To know is to be

Kamakshi Balasubramanian

Over the years, I have concluded that one important outcome of learning is an awareness of oneself. To know who I am is to know how I must live. In the years that I taught students in the IB Diploma program, I came to appreciate the unique and central role of the Theory of Knowledge course in encouraging students to contemplate the nature of knowledge and the power it has in shaping one’s self-awareness.

The Theory of Knowledge course as it is intended to be taught over the two-year IB Diploma program is well-described in the relevant IBO publications. A few key aspects relating to assessment of student work are, however, worth recalling here to put my discussion in context.

  • The Theory of Knowledge program does not culminate in a final exam.
  • Assessment and evaluation of student progress and student achievement are essentially based on the work that each student produces individually or, in some cases, collaboratively with others.
  • Work assessed is submitted in writing and presented orally.
  • The final grade for the course is based on internal and external evaluations.
  • All students, regardless of their choice of subjects are required to pass the Theory of Knowledge course in order to be awarded the IB Diploma.

There is a great deal of flexibility available to the Theory of Knowledge teacher to design and deliver the course, which is a major strength of the published curriculum. It would be safe to say that no two schools, and indeed no two teachers within the same school, are likely to teach the course in the same way, given the underlying philosophy of the course. As the course is ideally taught without a text book, I chose the reading and other instructional materials (films, video clips, guest lectures, etc.), designed and set assignments, made independent decisions on teaching strategies to adopt, and even in what sequence I covered the topics, as did the other teachers in the school who taught the very same curriculum in parallel sections.

Having asserted that no two Theory of Knowledge classes within even one school are likely to be the same, I shall limit my discussion to my approaches and practices in order to describe how those led the students and me to achieve the objectives of the course. (These objectives are available online in IBO publications:

In the 4 semesters that students worked towards the IB Diploma, they typically had Theory of Knowledge for a little over 3 semesters. Classes met for 3 lessons during the week.

Basing all my lessons on the prescribed curriculum and using the well-known Theory of Knowledge diagram, I diligently placed the “knower” at the center of every lesson.

Students who begin the Theory of Knowledge course in the IB Diploma stream are typically 16 years old or thereabouts. These “knowers” come armed with opinions, impressions, and in today’s world, with a notion that information available at their finger tips directly converts to knowledge that they can process, apply, and change.
Consequently, developing a student’s ability to question the reliability of sources is in itself an objective. As we work through the course, students acquire the ability to acknowledge differing perspectives, including biases. They learn to evaluate competing value systems, and gain the maturity to grapple with the idea that knowledge is constantly evolving and therefore the world of knowledge is forever uncertain.

The Theory of Knowledge program as envisaged by the IBO’s curriculum puts emphasis on developing the students’ awareness of contemporary issues and creating opportunities for learners to appreciate differing cultural perspectives on familiar phenomena. This opens up great avenues for groups of students to encounter viewpoints and arguments that present unfamiliar belief systems.

What I have said might give the idea that the Theory of Knowledge course is high-flown or esoteric. In practice, however, the course discourages vague abstractions and, in fact, trains students to understand and use facts, information, theories, and laws with logical rigor, so that they are able to formulate their ideas with integrity and clarity.

At the start of the course, students typically become aware of the many ways in which we “know” – through sense perception, emotion, reasoning, and language. For many students, this introductory section is the most eye-opening segment of their learning about learning. There are many excellent activities that evoke responses to physical senses or test motor coordination, which generate discussion for students to appreciate that we “know” in different ways and that it is important to be aware of these different ways of knowing.

In general, whatever the topic for discussion and critical examination, I planned my course around the following questions.

  • What do you know?
  • How do you know what you know?
  • What is your source?
  • How reliable is your source?
  • What evidence can you provide to support your claim that you know something?
  • Do you know if there’s a community or an individual who does not recognize this as valid knowledge? If so, what arguments support this differing point of view?
  • Does this knowledge open up ways to link things you know in another sphere of your life or studies?
  • Now that you have this knowledge, what does it mean to you? Does this make something clearer, more certain, or does it raise questions about what you knew earlier?
  • Is this knowledge going to make you reconsider your beliefs? Is it likely to affect your behavior in a particular situation?
  • How has this new knowledge changed the way you think about who you are?

When we critically examine knowledge claims, these fundamental questions naturally arise. In the Theory of Knowledge classes, posing these questions is structured and purposeful, which enables students to develop the habit of supporting and evaluating knowledge claims with gradually increasing levels of rigor. This develops their abstract thinking skills. Activities I designed to this end varied from poster making to performance of skits, combined with a variety of regular writing assignments.

To work through the concept of knowing through sense perception, we might use sections of a novel being read in an IB Diploma literature class – say, Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate – and examine how the author creates a sense of smell and taste with her words. We could compare how a passage in the novel about the texture of beaten eggs arouses in different readers different physical responses. Besides group and individual physical activities that show how we know the world through our physical senses, in my lessons I tried to move the students into the realm of thought and imagination beyond tangible sensations and concrete reality. It is through this higher order thinking that students gain facility in language to communicate abstract concepts.

Whether the class is evaluating a report on climate change or responding to a news item about a natural disaster, students can be empowered to be analytical, critical, discerning, and capable of accommodating perspectives and positions other than their own. Reading a report and coming to an understanding leads the Theory of Knowledge student to consider, in the final analysis, what this understanding means in a personal sense. In vital if subtle ways, a Theory of Knowledge student ceases to be intellectually passive, and begins to acknowledge the enormous influence of one’s own intellectual and experiential universe in processing information to construct knowledge.
The “knower” is at the center in subject specific classes of the IB Diploma classes as well. Subject specialists are being trained to integrate Theory of Knowledge driven questions in the learning of mathematical postulates, scientific laws, social science theories and models, and the like. Whether or not a student is good at mathematics or makes elegant brush strokes in art, the teachers of those disciplines draw attention to the nature of that area of knowledge, its unique ways of constructing knowledge and its connections with other areas of knowledge. The teacher of history, where the context calls for it, refers to revolutionary advancements in the natural sciences; the mathematics teacher manipulates numbers in ways that become useful in examining complex social phenomena in the economics lesson.

When the IB Diploma student has engaged for 3 semesters in this course, something has changed in the way this student receives information, responds to it, and processes it. Without exception, students gain intellectual maturity, the ability to reflect on the world and on their own place in it, and, most importantly, begin to appreciate that nothing exists in isolation.

As a Theory of Knowledge teacher, watching students grow and mature as they course through the 2 year IB Diploma program meant that I continued to refine my understanding of what it is to teach: I took my role as resource person, facilitator, guide, even coach, and authority figure seriously, in an upfront manner; at the same time, I participated in the learning process, constantly discovering that I was encouraged in my toils sometimes by the gifted student but more frequently by the less able and less confident, who reward you for your dedication by growing themselves, and, more importantly, never leaving you in any doubt that we owe our growth to them.

The author is an educator and writer with significant experience.

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