The IB wrote a good guide to Knowledge Questions in 2009 linked here (they called KQ’s Knowledge Issues at that time). – this guide is well worth a read.
The current ToK Guide section on Knowledge Questions is also very good – linked here.
If you don’t want to read, then you could watch Wendy Heydorn’s YouTube video here (thanks Wendy !).
A Knowledge Question is, simply, a question about knowledge. It’s an enquiry about a problem with knowledge. A good Knowledge Question has 3 main features:
- Focusses on Knowledge, not on the specific content.
- Open Ended – there are a number of possible answers to the question
- General rather than specific – it looks at wider knowledge production rather than a specific case.
Start with the KQ ! Get the KQ right before you write !
The identification of the KQ should be the starting point for writing your ToK Essay, or when formulating your ToK Presentation.
The 2015 ToK Guide gives us an example of how you move from specific content to a good Knowledge Question:
Example 1: Future population growth in Africa
- Not a knowledge question: “How can we predict future population growth in Africa?” This is not a knowledge question because it is a technical question within the discipline of population studies.
- Good knowledge question: “How can a mathematical model give us knowledge even if it does not yield accurate predictions?” This is now sufficiently general and explores the purpose and nature of mathematical modelling.
Let’s look at some possible examples from the May 2015 Essay Titles:
Essay Title #1 : There is no such thing as a neutral question. Evaluate this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.
A weak knowledge question: Are creationist scientists biased by faith ?
A stronger KQ : How can we measure bias in knowledge production in natural sciences ?
A weak knowledge question: is it possible to be a genius artist without much practice ?
A stronger KQ: To what extent is prior learning required for subsequent learning in The Arts ?
A weak KQ: How does culture prejudice the work of a Psychologist ?
A stronger KQ: How can we decontextualise the process of knowledge acquisition in the Human Sciences ?
Essay No. 2: There are only two ways that humankind can produce knowledge: through passive observation or or through active experiment” To what extent do you agree with this statement ?”
- A weak KQ: Why don’t all Physicists agree if they’re all using the same method of investigation ?
A stronger KQ: Does the framework of an identified ‘Area of Knowledge’ presuppose a varying degree of unified knowledge specific to that AoK ?
- A weak KQ: Are Eureka moments passive observation or active experimentation ?
A stronger KQ: Are there forms of knowledge production in addition to passive observation and active experimentation ?
Essay No.3: “There is no reason why we cannot link facts and theories across disciplines and create a common groundwork of explanation.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?
- Weak KQ: Can scientists be religious ?
Stronger KQ: Are disciplines essentially paradigmatic and, therefore, exclusive ?
- Weak KQ: Do scientific methods change participants behaviour when used in Psychological research ?
Stronger KQ: Does the process of knowledge production within any specific Area of Knowledge change that knowledge when interpreted in another Area of Knowledge ?
Essay No.4: “With reference to two areas of knowledge discuss the way in which shared knowledge can shape personal knowledge.”
Weak KQ: Could Einstein’s Eureka moment (the discovery of theory of relativity) really be considered personal knowledge when he had been taught maths and physics by others ?
Stronger KQ: How do we situate the ‘breakthrough’ moments of innovators within a shared knowledge system ?
Weak KQ: was the shift from Newtonian to Einsteinian Physics caused by personal or shared knowledge ?
Stronger KQ: How do we establish whether paradigm shifts are more likely in a loose shared knowledge system ?
Essay #5: “Ways of knowing are a check on our instinctive judgments.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?”
Weak KQ: Is intuition actually a combination of memory and perception when making decisions ?
Stronger KQ: How do we know whether judgments are a combination of various WoKs ?
Weak KQ: Does Lamarck’s theory of Epigenetics mean that instinctive judgments operate independently of the environment ?
Stronger KQ: How can we establish that an instinctive judgment operates as a response to the environment when that judgment may have been inherited from a response to an earlier, different, environment ?
Essay No. 6 : “The whole point of knowledge is to produce meaning and purpose in our personal lives. To what extent do you agree with this statement ?”
Weak KQ: Do religious people have more meaning in their lives than atheists ?
Stronger KQ: Are apparently internal ways of knowing (such as intuition, faith or emotion) more meaningful than apparently externally experienced ways of knowing (such as reason, sense perception or language) ?
Weak KQ: Why do some people seek out meaningless knowledge ?
Stronger KQ: Are meaning and purpose consonant concepts in relation to the acquisition of knowledge ?
These are just starting points for KQ’s for the 2015 essays. If you are writing a May 2015 you should work out themes for your essay in order to write your own Knowledge Questions.
Watch out for the Really Easy Guide to Knowledge Claims, coming soon !
TOK and PHILOSOPHY
TOK is not traditional text-based philosophy. Nor is it Epistemology with a major emphasis on the useful, but ultimately slippery and paradoxical, notion of Justified True Belief.
TOK Knowledge Questions are big questions; but they are not too big. Anchored in the real world they stop short of wild metaphysical speculation. Ever so often timeless philosophical riddles emerge naturally in TOK classes. It can be fun; even awe inspiring to allow students a first pass or brief encounter with them. This is more than playing tennis with the net down; as long as dizzy, aimless discussion is avoided; or better—elevated.
One way of framing the biggest (from the Western perspective: “Pre-Socratic”) metaphysical questions is to acknowledge that they are way beyond the scope of 100 hours of TOK. Their resolution may be forever beyond the grasp of mere human intellect and ingenuity. Another way is to designate (and perhaps sanitize) them as the subject matter of certain Areas of Knowledge—Philosophy (as a Human Science), Religious Knowledge Systems and Indigenous Knowledge Systems.
ENORMOUS PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS
- Why is there something rather than nothing?
- What is the nature of time?
- Does the universe have an ultimate purpose or meaning?
- Is there God?