Knowledge Questions (KQs) are the heart of the Theory of Knowledge course in the DP, yet it is not unusual to find many students and (let’s say this quietly), even some teachers who do not seem to grasp what they are and what they are for. If you read the IBO guidelines on TOK you will find explanations of the nature of KQs as well as a table of examples of good KQs, acceptable KQs, not so good KQs and questions which are not KQs at all. Whilst most students seem to cope pretty well when presented with this table problems begin when they encounter KQs, or potential KQs outside that context. Moreover, they also struggle to formulate KQs out of Real Life Situations (RLS) or from topics they have explored in their main subjects. Given that the two pieces of TOK assessment (the essay and the presentation) involve, respectively, deconstructing a KQ and creating a KQ it seems rather critical that students should feel confident about doing both. This time we’ll focus on identifying and constructing a Knowledge Question.

Identifying a Knowledge Question

Knowledge Questions are essentially about one thing and one thing only, knowledge. Its nature (what it is and what it isn’t), scope (what it covers in each Area of Knowledge), methods (how knowledge is acquired) and limitations (what can be known, what cannot be known, degrees of certainty). The way to recognize a KQ is, or should be, relatively simple, yet it is clear that this is more of a challenge than it should be for many DP students. One of the most effective ways of identifying whether a question is a genuine KQ or not, is to ask what the question is really about, what its focus is, which issue it is expecting to be explored. Let’s look at a couple of examples:

“What are the conclusions from the study of primary sources about the fall of the Soviet Union?”

This is not a KQ, it’s focus is what conclusions can be drawn from a particular type of sources in a specified topic in History. It is about interpretations drawn from a collection of documents but it is not about knowledge. Let’s see what this might look like if reformulated as a KQ.

“To what extent are conclusions drawn from primary sources about the fall of the Soviet Union necessarily more reliable than those from secondary sources?”

This is a KQ because its focus is the quality of knowledge gained from using different types of sources.

“Is intuition important in the natural sciences?”

Whilst intuition is one of the Ways of Knowing and natural sciences are one of the Areas of Knowledge, this question is about intuition and not knowledge. Let’s turn this into a KQ.

“To what extent is knowledge gained by intuition in the natural sciences testable?”

This is a KQ because its focus is whether scientific knowledge gained through intuition is verifiable.

Constructing a Knowedge Question

Constructing a good KQ from a RLS or subject topic is essential for the success of TOK presentations and to this we now turn. One of the best ways of doing this is, having chosen your RLS or topic, is drawing a knowledge claim from them. Once you have done this, choose a TOK feature of the knowledge claim and construct a KQ from it. Let’s see what this might look like.

Let’s say you read an interesting article about poor countries and free markets policies. You have concluded from reading the article that “Free market policies are the only way of lifting countries out of poverty.” This is your knowledge claim, now let’s try and extract a KQ from it. The first thing to do is to identify a knowledge issue, this can be done by simply asking “how do you know?” A number of things should suggest themselves at this point, maybe such as GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth as the standard way of measuring a country’s economic performance. You could then, for example, focus on whether GDP is the most accurate way of measuring economic growth. Your KQ could look like this.

“To what extent does GDP give a more accurate way of measuring economic growth than GPI?”

This a KQ because its focus is the relative merits of two different methods for producing accurate knowledge about economic growth. Obviously for a TOK presentation, the above question would be given focus and relevance through the RLS which produced it in the first place. One of the real virtues of good KQs and their ability to be used in a range of RLS and this is one way of assessing how good your KQ is.

Knowledge Questions can look frustratingly broad and general which gives the impression that they are vague and about not very much at all. Knowledge Questions are meant to be so for they are expected to be open-ended, to produce a range of potential answers or at least gradated in terms of the degree to which each possible answer may be believed to be correct.