referred to as:

  • Implications of knowledge
  • Knowledge controversies
  • Knowledge issues

Seeing knowledge questions as a combination of all these things is probably the best way to approach them. Virtually everything has a knowledge question attached to it. The great thing about TOK is that it provides students (and teachers) with a language and conceptual framework to identify and express a knowledge question – the themes, areas of knowledge, and the 12 key concepts.


How do we identify knowledge questions?

If we put this into context it becomes a little clearer. By picking a contemporary news story from random, we can identify the knowledge question within it. Currently, there is a lot of speculation on the character of the new US President, Donald Trump. You can find a lot of stories in the press – written by psychologists, or experts on psychology – speculating on his psychological state. Many of these suggest that he is unsuitable for the job.

But we’re starting to see a backlash against this, by other experts, who argue that you cannot carry our psychology ‘from a distance’, and need to personally deal with a subject in order to properly assess their psychological state. Indeed, it is forbidden from registered psychiatrists to do so – the so-called ‘Goldwater Rule’ (named after exactly the same situation began to occur with another presidential candidate).

Using the areas of knowledge and ways of knowing, what KQs can we identify? Clearly, this is an issue closely related to psychology, which is part of the human sciences. Knowledge questions should be phrased as open questions so we might have:

How much evidence do we need to reach convincing conclusions in the human sciences?

When we say an ‘open question’, we mean a question that doesn’t have an obvious and well-defined answer, and which can be approached from different perspectives and opinions. This question is certainly that: as you can see in the Vox article, there is a great deal of debate surrounding this issue.

It’s usually possible to identify more than one KQ, though, and this real life situation prompts us to ask many other questions, linked to the human sciences, and other themes and AOKs. We could explore:

  • What level of evidence do you need to make a diagnosis in the human sciences?
  • Should speculation be a part of the scientific process? (looking also at the natural sciences)
  • Is psychology really a science? (comparing the two science AOKs)
  • To what extent do stories in the press reflect our emotional need, rather than the truth? (looking more generally at the media coverage of this issue, and interlinking it with emotion)

Second and first order knowledge questions

It should be quickly apparent that in TOK, we are not interested in whether Donald Trump is fit for office or not. His psychological state is not what we are interested in – that is the preserve of Psychology (or, perhaps not, depending on your viewpoint about psychology ‘from a distance’!). This would be first order knowledge – knowledge directly about the world.

Instead, we are interested in second order knowledge, or how we gain our knowledge about the world. Understanding this difference is probably the key challenges of the TOK course; indeed, once you get that difference, you get TOK! But it takes practice, and it helps hugely to use examples. Below we present a few examples of what might constitute first order knowledge, and what might constitute second order knowledge. Remember – you need to avoid discussion of the former in your essay and presentation, and only focus on the latter.

Who caused the First World War? is a first order knowledge question. Why do historians have different opinions on who caused the First World War? would be second order knowledge.

  • Is the death penalty justified? would be a first order knowledge question. What ways of knowing do people use to arrive at a position on the death penalty? would be second order knowledge.
  • What makes a great piece of art? is a first order knowledge question. Can we talk about art experts in the same way as scientific experts? would be a second order knowledge question.
  • What is the Rorschach Test? is a first order knowledge question. Why do human scientists disagree on the reliability of the Rorschach Test? would be a second order knowledge question.
  • What is Einstein’s Theory of Relativity? is a first order knowledge question. Is imagination a key way of knowing in providing us with knowledge about the universe? would be a second order knowledge question.

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