A Guide to the ToK Presentation (v0.48)

Posted on Aug 6, 2013

Note to Teachers

This is a post written for students, intended to guide them through the Theory of Knowledge (ToK) presentation assessment.  The broad, open-ended nature of ToK presentations present a perpetual difficulty for both teachers and students (and given a number of inconsistencies in the official material, this might apply to the curriculum developers as well!), and often a presentation would be excellent — just not in the ToK presentation context.

This guide proposes a sequence of steps for the development of a ToK presentation, with the primary intention of helping students focus onto what will definitely be assessment-worthy real-life situations and knowledge issues.  It is similar to the “unpacking” recommended by IBO, but with a more defined scope.  In doing so, I made the trade-off of restricting RLS/KI that would also be suitable (for some of you).  Thus you may wish to use this in your class as a step-on-the-way and not the final destination.

Here at LPCUWC, we have one hour of general lecture about the ToK presentation assessment, and I then have 3 additional classes to coach the students.  I start with one session first on the Superset Method, then choosing a real-life situation, and finally introduce the Wheelie-of-Stickies brainstorming — the students (should) complete that in their own time over summer.

I developed this method in Fall 2012, tested it with my students, and shared the manuscript with a number of teachers & examiners on the OCC.  Since then I have incorporated suggestions and comments received, and (re-)visited the official sources in rewriting this from ground up as a guide for students.   This targets the 2015 curriculum, but in the description of assessment, I’m (for now) staying with the 2008 curriculum that applies this year (2013-2014). I’m not too fond of the “global impressions” marking espoused in the new curriculum (it’s fluffy enough with four criteria!), so the separate criteria may remain as a scaffold for how assessors may judge presentations.

Until the version number reaches 1.0, this is a draft that I will be actively adding to, and should be considered a work-in-progress.  Regardless of its draft status, your comments as teachers or examiners are appreciated.  Jon

Note to Students

This is a post written for you, as a student in the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma program, specifically addressing the Theory of Knowledge (ToK) presentation.  As a teacher/assessor, I noted that developing the presentation is challenging for many students, because of the sense that (i) “everything goes” (both content and delivery), that (ii) instructions are often offered in broad / obtuse terms (“It is imperative therefore that the real-life situation which the student chooses to base their presentation on is substantive and allows for effective exploration of a knowledge question raised by that situation”), and that (iii) different sources suggests something different, or even contradictory to one another.

This guide you’re reading is opinionated.  It proposes a sequence of steps for the development of a ToK presentation, with the primary intention of helping students focus onto what will definitely be assessment-worthy real-life situations and knowledge issues, delivered in a way that will definitely be suitable for assessment.  In doing so, I made the trade-off of restricting RLS/KI/delivery that would also be suitable.  (An example: you may have heard that you could do, “lectures, skits, simulations, games, dramatized readings, interviews or debates” for your presentation.  I’ll ask you to only do lectures, and explain why I found the others don’t really work as well.)  Your teacher may thus wish to use this as a step-on-the-way and not the final destination.

I developed this method with my students in Fall 2012, and shared the manuscript with a number of teachers & examiners worldwide.  Since then I have incorporated suggestions and comments received, and (re-)visited the official sources in rewriting this from ground up as a guide for students.   This targets the 2015 curriculum, but in the description of assessment, I’m (for now) staying with the 2008 curriculum that applies this year (2013-2014).

Until the version number reaches 1.0, this is a draft that I will be actively adding to, and should be considered a work-in-progress.  Regardless of its draft status, this is ultimately a guide for you, and your comments and questions as students will make this guide better.  Jon

As the ToK course comes to a close, you will soon be demonstrating what you learnt through an essay and a presentation.  The essay and the presentation are designed to be different not only in format, but also for you to showcase a different set of thinking skills.

This guide will show you a way of approaching the presentation, along with suggestions I’ve learnt from assessing and working with students on ToK presentations.  Let’s put it upfront that this is an opinionated guide, and not the way.  Preparing a ToK presentation is like painting a portrait: there are infinite approaches to this creative — and fundamentally personal — task.  By following this structured guide, you can approach the task in a flowing, logical sequence, and that you show us the set of thinking skills we need to assess.  Going back to the analogy of ToK presentation as portrait, this guide leads you to a 3-point lighted traditional portrait.  It’s not the be-all-end-all, but you can be assured that you won’t have painted a tree either.  It hurts to see excellent students put extraordinary efforts in a presentation that just misses the point.

Scattered throughout the paragraphs are little quizzes.  Included within are misunderstandings that students tend to unknowingly commit; do them to be assured that you are on the right track.  The guide, quizzes, or any automated system, can go only so far; they are poor substitute for the living guidance and opinions of your teachers, so be sure that you touch base with them early and often.

Try this now

A quiz to familiarize you with quizzes

This sample quiz shows you the type of tasks you may encounter.  Give them a run through to familiarize yourself with the interface.

When you come across pictures that are wrapped in a box with dots underneath, it means that it comes as a progression.  Click on > to cycle through the pictures.  Try it now.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There are 4 major sections to this guide.  Section 1, How It Works, describes the basic parameters for the presentation together with my recommendations.  Section 2, The Superset Method, the longest and most important section, describes how to choose a good Real Life Situation and extract a Knowledge Issue from it.  Section 3, Wheelie of Stickies, is a method to systematically think through the Knowledge Issue you’ve identified.  Section 4, The Two Realms, shows a systematic organization that compliments the systematic thinking.

If you work through the guide, completing all the tasks required of you, by the end you will have all the essential components for your actual ToK presentation, structured into a ready-to-decorate framework.  The process, excluding time you need to read, learn, and think deeply about the topic, should take about 4 hours.  Let’s get started now.

How It Works

The key point of the ToK presentation is for you to showcase how you can think through a concrete event at an abstract level.1  You can work alone, in which you are limited to 10 minutes, or in a group (of up to 3)2, in which case 10 minutes is added for each additional member.  At LPCUWC, you will have an audience of ~20 co-years and 2 ToK teachers; additionally, all the presentations will be filmed.3  There is an additional 5 minutes of question-and-answer period at the end.4

Available time for ToK presentations of different group size

Available time for ToK presentations of different group size

While watching your presentations, your ToK teachers takes notes and independently try to assess just how well you showed your thinking through a concrete event at an abstract level.  This is a big and fluffy task.  To make it more fair and consistent, we assess the presentation based on 4 criteria, each with 5 possible levels (for a maximal possible score of 4×5=20).  The score is then summed.5  The score derives directly from your performance, and there is no “bell curve” or other goofy magic applied.

ToK grades in the IB

The summed score, out of 20, contributes to 1/3 of your IB ToK grade.  The remaining 2/3 comes from the essay on prescribed title.

Officially, presentations also have a letter grade attached.  The grade boundaries are found in the IBO Subject Report, and have not changed for the past years.  For the ToK presentations, they are:

  • A: 19–20
  • B: 16–18
  • C: 13–15
  • D: 9–12
  • E: 0–8

The assessment criteria are as follows (click to expand):

A. Identification of Knowledge Issue

Did the presentation identify a relevant knowledge issue involved, implicit or embedded in a real-life situation?  The best presentations identify a knowledge issue that was clearly relevant to the real-life situation under consideration.

B. Treatment of Knowledge Issues

Did the presentation show a good understanding of knowledge issues, in the context of the real-life situation?  The best presentations shows a good understanding of knowledge issues.

C. Knower's Perspective

Did the presentation, particularly in the use of arguments and examples, show an individual approach and demonstrate the significance of the topic?  The best presentations, in its distinctively personal use of arguments and examples or otherwise, showed clear personal involvement and fully demonstrated the significance of the topic.

D. Connections

Did the presentation give a balanced account of how the topic could be approached from different perspectives?  Did the presentation show how the positions taken on the knowledge issues would have implications in related areas?  The emphasis is on quality and not quantity.  The best presentations gave a clear account of how the question could be approached from different perspectives and considered their implications in related areasi

Once again you would see that the emphasis is not on how polished or beautiful the visuals are, how creative the acting was, or how the rhetoric moved us to tears.  The emphasis is on your thinking.6  You should also be able to see the importance of a good knowledge issue, the topic of the next section: a poor knowledge issue (criteria A) is impossible to treat well (criteria B), and entails, at best, a grade in the D/E range.

Some practical advice: work in groups of two.  Three or more and you may find it difficult to coördinate time to work together.7  The case against working alone is two-fold.  First, all presentations start with an exposition of the background and needs a summary, which would take up at least 3 minutes.  This leaves you with 7 minutes to show how you think (which, again, is what you’re here for!)  Working in pair gives you 17 minutes, giving you space for a fuller and richer treatment.  But more importantly, working alone restricts you to your own experiences and perspective.  Which leads me to…

Time available, after taking into account the need for introducing the situation and summarizing.

Time available, after taking into account the need for introducing the situation and summarizing.

Pick a partner who you trusts, respects, and who preferably thinks differently than you.  In my experience, you can work with people you don’t like, but it’s much harder to work with people you disdain.  But you should work with someone; we all have but one life, limited cultural exposure, and selected intellectual strengths.  A friend with different strengths and experience can point out your blind-spots and liberate you from your invisible cage.

As a personal example: I have poor grasp on literary analysis or any subtleties of language,8, and have almost no historical perspective.  But at the same time, thinking vividly in graphs and pictures, and understanding numbers and statistics, come naturally to me.  For the most part we don’t know what we don’t know.9  It would be easiest for me to pick a partner who’s exactly like me, because we would be on the same wavelength; but we would just be making an echo chamber.  Our perspectives would remain restricted & narrow, and the presentation would suffer for it.  I would benefit from working with someone who have a finer understanding of the Group 1,2,3 subjects, who can constructively challenge my status quo.

Make your group read this guide.  Sections 2, 3, and 4 prescribes a method of working.  Your partner would benefit from knowing the game plan ahead of time.

Start early.  Having the Knowledge Issue early allow you to read broadly around the topic, and the “canning time” can let you see connections that are not immediately obvious.

Read broadly.  With the advent of the internet, finding bite-sized synopsis is easy.  But websites are often pale imitations of deep, well-considered scholarship, in the same way that humming “di-di-di-du” in the shower is no replacement for Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony live with an orchestra.  A particularly sinister aspect to Googling 25 trillion websites is that it’s easy to pinpoint support for what you “had a hunch all along”.  To grow you need to be challenged!

Checkpoint 1

This is the first of a series of check-point.  Make sure you fulfill the criteria before moving on.  By now you should be able to:

State the kind of thinking your ToK presentation is designed to demonstrate

Recall and state the basic info about the ToK presentation (structure, duration, group size)

In terms of your ToK presentation, you should have:

Formed a group (preferably a group of 2, with diverse strength)

Communicated with your group that you’re reading (and possibly following) this guide

The check boxes are not saved when you close the window, but you can download a printable check-list here.

[insert link for downloadable check-list]

Further Reading

Official ToK Curriculum (first examination 2008)

Official ToK Curriculum (first examination 2015)


Getting Started

While the emphasis of the presentation is on the Knowledge Issue, good choice of a real life situation is critically important and needs to be done first.  The Knowledge Issue then arises organically from the Real Life Situation.10   In this guide we will, therefore, teach you first how to choose a (particular kind of) real life situation, and then go from that situation to derive a (particular kind of) knowledge issue.

One Sentence, Two Names

Before we get started, let me show you a range of proposals.11  Think about whether they are real-life situations, and then click on the title to see how an assessor might think about them.

1. Is man eating man right?

As an assessor: “where is the situation?  How is this grounded in real-life?”

2. Cannibalism

As an assessor: “What keys this into real life?  How is this a situation?  This can be made much better by being more specific.”

3. Portrayal of cannibalism in Hannibal (2001 movie)

As an assessor: “This is fictional.  With fictional accounts, everything goes.  Also we, as teachers, want to know that you can bring what you’ve learnt into analysing real and useful things!”

4. Portrayal of cannibalism in Alive (1993 movie)

As an assessor: “This is better than the Hannibal case, because it is based on a real situation.  But could be better by simply referring to the real situation itself — note that this does not preclude you from using visuals/clips from the movie to support your presentation!”

5. Cannibalism in the 1972 Andes Flight accident

As an assessor: “This is squarely a real-life situation shorthand, from which fruitful knowledge issues can be extracted (e.g., How do we know whether it is right to eat any particular thing?)  The students may have a hard time showing that they have a personal connection to the situation/issue — but then, this would be a particular strong topic for a student with diet-restrictions (e.g., veganism).  The topic itself could be improved: see later.”

6. Is human meat nutritious?

As an assessor: “Besides not really a real life situation, the topic is clearly a technical one, with a technical resolution.  This is not germane to any knowledge issues.”

7. A cookbook with homo sapiens meat in the recipe was published.

Whether this is a real-life situation depends on how you make use of the sentence.  If your focus is on the ideas that are contained, I would offer similar comments to that I did for topic 3 (i.e., fictional and thus unsuitable).  However, if you focus on the actions of the publishing house (a real entity), this would be a suitable real-life situation.

I hope you can now identify clearly what are not suitable proposals: it’s the vague, the fictional, and the technical.  I recommend the “One Sentence, Two Names” rule as a general rule of thumb:

Make sure that your proposal contains two real names (people, places), and that it fits in one sentence.

Two (or more) real names” ensure that you have a concrete real-life situation,12 and in our preceding examples, automatically rules out topics 1, 2, 3, 6 — all of which are common pitfalls.  One sentence maintains that the situation should be straight-forward.  Remember: the emphasis is on the knowledge issue.  If your real-life situation has so many OMG twists-and-turns that it takes all of 20 minutes to explain, then you won’t have time to devote on the knowledge issue!

To apply this method to topic 5, I would expand on the shorthand for the incident, and rephrase it as Nando Parrado (amongst others) was stranded with no rations on the Andes after a flight accident, and ate meat of the dead passengers to survive.  This rephrasing first explains the situation more concretely even to those who know nothing about “1972 Andes Flight Accident”, and it also avoids the labeling of “cannibalism”.13  This phrasing also leads sequentially to the establishment of a Knowledge Issue via the Superset Method.

Note for Teachers

Some of you may consider topics other than 5 also valid (esp. with 3 and 4, what I name as the “fictional cases”, or 2, the “vague cases”).  My reading of the IBO Guides is that this is inconsistently interpreted at times, and whether 2, 3, or 4 are acceptable would be up to your teaching team as well as the moderator.  The one-sentence form of topic 5, on the other hand, is unambiguously a real-life situation, and I try to guide students on the interpretation-free path.

You may worry about the aesthetics: the rephrased real-life situation just isn’t as tidy.  That is to be expected, and totally OK.  If you are still worried about what to put as the topic of your slide — use the knowledge issue, or introduce a shorthand version.14

Now do this quiz to be sure you can identify the unsuitable proposals, and the basics of how they can be made better.  We will come back to choose from equally suitable proposals to one that works better than its peers.

[insert real life situation ID quiz here]

Real life situations can be mined from many sources.  You can find them by browsing current events15 in newspaper, or from your personal life.  It is perfectly valid a real life situation to bring up your Project Week visit in the context of altruistic tourism.  Click here and try to shape six stories into the “One Sentence, Two Names” format.  I’ll wait for you.

Checkpoint 2

By now you should be able to:

Identify whether a particular proposal for a “Real Life Situation” is fictional, too vague, or too technical.

State the 2 requirements in the “One Sentence, Two Names” method, and explain the reasons for choosing these constraints

Apply the “One Sentence, Two Names” format to news or personal stories

In terms of your ToK presentation, you should have:

Prepared at least 6 potentially suitable Real-Life Situation, written in the “One Sentence, Two Names” format.

Proposals can be suitable but sterile.16  Now that you see real-life situations are not hard to come by, you should be more selective and pick the ones that would work best for you.  This is personal, and you’ll need to play and compare for yourself.  Some guidelines:

  • Make it personal: you should pick one that you feel connected to.  (You will want to defend this connection in your presentation later.)
  • Ask yourself if you could see elements of emotions / logic… (Ways of Knowing) in it
  • Is this a topic that an economist, a law professor, a natural scientist etc would all have something insightful and different to say?  (Areas of Knowledge)
  • As an extension of the last point, I’ve found that the most fruitful situations almost always shade into the moral realm.

The best real-life situations are ones that connects to you, also connects to knowledge issues that can be explored in depth and be applied to other real-life situations.  The next section, the Superset Method, shows you how to open up knowledge issues.  I recommend you work on that section before circling back to choose a real-life situation for your ToK presentation.

The Superset Method

In mathematics, “sets” describe the relationship between different collection of object/concepts.  In the following diagram, A is the superset to B and C because it “contains” all of B and C.

A few real life examples of supersets:

The concept of “culture” includes such aspects as the language, cuisine, and dress.

Polling, looking, and experimenting are all examples of how one would gather data.

Of course, these can be nested inside one another iteratively…

States, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and organized religion are all examples of institution (i.e., “institution” is the superset of “state”, “NGO”, and “organized religion”). Sets can contain other sets: in this case, Tibetan buddhism, the Catholic Church, and Islam are all examples of organized religion.

Verbally we may say that a mammal is an animal; a flute is an example of a woodwind instrument, which is itself an example of a musical instrument.  Superset / subset describes this “is a” / “an example of” / “contained within” relationship, and we would say “mammal is a subset of animal”, or with the same meaning, “animal is the superset of mammals”.  Can you describe the relationship between a chair and furniture using the words subset and superset?  Try a few of the examples below; expand to check your answers.

Chairs; furniture

“Chairs” are subset of “furniture”; “furniture” is the superset of “chairs”.

Asian country; Indonesia

“Indonesia” is a subset of “asian countries”; “Asian countries” is a superset of “Indonesia”.

Calvin and Hobbes; comic

“Calvin and Hobbes” is a subset of “comics”; “comics” is the superset of “Calvin and Hobbes”.

pasta; pizza

This one is slightly tricky.  “Pasta” is neither the superset nor the subset of “Pizza”.  Just because they are conceptually related — both being Italian cuisine — doesn’t mean they are contained within one another.

Italian (the people); Italian (the language)

These are neither the superset nor subset of Italy.  One refers to the people; one refers to the language.  The language may be a property of the people, but it’s not contained within.  Can you think of a subset and a superset for each of Italian (the people) and Italian (the language)?

Italian (the people); Italy

This one is probably the trickiest, and causes most confusion.  “Italians” are neither the superset nor the subset of Italy.  One refers to the people; one refers to the land.  Just because one is physically contained inside doesn’t mean the concepts share a “contained within” relationship.

driving; operating a vehicle

“Driving” is a subset of “operating a vehicle”.  What we focus on is the relationship of ideas, which does not necessarily need to a noun, but can also be a verb.

Now try this quiz to check your mastery of the superset / subset concept.

[insert super/subset quiz here.  Include one-to-many, many-to-one, and many-to-many relationships.]

Now that you understood what supersets are, we’ll see how this is related to your ToK presentation.  Recall the purpose of the ToK presentation: it allows you to demonstrate your ability to think through a concrete event (real life situation) at an abstract level (knowledge issue).  A superset is, by definition, broader and more abstract than the subset.  See where we’re going?

Knowledge issues can be generated by casting the one-sentence real life situation in their supersets.

Let’s me illustrate the approach with an example.  My real life situation is this: Jack Nicholson only discovered, as an adult, that his “mother” was actually his grandmother, and his “sister” his real biological mother.  (By then both of them passed away.)  A possible “One Sentence, Two Names” version might be:

Knowledge of his biological mother/sister was concealed from young Jack Nicholson by his family.

I’ve used the different colors to indicate the portions that I’ve identified as a subset.  What could their supersets be?

  • young Jack Nicholson –[is a]–> child
  • His family–[are]–> adults –[are]–> authority figures
  • Knowledge of his biological mother/sister –[is a]–> uncomfortable secret –[is]–> information
  • hiding the relationship –[is]–> withholding information

Our proposal for a knowledge issue may then be

Is it right for authority figures to hide information from children so as to protect them?17

Because the knowledge issue was grown out from its subset, it for sure covers the real-life issue; because of it being a superset, it is more abstract and capable of addressing so much more.  By flying upwind, and thinking through the knowledge issue (instead of the narrow right and wrong of the specific situation), we are trying to solve entire genres of related questions; what we generate is timeless and universal.  By teaching your audience how to think through this knowledge question, they could then use the same model to intelligently answer,

  • Is it right for the Catholic Church to forbid sex education in teens?
  • What should parents say to the children when they divorce?
  • Historically, children were told they were brought here by storks.  Was that right?

All of these questions, when you ask “this is a type of what?”, gives the same structure as the original situation.  (Hold this thought in mind: in your presentation, you will need to show these additional examples.)  The art here is to choose a suitable scope that is not too narrow (Jack Nicholson –[is a]–> boy; sister  –[is a]–> parent) nor too broad (Jack Nicholson –[is a]–> creature; sister –[is a]–> creature).

What to do when supersets fail

Even though the Superset Method usually works to generate a suitable topic, it does not always.  For example, our real-life issue could be that of a young woman Jane being kidnapped and then forcibly human trafficked; expanding it (Jane –[is a]–> young woman –[is a]–> person; trafficking –[is a]–> form of exploitation) vertically just doesn’t work.  In this particular case, one may choose to expand it horizontally by bringing in other similar real-life situations.  For example, one may bring in the cases of:

  • Alexandra, a Russian woman who voluntarily signed herself off to Spain, knowing that there is a chance of being human trafficked — and had her passport taken from her, and kept in terrible conditions for meager pay. (h/t Carmen)
  • South Asian construction workers being lured to Dubai with opportunity and wages, only to find their passports withheld, apparently in debt, and working in practically slavery conditions.

One can then generate a knowledge issue horizontally, by asking if certain kinds of exploitation is worse than others.  To fully tackle this question, one would need to consider multiple perspective, such as the culture, values, responsibility, and personal harm to the workers; it has significance, because answering the question allows us to prioritize efforts in eliminating the worse offenders.

These “horizontal” knowledge issues are amongst a larger class of knowledge issues that simply cannot be generated by the superset method, but are perfectly valid knowledge issues.  Compared to the superset-generated knowledge issues, these require more finesse and good judgment to make up.  If you want to try your hands with them, make sure you run through your knowledge issue with your teacher.

By thinking in terms of supersets (i.e., asking “this is a type of what?”), we avoid a common tendency to narrowly focus on the first issues that comes to mind (e.g., honesty), and the subsequent framing of the knowledge issue in vague terms (Is honesty always good?)

Earlier on you’ve worked on casting a list of 6 real life situations into the “one sentence, two names” format.  Take out the list, and now (i) identify the parts within the sentence.  (Coloring may help.), (ii) write down a superset for each part, and (iii) write down a superset to the supersets you’ve jotted down in step (ii).

To connect the supersets together, you will need some question words:

  • Who
  • What
  • How
  • Why
  • When
  • Where
  • Is it
  • To what extent
  • Should we
  • …and so on
As well as a link to vocabulary and concepts you’ve learnt in your Theory of Knowledge course, such as:

  • to know
  • bias
  • evidence
  • opinion
  • belief
  • context
  • argument
  • culture
  • experience
  • certainty
  • values

Try each of them out and see which one(s) conveys what you mean.  You do not always need to include an explicit link to the ToK concepts: often the question words can be expanded to, “How do you know that… [question]”.

If you have been following with the exercises, you would now have a selection of 6 pairs of real-life situation / knowledge issues to choose from.  That’s a great start.  You / your group should now work together, from the lists or otherwise, to generate a real-life situation / knowledge issue that you’re prepared to develop into the real ToK presentation.

Checkpoint 3

By now you should be able to:

Identify whether a pair of concepts are superset / subset, or unrelated to one another

State the Superset method, and explain how it relates to the thinking needed to be demonstrated in the ToK presentation

Apply the Superset method to real-life situations casted in the “One Sentence, Two Names” format

In terms of your ToK presentation, you should have:

Unfolded the above 6 “One Sentence, Two Names” real life situations into their (multi-layered) supersets,

For each set, identified the layer of abstraction that would be most fruitful to work on,

Joined these supersets together to form coherent Knowledge Issues.

As a group, identify 2–3 lead candidates RLS/KI that you all want to work on

One Last Check of the Knowledge Issue

As one of the IBO guide said, “It is common for students to make a good selection for their real-life situation but then to arrive at a very superficial knowledge question. Sometimes the question the student identifies is not even a knowledge question at all.”   Before we move onto polishing the knowledge issue, make sure that what you propose does not fall into one of the following classes:

  • Problems with narrow, technical answers are not knowledge issues: “How to prevent human trafficking”, “How can negotiations between consumers and corporations be facilitated”, “Are lethal injections painful?”  This distinguishes Knowledge Issues from a subject-specific questions, and a ToK presentation from, say, a geography presentation.
  • Problems with common-sense answers are not usually good knowledge issues: “Should gambling be encouraged?”, “Should child soldiers be legalized in all countries?”
  • Related to above two categories, close-ended questions are usually not good Knowledge Issues.
  • Problems with broad answers are worthy knowledge issues, but very hard to do justice in a 10-20 minutes presentation: “What is love?” “Is nationalism good?”

Finally, think back to all that you have been exposed to in your ToK course: areas of knowledge, ways of knowing, beliefs, certainty, culture, evidence, experience, explanation, interpretation, intuition, justification, truth, values… can your knowledge issue tie into most of these?

Polishing the Knowledge Issue

You now have a knowledge issue that you’re happy with.  Don’t be too married to that yet – polish it.18  The knowledge issue is the focus of your whole presentation.  Make it simple and make it sharp.

Going back to the Jack Nicholson example, we could have written,

  • Is it entirely appropriate for authority figures to withhold information selectively from children, so that they are protected from potential harmful effects?  If so, when do they ought to do so and when should they do the otherwise? —[JN.1]

It’s not wrong, but it’s unnecessarily verbose.  (Long words grants security.)  Thinking practically: you want your audience to be able to hold the theme in their heads.  Thinking aesthetically: simplicity is elegance.  Don’t use 3-syllables words when a 1-syllable word would do.

Be careful of the connotations your words have.  We could have simplify this to,

  • When is it right for authority figures to hide information from children? —[JN.2]

Hide, in this case, have a negative connotation.  It feels very differently if we have asked,

  • Should authority figures protect children from too much information? —[JN.3]

Strive to be neutral, so you’re not hemmed in a position even before you start.19  In this case we could have gone with,

  • When is it right for authority to withhold information from children? —[JN.4]

It’s neutral, but I personally find this anemic, and prefer to setup the conflict,

  • When is it right for authority to hide information from children to protect them? —[JN.5]

This is connected to the ToK world by its implicit interpretation of, “How do we know when it’s right […]”.  As I mentioned earlier, identifying a good knowledge issue is critically important, but one that will likely require iterative editing.  Some things to look for when you’re editing:

  1. Are there multiple questions in your knowledge issue?  If yes, it usually indicates that either (a) the scope is too broad, (b) there are too many disconnected elements, or (c) the phrasing is redundant.  [JN.1] is an exhibit of redundancy: there is no reason to first ask for existence (“is it”), and then degree (“if so, when”).  “When” is fine — zero/non-existence is simply a particular setting for degree.
  2. Realistically, do you have time to look at other instances that falls inside the same superset?  If not, your topic is too broad.  As an example, we could have come up with “What should authority figures do?” — but “do” includes so many things that we cannot possibly talk about it sensibly in 1000 minutes.
  3. Can your knowledge issue bring forth “other applications” that have an element of surprise?  If not, your scope might be too narrow.  We try to solve a hard problem not because it’s hard, but because it’s valuable, that it can shed light on things your audience didn’t even consider.

Now polish your identified knowledge issue.

By now you should have a focused, cleanly worded, and sharp knowledge issue.  Congratulations — you have prepared a solid stage.  In the next part, we’ll grow a “Wheel of Stickies” around the knowledge issue and use it to ensure that we’ve looked at the knowledge issue from different perspectives (Areas of Knowledge) and using evidence of different natures (Ways of Knowing).

Checkpoint 4

By now you should be able to:

Identify whether a particular Knowledge Issue proposal is unsuitable for the presentation (too narrow, too technical, too broad, or too shallow / cannot be scrutinized from multiple perspectives)

Simplify and sharpen knowledge issues

In terms of your ToK presentation, you should have:

ensure that the 2–3 lead candidate Knowledge Issues are appropriate

sharpened the 2–3 lead candidate Knowledge Issues

agree to one Real Life Situation / Knowledge Issue pair that you will work on for the actual presentation

read broadly around the agreed Knowledge Issue (see suggestions under Further Readings below)

Further readings

The IBO Knowledge Issues Matrix.  This contains guidance as well as examples of good and bad knowledge issues.

Once you have decided on a Knowledge Issue, you should read broadly about it.  Again, websites are pale imitations of scholarly work.  Use the libraries you have available to you.  Browse the online catalogs, but also walk the aisles and let serendipity work its magic.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a scholarly resource available online.  Some of the articles may be too technical for non-professional philosophers (like you and I) to fully digest, but you should nonetheless try.  Even if you are not getting the entire gist, note down key arguments and perspectives that was considered.  Each of the entry has a reference list, which is a good jumping off point for more readings on your own.

Mining Connections

The previous parts described how to identify a real-life situation (“One Sentence, Two Names”), and how to extract a knowledge issue from that (“Superset!”).  In this section you will learn to develop the knowledge issue comprehensively using the “wheelie of stickies” method.20  For this you will ideally have

  • 2 colors of stickies / post-its (3″ yellow ones work fine)
  • post-it flags of 4 colors (optional; can replace with color markers)
  • chalkboard+chalk, or whiteboard+marker
  • camera (optional)

You must have a real-life situation and knowledge issue identified.  Before working on the real presentation — in which you will showcase what you learnt in your ToK course — you should have a good handle on your ToK course.  Check your handle by browsing through the vocabulary list available here: you should be able to explain every term. If not, you have some reading to do.

As with the previous sections, instead of working with a hypothetical situation, I’ll show you how this worked using Paula and Fabiana’s preparation as example 21  Their real-life situation and knowledge issue is:

The Wheelie Stickies method is a simple 4-step procedure that generally takes about 1.5–2 hours to complete:

[insert illustrations for each of these steps]

Step 1: Begin by jotting on the stickies anything you can think of relevant to the topicPaste them on the board.

For example, Fabiana and Paula had these (and others) scattered on the board at this point:

  • “I am Bolivian” (Fabi is Bolivian, one of the cultures affected by the UN declaration)
  • Cocaine can be extracted from coca leaves
  • some drugs with high social cost (alcohol, cigarettes) is legalized
  • Coca leaves are not addictive
  • “Mexico is affected by the drug trade” (Paula is from Mexico, a country torn by the drug trade)
  • Coca leaves are used by miners to sustain 24 hour work-shifts
  • Coca leaves have medicinal uses
  • Coca leaves are traditionally considered to be a gift from Pacha Mamma, the Mother Earth goddess.
  • The knowledge issue encompasses practices like (female) circumcision in Africa, polygamy in ME, cousin marriages (with attendant diseases) in S Asia, or cannibalism in Polynesia.

Do Not “Fight a Corner”

Many students believe their task is be persuasion.  It’s not.  The ToK presentation is for you to show us that you can be open-minded and consider a broad, abstract knowledge issue from multiple perspective.  “Open-minded” and “defending a position” are mutually incompatible.

Before you can let go of pre-existing notions and personal biases, you need to recognize that they exist.  This is where the partner-with-different-background and guidance from your teacher comes in.

Each of these are related points that may or may not be used in the presentation.  The idea is to get this on paper so that

  1. You do not need to hold it in your head
  2. Your partner/teacher can see the train of thought
  3. …you can use it for the next step!

Step 2: Setup the ToK dimensions (AoK, WoK), and arrange-tag the stickies.


  1. In the middle of the board, write “How would __ think about this?”, and have all the Areas of Knowledge (AoKs) radiating out from it.  Write “ethics philosopher”, “natural scientists” etc.
  2. Pluck and place the stickies in a relevant spot.  E.g., “coca leaves are shown to not be addictive” is placed in the natural scientist quadrant.

Difference between “Thinking like a Historian” and “The history of”

Note that “how a historian think” is not the same as “the history of”.  Thinking as a historian about coca leaves may involve thinking about the origins of a source document, placing an event in context, or corroborating different sources.  The history of coca leaves is a description of how coca leaves were used.  The first is what we want to see you do.

As a further example, “thinking like a scientist” is not the same as “the science of”.  Thinking like a scientist about coca leaves may involve examining the nature of the evidence used to support the arguments, in particular, looking for flaws in their reproducibility or statistical power.  The science of coca leaves might just be a description of the what molecules are involved, which neuroreceptors are targeted, and so on.

The latter (“the X of ___”) is usually nice background to have, but they are not what we’re looking for.  This is a very common pitfall that you need to avoid.

It’s not always going to be clean — some stickies may seem to fit in multiple categories, and others may seem to fit in none.  That’s OK — life is always a mess of exception and corner cases.  You may want to devise different ways to handle the exceptions.  Next…

On the side of the board, make a legend for the Ways of Knowing (WoKs).  You had 4 flags of different color: each of these flag is going to be used to “tag” a particular sticky as something known through a particular way of knowing.  I recommend a convention of…

  • red: emotions
  • blue: perception
  • green: reason
  • yellow: language

Now tag each sticky with a flag.

As with the previous AoK exercise, you may find there to be one sticky with multiple tags, and stickies with no tags.  Stickies with multiple tags are often the rule rather than the exception, but stickies with no tag need attention.  After all, we know a fact through one or more means.

Step 3: Fill in the gap.

This is the reason why we go through the above steps.  Most complex issues can be approached differently.  Look at the wheel: is it lop-sided?  Most alarmingly, are there AoKs that are entirely unpopulated?  This shows that maybe you’ve been over-focussed on some aspect but ignored others.23

The same applies to the tags: are there WoK that are completely unused?  If there is, is there a good reason why?

What we have done in this step is to convert the “unknown unknown” into the “known unknown”.  We discover the gap in our thinking (some justified, some not), and can now attempt to fill it in.  Focussed literature search (digital or library-wise) or speaking with your teacher would be highly helpful here.

As an example, Paula and Fabi discovered that “linguistic”/”language” is completely unoccupied.  That alerted them to think and search for how language can bias the thinking of the issue.  (The fruit of their search: the UN placed coca leaves in the Narcotics Act.  The definition of narcotics is a mind-altering substance.  Scientific studies have shown that the chewing of coca leaves does not alter the mind: in this case, the very word assumes what science disproved!)

Step 4: Abstract the specifics.

Most of the considerations laid out would have been specific to your real-life situation.  What are they representative of?  In other words, what are their supersets?  We need to abstract the specific considerations.  For example,

  • “Coca leaves do not cause health problems” is a kind of short term harm evaluation (to the individual)
  • “Coca leaves are not addictive” is a kind of long term harm evaluation (to the individual)
  • “Coca leaves help grueling labor” is a kind of practical benefits to the user

At this point, you should have a large, sprawling, and complete set of notes about the real-life situation as well as the KI.  If you have a camera, it’s a good idea to take a picture now.  The intellectual hard-lifting is done.  All that remains is to thoughtfully communicate this to your audience, the subject of the last part in this series.

Alternative, space-saving layout

Don’t have access to a board?  Prefer to type than write?  That’s OK – the physical implementation is secondary.  Brea D., for example, started with an Evernote document, which she printed, “tagged” with color pencils, and cut into little strips.  These tagged strips are what she organizes:

The Two Layered Presentation

[Write this section] [cautionary note about fighting corners; making sure the understanding of the theories are actually right!  Ensure connections, similarities/differences; download videos instead of jumping out to browsers] [Prepare and record a sample Jack Nicholson ToK presentation, edit, and upload to youtube.]
  • Anonymous

    WHY?!?! Can you please finish this? I’m really relying on this great website!! Just one more step to go about the formatting of a TOK presentation! My TOK presentation is coming soon.. D:

    • Jon

      Thanks for the compliments. I do not teach ToK this year or the next, and with the staffing of our school I’m probably never going to get to teach ToK again. I might still touch up on what’s left over the summer, but this is probably too late for you… :|

      • Anonymous

        That’s too bad to not be teaching TOK anymore. You seem like a really good teacher… :(

  • Adam

    you mean?

  • yolz100

    Thank you so much! You gave such great guidance for the plan I now understand how to build my presentation. You are awesome!