How do you know what you know?
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How do you know what you know?

How do you distinguish between opinion, belief and knowledge? Callum Philbin on discovering Theory of Knowledge and its value for the ‘real’ world.

By Callum Philbin, English and Theory of Knowledge

Do you even want to keep reading after two annoying and unnecessary questions? I certainly hope you decide to continue, but I don’t know the answer to that. Yet, like many things on the Theory of Knowledge (TOK) course it isn’t really about the answers we give, more about the questions we pose, or is this all starting to sound too much like the dialogue of a Christopher Nolan movie?

Ms Van Hal’s class puzzling hard on ‘How do you know what you know?’.

What is TOK? For starters, it has nothing to do with TikTok, which upsets many of our students. It is a practical course where we investigate the nature of knowledge in a variety of contexts, questioning how knowledge is made and tested. It intersects with the area of philosophy known as epistemology: the study of knowledge (how many more times will I have to use the word ‘knowledge’ in this piece?) through examining its nature and limits.

Distinguishing fact from fiction

Mr Philbin’s class questioning how long is left in the lesson

We live in interesting times, and across the political spectrum I think we can all agree that critical thinking, and the ability to distinguish fact from fiction, knowledge from opinion, is something that our societies require from its citizens now more than ever before. Throw into our post-truth age, a cocktail that is two parts advancement in technology, and one part the struggle for schools to progress from an industrial model, and we have the need for a subject that allows a future generation to thrive in approaching the 21st century problems and opportunities. This is where TOK comes in. 

Their own beliefs and assumptions

In TOK, we ask students to question their own reality, and to view knowledge not as a bunch of facts, but as a collection of individual and shared understandings. Through this approach we get students to explore their experiences and ask them to reflect on their own beliefs and assumptions. It is part of the core programme because it is useful for students across their subjects as they examine the construction of knowledge through interdisciplinary connections.

This understanding is then applied to real life situations. Students will be entering an uncertain future after school where the only clear constant will be change; TOK presents them with the methods and tools to be successful in critically analysing the varied challenges and potentialities to come.

What is a bitterballen?

Having just joined ISUtrecht, and being new to The Netherlands, I am also asking some TOK-type questions to make sense of my new reality. Like how have I lived so long without eating Tony Chocolonely or why are my Dutch colleagues obsessed with cheese toasties? Also, what is a bitterballen and where do I get it? All these questions and more can be approached with the insights that TOK offers. However, we largely spend asking the bigger questions, like to what extent does culture determine what we believe or know?

It has been nice to share that journey of nascent understandings with my DP1 students who are also embarking on new experiences through this course. Hopefully TOK will be useful for their engagement within their subjects across the diploma, and I, along with the other TOK teachers, Ms. Geertje Van Hal and Ms. Olivia Ayes, are excited about the conversations and debates that we will be having over the next two years.