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Questioning the way of the World Using Theory of Knowledge

At Shanghai Community International School (SCIS) we believe that learning must be a process of discovery and transformational thinking, helping students see the world differently by making connections to personally meaningful issues. One way we foster this is through our Theory of Knowledge (TOK) class. As an academic course, it is perhaps unique in that it doesn’t seek to provide answers. Rather, it seeks to help students better ask their questions.  

TOK sets out to develop, hone, and refine the critical thinking skills which are so necessary to making sense of the competing knowledge claims of the modern world. Through this process, our students become more adept at and confident in not merely engaging critically with the claims to knowledge of others, but also, and crucially, interrogating their assumptions and beliefs.  

One important assessment of the course is the TOK Exhibition. The live presentation involves students choosing 3 ‘objects’ and one of the 35 prompts and writing a commentary to demonstrate how TOK concepts manifest in the real world. 

To give us first-hand information about their exhibition and what it is like to study TOK at SCIS, we spoke with two of our upper school students, Kaye and Yas to share their own experiences: 

How would you describe Theory of Knowledge?

Kaye: TOK delves into questions like “how do people know what they know?” and “how is knowledge attained?” It initiates a lot of inquiry and reflective thinking about various perspectives and facts that we assume to be true. TOK allows us to develop our critical thinking skills and question the extent of our understanding regarding certain subjects and the world in general.

Yas: After a year of work, TOK to me is taking a second to think about why we know what we know and how it impacts our lives. It’s drawing connections between all areas of knowledge to determine why people are the way they are and think the way they do. It’s rather abstract and I couldn’t give a definite answer but that’s most of what I have gathered throughout this process. 

Upper school student talking about her Theory of Knowledge presentation

What was the most challenging or exciting part of your TOK Exhibition?

Kaye: What I liked most about the TOK exhibition was how I could take my own approach to the question I chose. There was no wrong or right way to do it, and many of the prompts were up for interpretation. A classmate had actually ended up picking the same question as me, but because we had taken it in different directions, our exhibitions were still unique and explored separate ideas. I also liked how personal I could mold my exhibition to be; I was able to use areas of knowledge that I was interested in and pick objects that were meaningful to me. It made the whole process so much more exciting and intriguing since I was able to work with topics that I genuinely wanted to write and talk about.

Yas: Although the concepts I wanted to explore were rather concrete in my head, finding physical manifestations of these concepts and applying them to my day-to-day life was rather challenging. It took me quite some time and some research to decide what objects were most suitable for my ideas but once I did it the rest of the process was rather simple. I found it exciting to draw connections between my objects and look at various perspectives. I think if I took anything out of this experience it was to always look beyond my own point of view because I’ll learn a lot more that way.

Student's object for Theory of Knowledge Exhibition
A student's three objects on a table for Theory of knowledge exhibition

How would you describe Theory of Knowledge?

Kaye: The knowledge question I explored in my exhibition was, “what role does imagination play in producing knowledge about the world?” The relationship between imagination and knowledge is a bit like the chicken-egg paradox, where one would cease to exist without the other. Imagination drives us to discover knowledge, but knowledge is needed to have any imagination at all. Artists, scientists, and writers use their imagination and creativity to fill in the holes of certain areas of knowledge, and that has a huge impact on societal views and impressions. I discussed the accuracy of the portrayal of dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park/World franchise; the information that is known about dinosaurs is limited, but imagination enables the idea of them to be brought to life on the silver screen. The imagination and creativity that went into the film’s presentation of dinosaurs have had a large influence on people’s ideas of how dinosaurs look and behave.

Yas: After a year of work, TOK to me is taking a second to think about why we know what we know and how it impacts our lives. It’s drawing connections between all areas of knowledge to determine why people are the way they are and think the way they do. It’s rather abstract and I couldn’t give a definite answer but that’s most of what I have gathered throughout this process. 

SCIS. Knowledgeable Inquirers.

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  • Theory of Knowledge

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