Many TOK students have no idea how to get a 10/10 on their TOK Essay. The criteria seems so opaque and vague that it is hard for many to grasp what the IB expects from a good TOK essay. Luckily, the IB has some marked examples. By deconstructing them, we can see what we need to do so that we can get that 10/10.
For this series, we will be looking at one essay that scored a 10/10 and break it down into sections. We will look at the following essay:
The prompt for the essay is:
Are disputes over knowledge claims within a discipline always resolvable? Answer this question by comparing and contrasting disciplines taken from two AOKs.
This essay was given a mark of 10/10 by the IB with the following comments:
This is an example of an excellent essay. It was awarded a mark of 10/10. The discussion of the natural and human sciences is clear, effective and balanced. Various perspectives are evaluated, and the implications of the attempts to resolve the various disputes are drawn. This is an accomplished TOK exploration
Let’s take a look at some of the things that made this essay an excellent one, and how discussion was able to be described as clear, effective and balanced!
So what did the student do right in the introduction that set them up for success in the later paragraphs?
I think there are several things here that are worth mentioning:
Starting with a relevant hook
Defining the key terms in the prompt
Discussing the reason behind choosing the prompt
Outlining the AOKs chosen for the prompt
Signposting the arguments/thesis of the TOK essay
What distinguishes a good introduction from a bad one often starts from the very first sentence. You often see examples where students use a quotation from a famous author or philosopher. However, this is often done unsuccessfully because students don’t explain the relevance of the quote to the prescribed title, it is often a cliched and overused quote or it does not add value to the essay.
With this particular example, they began with:
Disputes over knowledge claims within disciplines constantly arise as man constantly pushes the boundaries of our knowledge. Disputes arise when facts within the domain are either unexplainable or contradictions exist between propositions.
Straight away, in the first two sentences, the student addresses a relevant point in the prescribed title. They explain the concept of “disputes” and its relevance to TOK and the prescribed title. By explaining what it is, and how it might occur, this ‘hook’ sets a nice opening for the essay by demonstrating to the examiner that they understand the context of the prescribed title within the TOK course; that is, they explained how disputes is relevant to how we produce, acquire and disseminate knowledge. This gives them a framework to discuss disputes in their arguments and make sure that when they are talking about disputes, it is clear from how they defined it in the beginning, what they are saying.
The takeaway from this is that the hook does not need to be overly flourished. Often students try to sound sophisticated by including what seems to be a ‘deep’ or insightful quote, but this is not very effective. What is effective is a clear sentence or two that deconstructs a key concept in the prompt with relation to TOK (knowledge) which allows you to make clear and coherent arguments.
Defining key terms
On a similar note, other key terms within the prescribed title should be defined.
The student defined what they meant by ‘disputes’ and also ‘resolvable’.
In this essay, theoretical and practical disputes will be discussed. Theoretical disputes are differing knowledge claims, arrived at using prior theories and unsubstantiated by empirical evidence. Practical disputes refer to contradictions between claims that are formulated from empirical data. ‘Resolvable’ is the act of dismissing or reconciling conflicting claims.
They narrowed down to the specific disputes they will be discussing, which allows them to give a nuanced answer to the prescribed title. Your prescribed title might have a similar broad concept like ‘disputes’, but it can be helpful to split that into different types like ‘practical’ and ‘theoretical’ disputes to have a more precise definition that allows you to explore the concept in a more nuanced way. This sets up the student’s essay to discuss the differences in how different disputes can be or cannot be resolved, giving an insightful answer to the prescribed title.
They also define ‘resolvable’ so that it is clear the standard that they will be evaluating against.
A weaker TOK student may simply have a single definition of disputes as ‘competing perspectives and knowledge claims’ but doesn’t delve into the specific ways they occur such as differences in how they occur theoretically or practically as this 10/10 example does. They may also not define ‘resolvable’ at all and simply lets the examiner guess what it means. The conclusion they come up with, then, will be a lot less nuanced. They may arrive at the answer that ‘disputes are sometimes resolvable and sometimes not’ but they cannot truly explain what types of disputes are resolvable and what resolvable means. So, it is very important to define these key terms in your prompt, so that you can set yourself up to give a nuanced answer to the prescribed title.
Implications for the prompt
The student highlights the reason they chose to explore the prompt:
Discussing whether disputes over knowledge claims are always resolvable would shed more light on how to go about addressing future disputes, and important factors to consider when faced with contradictory claims.
Perhaps obviously, this prescribed title allows us to consider what we would do when we receive contradicting information. Which version of facts do we trust and how do we decide to resolve the discrepancy in information? The student explains quite clearly and simply that, by looking at this title, they would better understand what to do and why we do what we do when dealing with contradicting views.
You could probably come up with that on your own as well and you may have a few ideas about why your own prescribed title is important to look at. However, many students don’t explain this. Many students neglect to mention WHY they chose this prompt or WHY this prompt is interesting and important in the context of TOK and knowledge production, acquisition or dissemination. It is not a particularly challenging thing to include, it is just one that is often forgotten. Including this is very important, as it shows your thought into the prescribed title from the introduction and shows to the examiner why they should read this essay. So in some ways, it should have a persuasive undertone to it as well.
Areas of Knowledge
The student introduces his two AOKs chosen for the prompt – Natural Sciences and Human Sciences:
In this essay, the discipline of Physics from the Natural Sciences and the discipline of Psychology from the Human Sciences will be compared and contrasted to justify the perspective that the resolvability of a dispute within a discipline largely depends on the nature of the dispute.
The student even mentioned the specific subject within each AOK. This is not required, but if your TOK essay only focuses on a particular subject for each AOK, you can do this as well.
It may seem obvious at first, but many students often forget to mention what they selected as their two AOKs when the prompt does not prescribe the AOKs you must explore. At a minimum, you need to tell the examiner in the introduction what AOKs you have chosen, or if they are given to you, what AOKs were given to you.
However, I believe there is room to improve on this, even in a 10/10 essay. The student could have explained why he chose those two AOKs and how they can promote the contrast and comparisons he intends to discuss in an additional sentence. This can show his engagement again with the TOK essay process and make it even more ‘lucid’. If the AOKs are given to you, this is not necessary. If you needed to choose an additional AOK, you can explain why you chose that AOK to contrast and compare with the one given in your prescribed title.
An excellent quality of this introduction is how the student always outlines what he intends to discuss in the main body of the essay. You will note they always use ‘in this essay, … will be discussed’. This makes it abundantly clear what the essay is about and shows to the examiner that your TOK essay will not be a wild tangent on the prescribed title, but rather, you have planned in advance how you will address the title and answer it in a systematic way. The student ends the introduction with a clear thesis:
to justify the perspective that the resolvability of a dispute within a discipline largely depends on the nature of the dispute.
He has given a preliminary answer to the prescribed title. This is a good approach because starting with a ‘basic’ answer to the title allows you to develop and change your answer as you introduce arguments and counter arguments in your body paragraphs, before arriving at an evolved conclusion.
You can consider giving a ‘first impressions’ answer to your prescribed title, and that can form the basis of your thesis as well.
One big flaw…
One thing I would criticise about this introduction though, is the lack of first person. The TOK Essay should be a personal, academic piece of writing. The tone of your writing should strike the balance between academic and personally reflective. You should aim to write in both first and third person.
In the example, there is not a single “I” or “my” used. You can incorporate some sentence starters like “I initially believe that….”, or “At first glance, I understood … to be” and a variety of other sentences which show this is your insight and not fact. This will elevate the introduction to an even higher level.
To sum up:
The introduction of a TOK essay should be a stepping stone. It invites the examiner into your essay and gives them a good impression that you have a structured, clear and coherent argument. Essentially, you know what you are talking about (even when you don’t). It should provide a framework from which to guide your body paragraphs and allow you to deliver a nuanced conclusion.
Let’s take a look at the body paragraphs and how they were able to achieve a clear, effective and balanced discussion.
Starting with clear claims and counterclaims.
The author of the TOK essay writes very clearly and coherently about his arguments. This is achieved by starting each new idea with a very clear claim, using the words of the prescribed title, to give an answer.
The Essay has 1 main claim and 1 counterclaim.
Theoretical disputes may be resolved using evidence obtained through experimentation.
Practical disputes may arise from differences in interpretation, and this affects the resolvability of the knowledge disputes
The student defined and outlined the differences between theoretical and practical disputes. Now, it guides them to answer the title. You will note that for each claim, he uses the words within the prescribed title, such as “disputes” and “resolvability”. Their claims are also not vaguely connected to TOK; they specifically include the use of the twelve concepts. “Evidence” for his claim and “Interpretation” for his counterclaim. It shows that his arguments are grounded within the TOK syllabus.
You see the structure of the essay clearly through these topic sentences. The student first introduces how disputes over knowledge claims can be resolvable. As the title required, explaining how the two AOKs fits with this argument and provides the necessary examples. They then argues with themselves, providing a counterargument through different types of disputes.
Continuing on with the theme of the claim and counterclaims, the student’s chosen examples effectively supports the arguments they make.
For the claim that “theoretical disputes could be resolved by experimentation”, they gave an example in each AOK. For the Natural Sciences, they mentioned how disputes surrounding Newton’s theoretical model of earth was ultimately resolved by geodetic expeditions. Meanwhile, for the Human Sciences, they used the “Nature vs Nurture” debate in psychology and how it was resolved by the Twin Study.
You can clearly see the links between the examples and the claim the student is making. There is a theoretical dispute (i.e. Newton’s theoretical model vs Cassin’s or Nature vs Nurture) in different AOKs, but both could be resolved by experimentation (i.e. geodetic expeditions or Twin Studies, respectively). They are solidly within the chosen AOKs. One in Physics for the Natural Sciences and the other in Psychology, part of the human sciences.
These examples are not too complicated for an IB student to understand. Even without studying IB Physics or Psychology, you should be able to understand the significance of knowledge in these areas presented by these examples. That is what examiners are looking for, as they are unlikely to be an expert in Physics or Psychology and the like.
When they are relatively simple (but not too simple!) and relevant, it shouldn’t take you anymore than 3-4 sentences to give a brief description of the example as the student has done here. As we can blatantly see how it relates to the claim, you don’t waste words trying to explain how the example ‘fits’ into your claim.
Using the examples well
After overcoming the struggle of choosing relevant and straightforward examples, students often have a hard time using it to illustrate the point they are making. They can get up to the step of describing the example, but when needing to explain the significance of the example to the essay and how it provides an answer to the prescribed title, they struggle. This step is what I call ‘extrapolating from the example to the whole AOK’. You can see that the student has done that really well here. This is the biggest area where students can demonstrate it is a great TOK essay.
Looking at the claim again, after introducing the aforementioned examples in Physics and Psychology, the student extrapolates these examples into issues of methodology. They discuss how these examples show that the Scientific method used in the examples demonstrate the importance of empirical evidence within the AOKs of Natural and Human Sciences. Thus, this empiricism provides a path to resolve theoretical disputes. The student shows how this is seen in the examples where experimental evidence (empiricism) is used to resolve different theoretical claims both in Psychology and Physics. However, that is not the end of the discussion. They go further into the arguments of ‘always solvable’ and again focus on the wider methodology of the AOK rather than the example specifically, arguing that the logical development of claims over time leads to disputes that can be resolved by experimentation, hence being always resolvable. You can see that, at the end of the essay, the examples are not mentioned. The examples are used as a tool to explore the wider issues within the AOK, and in general, arguments should be made about the AOK as a whole, not about how your claim manifests in the example itself.
One way you can learn to generalise from your examples is to make sure you are always talking about the AOK in general and not your examples after you have introduced them. I would suggest the following flow to your paragraphs:
Introduce your example for the AOK (2-4 sentences)
What does the example show about the AOK? (this could be methodological issues, peculiarities, issues of bias, strengths of the AOK, etc, occasionally linking where possible to your examples)
How is this relevant to the prescribed title? (Use the situation you demonstrated in the AOK and answer the prescribed title)
Picking challenging counterarguments
I see that many people often choose contradictory counterclaims for their TOK essay. There is a difference between picking counterarguments that are contradictory and challenging. Contradictory arguments ruin the credibility of your claims as you have just showed us that what you have talked about the whole time doesn’t make any sense. Meanwhile, a challenging counterargument will discuss how in certain cases or situations your argument will fail. This will provide your TOK essay with more nuance as you would be able to step beyond the standard Yes or No, to “Yes, but only when” or “No, but when….”. This contributes to a more balanced essay. Qualifying your responses to the prescribed title is a key way to score in the higher bands.
The essay here provides a good model for how to give good counterarguments. The counterclaim comes from another case of disputes – practical disputes. They demonstrate that, while yes, some types of disputes are resolvable by experimentation, for other types of disputes they are not, hence challenging, but not contradicting what they previously said. The examples they choose are similarly relevant as we have discussed in choosing your examples and using them well.
So when choosing counterclaims, come with the mindset that “your claim is not always true”, rather than “your claim is not true”. This will ensure you have challenging but not contradictory arguments.
Use TOK Terminology
Anytime that you are discussing something, you should be trying to use TOK terminology in the essay. You don’t need to be a full-blown philosopher, but you at least need to be able to use terms like interpretation, justification, perspectives, etc. It is not wrong to say that people’s “views” differ, but you could better demonstrate your TOK understanding by using words like “interpretation” or “perspectives” instead. Topics like “bias” and “subjectivity” or “objectivity” are really good words to pick up, rather than just saying that something is “unfair” or “given more attention”.
Another thing worth mentioning is that the example uses the same words as within the prescribed title such as ‘disputes’ or ‘resolvable’. While it might be tempting to use synonyms for common words like ‘resolvable’, it is best to keep them exactly as the prescribed title is written, at least for your topic sentences so that it is clear to the examiner, you are staying focused on the title.
To sum up:
Writing the body paragraphs of the TOK essay may seem quite intimidating at first, but coming in with a plan and keeping these tips in mind will help you succeed!
Let’s take a look at how the conclusion of this essay gives it the sense of being ‘accomplished’ and how we can replicate that in our own writing.
Answer the prescribed title
The first sentence of your conclusion should be a direct answer to the prescribed title. In the example, the prescribed title is
Are disputes over knowledge claims within a discipline always resolvable? Answer this question by comparing and contrasting disciplines taken from two AOKs.
The first sentence of the conclusion:
In conclusion, whether disputes between knowledge claims are always resolvable or not, largely depends on the nature of the dispute and the nature of the AOK that the disputes fall within.
The most important thing the examiner is looking for when marking the TOK Essay and looking at your conclusion is have you addressed the prescribed title. So it is a good idea to use the exact words of the prescribed title as the example has done here to give the impression that your essay has addressed the title. You should recap the claim and counterclaim you introduced in your essay (and we have gone over that when we dissected the body paragraphs here) such as the distinctions between theoretical and practical disputes introduced by this example essay.
The example also summarises the findings to each AOK. It is good to include a sentence per AOK to address your answer to the prescribed title tailored to each AOK as well so you are fully addressing the title.
Consider the implications of your conclusion
What I would improve about this example is that the student could have elaborated more on what the conclusion of the essay meant to how we produce knowledge in the aforementioned AOKs. They touched on it briefly in the last few sentences of the introduction, suggesting that differences in interpretation could be beneficial as there would be a more comprehensive range of perspectives available for the subject matter. I would take this idea further and say something to the effect of how having conflicting perspectives that need to be resolved is not necessarily a bad thing, but could be beneficial to the way we produce knowledge as it gives the AOK a breadth of insight. This can be extended towards how we acquire knowledge as well and how we can be more critical and evaluative of the way we consider different perspectives in each AOK.
For your own essay, consider ending your essay with one or two sentences of implications of your stance. Essentially, now that you have ‘discovered something new’ after writing about the prescribed title, how has this changed the way you perceive knowledge, how you produce it, acquire it or share it with others? This can show greater engagement with the TOK syllabus and also show that you are not a mindless drone writing about TOK because you have to, but you have grown as a learner through this process.
One thing to avoid
Do not introduce new ideas in your conclusion. You may already have learned this in your Language classes, but the conclusion should be a standalone paragraph that summarises your claim and counterclaim in the essay. Continue to use the same language you used throughout the essay and don’t introduce any quotes, examples or new potential claims in the conclusion.
You may choose to refer back to any ‘hook’ you had in the introduction and circle back on it with the new insight gained through writing the essay. Beware not to make any new arguments when doing this though!
To sum up:
Conclusion is quite a simple paragraph in the TOK Essay. You may be constrained by words by the time you get to this section. The key is to sum up and provide a satisfying ending to the essay, while remaining insightful throughout.