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Breaking down the TOK

IB Diploma Programme (DP) graduate Jun-Ting Yeung dives into Theory of Knowledge (TOK) for his second story in our series featuring graduate voices. To hear more from Jun-Ting check out his Youtube channel Dare to Know.

By Jun-Ting Yeung

Mr. Jones declared that Theory of Knowledge (TOK) wasn’t a philosophy or ethics class. Yet, the next hour was everything but that. He began by throwing complex terms at us like distributive justice, ethical dilemmas like the trolley problem and weird names like Immanuel Kant. These were profound topics that university students had to worry about – they were too advanced for my first year IB diploma “DP1” brain and I had too much on my plate anyway: my 6 other subjects, IAs, the EE and CAS. I had no time to even begin worrying about that final 1,600 word TOK essay.

Many of you will go through your first year not knowing what the purpose of TOK is. We are given these advanced concepts and are expected to connect the dots between subjects which don’t have anything in common. You get too caught up in the IB terminology of TOK such as AoKs and WoKs (Areas of Knowledge and Ways of Knowing) that you probably end up spending more time searching what these acronyms mean on Urban Dictionary than actually embarking on your quest to discover the ‘truth’.

If I have to summarise what TOK is, it would be in the form of a question: How do you know what you claim to know?

TOK has taught me to examine what assumptions form the basis of my knowledge. It has empowered me to assess my own observations, my own arguments and my own beliefs (In IB speak, this is understanding the ‘Nature of Knowledge’). You become aware of how a range of factors shape your process of learning, such as your senses, memory and imagination (In IB speak, these are your Ways of Knowing).

For example, I have a fear of lighters. But how can I use the TOK framework to break this down and understand my phobia? I would start with my memory of Chinese New Year. I remember trying to light a firecracker, but the heat of the lighter scorched my thumb. I immediately made the decision to forever avoid lighters as I didn’t want to get myself hurt again. As I grew older, my imagination amplified my fear which has led to my irrational pyrophobia today. (Do you see the WoKs that I used? Memory. Imagination. Emotion.)

Jun-Ting’s biggest fear? Lighters. TOK led him to think more deeply about why. Photo credit: “Lighter In Hand” by George Hodan.

The framework that you learn in TOK can be used to dissect any issue in any Area of Knowledge. Another personal example I have is my fascination with smell. One of my earliest memories of home is the vanilla candle that we used to burn. Whenever I have dessert, I will invariably think of our cozy living room. But have you ever wondered why smells are so intertwined with our memories?

Related knowledge issue: What role do our senses play in the construction of reality?

Scientists have discovered that the part of our brain that processes smell (the olfactory bulb) has strong connections to parts of our brain responsible for memory and emotion. This is part of the reason why smells are so effective at triggering emotional memories. (See what I’m doing here? I’m exploring the knowledge issue from the AoK of Biology)

Our sense of smell is also intriguing for other reasons. There isn’t one smell that is universally preferred. For example, most people will recede at the smell of skunk, but there is a minority that love the smell and aren’t afraid to vocalise their love for it. People’s relationship with cilantro is rather similar. There are blogs dedicated to hating cilantro, to others (like myself) who will refuse soup if it is served without it. (From what WoK am I exploring the knowledge issue? Sense perception!)

Biological reasons are most often the underlying cause for our development of preferences. Scientists have found that among people who think cilantro tastes like soap, they share a common OR6A2 gene. (What AoK? Biology again.)

If we investigate further, you’ll also find that culture is another factor that can affect our preference for smell. Two experiments carried out in the UK and US examined public preference for wintergreen. In the US, wintergreen was the odour rated highest for pleasantness. In comparison, UK participants rated the smell as one of the lowest.

Puzzled, the researchers looked at the cultural history to offer an explanation to these findings. As it turns out, in the US, wintergreen is almost exclusively used in the production of candies. In the UK, the smell of wintergreen is associated with medicines and rub-on analgesics that were popular in World War 2. The participants, who were children at the time, may not have joyful memories associated with this smell.

Your understanding of smell and my understanding of smell may be fundamentally different. There may be a shared experience of some smells that we can agree on, such as sweet honey. But even then, a person with horrific memories of being attacked by bees may hate that smell. Our world experiences are subjective and they are shaped by our biology, our culture and other experiences (IB speak: Ways of Knowing).

“How do you know what you claim to know?”

The smell of this innocently looking wintergreen is heavily influenced by different countries’ cultural history. Photo credit: “Large-flowered Wintergreen”by Fiona Paton, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

At this moment, this seems like a profound question that only expert philosophers can answer. But there’s no need to shy away from it. As long as you critically examine how you acquire knowledge, you will be more aware of your strengths and limitations. You will understand why people may have conflicting opinions to yourself. You will be more receptive to feedback and discussion.

Jun-Ting’s personal Evernote collection, complete with 630+ articles on a little bit of anything and everything. Photo credit: Jun-Ting Yeung.

A major tip in preparing for your TOK essay would be to start using an article clipper such as Evernote or OneNote. You come across hundreds of articles each day on Facebook, news sites, reddit. Save these articles and categorize them with labels. This will save you a lot of time when researching for your final essay topic. When analyzing the article, break it down into its key elements – the AoKs and WoKs. Then you will find that understanding what you claim to know isn’t that hard after all.

Jun-Ting Yeung graduated from Yew Chung International School of Beijing and is currently a Bachelor of Biomedicine (Hons) student at The University of Melbourne.

To learn about the IB alumni network, visit and read about our 50th anniversary featured graduates to see where other students have taken their studies and careers.