What is knowledge?

When I start the course of TOK every year, after the introductory class which is dedicated to explanation what is Theory of knowledge, in short, somehow, in blink of an eye, we come to talk about knowledge itself. Well, a term “knowledge” is already given in the name of this course. So, it must be very important for the IBDP students. What knowledge might be?

Opening – 10 minutes

I use few questions as starter for my TOK class on knowledge. Nothing is more relaxing then to start a class with a discussion and the emphasis is on interaction with students. So, let`s ask again. What is knowledge? Can we measure knowledge? Can we classify it? Do we consider that some knowledge is more important then other? Do we know how we get in possession of certain knowledge? When we try to get to know something, do we listen only ourselves (that tiny voice in our head that tells us, “I`m the only one who is right”) or do we appreciate other perspectives?

It is beautiful how many questions might be raised immediately after mentioning term of knowledge and it is even more amazing that is aforementioned just for the starter of the class.Of course, the main requirements for every TOK class are to be open – minded, to seek for answers, to think, to learn how to walk in someone`s else shoes. In the other words, it is important to learn to appreciate an opinion of someone else, even if that opinion is light miles faraway from your own. I also announce that we would talk about terms such as perspectives, prejudices, assumptions, beliefs, convictions, validity etc.. in some upcoming days and that we will try to put some light on every of it. Every opinion is valuable!

The goal of this kind of starter is to show to my students how many different “definitions” of knowledge we have and how complicate might be to try to put “in borders” something so present, so known.Students will be able to reflect on their listening skills so as skills of an inquiry. Despite the fact that we witness to glorious number of definitions of knowledge, it is impossible, I dare to say, to define it absolutely accurately. But it is always nice to talk about it.

Development – 60 minutes

Instead of giving definitions of knowledge I offer to them to watch a short video, “The nothing box” which I found as very interesting as an introduction to story of classification of knowledge and later on, to story about personal and shared knowledge.  I like to say ” a story” instead of  “a lecture”. The first one sounds less formal comparing with the second and, at least, for the starter of the year, more in TOK tone.  After watching the video, we can go into discussion about material seen.

If we tend to classify all knowledge in the world of 21st century, we can talk about mathematical knowledge, computer science knowledge, biological knowledge, so, scientific knowledge in general, then we have religious knowledge, philosophical knowledge, knowledge that lies in arts, for instance.  We can talk about acquaintance  knowledge, ability knowledge, propositional knowledge etc. But what about the people who believe in existence of ghosts, for instance? Or in UFO? If we are open – minded, we have to appreciate if not accept, (if nothing else), the other`s perspective.

We want to consult great minds from the ancient times too and then we can offer Plato`s thoughts about knowledge, given in his “Republic” where he makes distinction between ignorance, belief, opinion and real knowledge. In continuation, the tripartite theory of knowledge is explained (belief, truth, justification). For those who want to read more, I advice to read a comparison between Socrates and Plato`s opinion about knowledge.

As we separate knowledge in two or, rather to say, three different groups in TOK, personal knowledge, shared and experimental knowledge, now is the time to talk about it.

Personal knowledge might be described as knowledge that I or you posses. We want to skip definitions! It is knowledge based on someone`s personal experiences, informal education, talent etc.

Here is space to ask students how would they describe their personal knowledge. And is it possible to construct personal knowledge without involvement of that what we call shared knowledge? It would be interesting to hear their opinion about connection between, let`s say, personal knowledge and ways of knowing in comparison with connection of shared knowledge with areas of knowledge. Although ways of knowing are the topic of the next class, they all know how important is role of any sense perception we posses. Imagination and faith too! Reason, memory, emotions and language too! Even intuition is important no matter how “scientific” we tend to be sometimes. As an example of a short assignment students may ask their colleagues for an example of personal knowledge.

Before the start of explanation what shared knowledge might be here is again space for a short video “Apocalypse Neanderthal”.

After watching the video, the discussion with students is opened again. Can we trace human knowledge to its very beginning?  Can we talk about knowledge without previous explanation what is culture and how culture defined / have been defining human kind? Talking about culture, in particular, it would take too much time for discussion about it o let`s live it for some other class when we well discuss in details about many different understandings of culture and its components, its distinction (or connection) with civilization etc.

Closure – 20 minutes

The story of experimental knowledge is left for the last part of the class. In the spirit of modern time can we raise a question that is impossible to imagine shared knowledge without use of experimental knowledge? Or it is consisted more of what we call “personal knowledge” if its components are direct experience and reflection?


IB Theory of Knowledge Course Book: Oxford IB Diploma Programme, Eileen Dombrowski, Lena Rotenberg, and Mimi Bick

Apocalypse neanderthal


Did neanderthals create worlds oldest cave paintings?


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