The nature of knowledge

Kamakshi Balasubramanian

As young people mature their capacity for higher order thinking evolves. Intellectual curiosity, social awareness and spiritual quests increasingly influence personality development. Articulated or not, learners are beset by questions about the things they encounter, in and outside the classroom. Why is this subject difficult for me, why are things ambiguous, why do theories change, students often wonder. Exploring these and similar questions about the nature of knowledge can nurture intellectual growth and emotional maturity.

How is the classroom teacher to integrate a purposeful inquiry of these formulated or unformulated questions as s/he teaches individual subjects?

An answer is to be found in a subject (or, more accurately, an area of enquiry) called Theory of Knowledge.

One high school program that I know of, the International Baccalaureate (IB), requires the study of Theory of Knowledge. In the following article and a few more that will follow in later issues of Teacher Plus, I shall discuss what the Theory of Knowledge syllabus in the IB stream contains, and how I approached teaching it. It is my conviction that teachers in other systems can adapt these ideas to get their students to think about knowledge building as a process.

Theory of Knowledge
light Theory of Knowledge is a core component in the IB curriculum. It is taught over two years to candidates who intend to complete the IB Diploma. The IBO recommends about 100 hours of teaching; assessment includes oral presentations and an essay to be written on a prescribed topic. (

In addition to the 100 dedicated hours of TOK lessons (short for Theory of Knowledge), an IB Diploma candidate is trained to systematically recognize that all activities – academic and non-academic – lead to knowledge; this recognition aided by the concepts learned in TOK lessons encourage the candidate to observe how s/he is acquiring knowledge, what the nature of such knowledge is, and what responsibility knowledge places upon the learner.

While the IBO explicitly emphasizes the key importance of Theory of Knowledge in its IB Diploma curriculum, clearly, all learners have much to gain by understanding how they learn what they learn. In addition to gaining subject knowledge and information, the intellectually mature learner needs to understand the skills and processes necessary for acquiring knowledge at every level. Genuine understanding arises when learners become skilled in dealing with the very nature of knowledge.

All this sounded abstract when I began my life as a teacher of TOK. The learners in the two year IB Diploma program typically represent 16 year-olds, who have begun to form world views and have a great sense of their evolving individuality. They are also beset by doubts and uncertainties. Their inner world is complex, rich, and emotionally exhausting. At this stage, offering abstract philosophical concepts and a glossary of terminology in the TOK class is counter-productive.

As my experience grew and my commitment to my work deepened, I found ways to simplify things for myself, and consequently, for my students.

Personal and impersonal knowledge
One of the first concepts I like to introduce in a TOK class is the distinction between Personal Knowledge and Impersonal Knowledge. This was the foundation on which I designed lessons on one of the major topics in TOK, namely Ways of Knowing (Reason, Faith, Language, Intuition, etc.).

The author is an educator and writer with significant experience teaching at secondary and tertiary levels. She can be reached at

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