Epistemological Inquiry – Preparing for the Theory of Knowledge course in the MYP Classroom

Disclaimer: This article is a draft of thoughts that are still developing. A canvas for connections that are still being made. I have published it in its draft form to share with friends and colleagues for feedback. If you have miraculously found this blog whilst it is still in its infancy and likely still unrecognised by even Google however, your thoughts and feedback are welcome in the comments section.

In this article I compare elements of the MYP unit plan and the Theory of Knowledge curriculum and reflect on how an MYP Sciences course might be structured to better prepare students for TOK. 

When I was asked to join the Theory of Knowledge department at my school, I was excited to explore a subject that was always a bit of a mystery to me. Now that I’ve spent some time teaching the course, I’m starting to reflect on what impact the experience might have on my capacity to better prepare my MYP students for their first encounter with the Theory of Knowledge course.

In TOK we spend a lot of time identifying knowledge claims and knowledge questions, which are absent from the MYP vocabulary. Whilst the usefulness of both first and second order knowledge claims are described in the TOK Guide, only second order knowledge questions are discussed. Their definitions and intended uses are;

First Order Knowledge Claimsclaims made within an area of knowledge about the world. These will feature in examples offered in the essay and presentation illustrating the manner in which areas of knowledge go about the business of producing knowledge.

Second Order Knowledge Claimsclaims made about knowledge itself within a subject. These form the core of any piece of TOK analysis.

Knowledge Questionssecond order questions about knowledge itself that are not rooted within a subject area. They form the core line of inquiry from which second order knowledge claims are drawn, and first order knowledge claims from areas of knowledge are identified and discussed.

On knowledge questions, the TOK guide has the following to say;

“…the first task in trying to answer a TOK question is to establish an
understanding of the key concepts involved. There may be a number of different ways of thinking about these concepts. Each might give rise to a different analysis and ultimately a different answer to the question.”

TOK Guide (2015)

This is where we find an explicit connection to the MYP framework. MYP teachers are taught to plan units by constructing a statement of inquiry that consists of key and related concepts and a global context. Whilst global contexts might be useful for preparing students for other areas of the IB Core, it is the key and related concepts that appear to give us our best opportunity to explore first and second order knowledge claims within the MYP. The definitions of both from the MYP Guide are given below;

Key concepts – are broad, organizing, powerful ideas that have relevance within and across subjects and disciplines, providing connections that can transfer across time and culture.

Related concepts – grounded in specific disciplines, explore key concepts in greater detail, providing depth to the programme. They emerge from reflection on the nature of specific subjects and disciplines, providing a focus for inquiry into subject-specific content.

It is worth noting here that from their definitions, it is apparent why an understanding of key concepts is required for the successful answering of TOK questions; these are inherently interdisciplinary and more likely to address second order knowledge claims. Related concepts on the other hand are rooted in first order claims and are the basis of disciplinary education. Understanding this, we can now recognise the statement of inquiry as a second order concept that is being explored through the first order concepts within that discipline.

example 1: Scientists observe patterns and use them to construct systems that explain how the world works. (MYP Sciences Guide, 2014)

Students explore the second order concept of knowledge existing across a system using the scientific concepts that scientists use patterns of observation to construct models in science and that these models can be used to explain further observations.

example 2: Systems that are designed to meet an individual’s ergonomic requirements can increase their ability to function within the world. (MYP Design Guide, 2014)

This time students explore the second order concept that knowledge exists across a system using the design concepts of function and ergonomics.

example 3: Nations form alliances to protect their military, cultural and economic interests. (Individuals and Societies Guide, 2014)

In this final example, students explore the second order concept of systems using the individuals and societies concepts of conflict and cooperation.

Looking at these three examples together, we get a view of how students in the MYP should be prepared to discuss second order knowledge claims by the time that they reach the diploma programme. Are we making these connections explicit enough to our students? Are we making these connections explicit enough to our teachers?

For many teachers new to the MYP, these concepts can seem a little abstract and their utility in teaching content knowledge and skills can feel a little vague. If this impression percists, these concepts fail to become more than a guide in the planning process and rarely enter class discourse in any meaningful way.

The MYP Guide does not treat key and related concepts so lightly, explicitly stating that;

  • Students need multiple opportunities to explore the concepts defined for each subject or discipline. Students should have meaningful inquiry into all of the key and related concepts for each relevant subject group at least once over the course of the MYP.
  • Over the course of the programme, students need to develop an understanding of the key and related concepts at increasing levels of sophistication and abstraction.
  • Summative assessments should offer students opportunities to reach the highest levels of achievement with regard to their conceptual knowledge and understanding.

How do we achieve “meaningful inquiry into all of the key and related concepts” in our classroom? For this, the MYP introduces us to inquiry questions…

Generating Conceptual Thinking and Inquiry in the MYP Classroom

To achieve meaningful inquiry (Beyond asking students to simply research a problem), the guide asks that we direct the teaching and learning that takes place using a framework of three types of inquiry questions

Factual Questions – Challenge students to remember and describe a narrow range of correct answers. Promote recall and comprehension.

Conceptual Questions – Challenge students to analyse broader ideas with many correct interpretations. Promote analysis and application.

Debatable Questions – Challenge students to evaluate perspectives that involve a value judgement.  Promote synthesis and evaluation.

[Do we need to address the already clear connections to Bloom’s cognitive domains here? Don’t want to move the conversation to cognitive domains, but it strengthens the argument that we should move through Factual -> Conceptual to a final Debatable stance where students synthesise or evaluate a problem or solution]

It strikes me that it is the progression towards conceptual and debatable questions that prepares our students for their time in TOK by directing the teaching and learning towards discussions around key and related concepts. In fact, the existence of a value judgement in debatable questions has already been identified as an opportunity for students to develop and justify a stance in a way that is similar to how Theory of Knowledge students are asked to deal with knowledge claims. (TheMYPTeacher)

In a nutshell that is it: MYP units best prepare students for TOK by progressing from factual questions about content to conceptual questions and claims about the key and related concepts that the unit is based on, especially when a question or claim holds a value judgement that requires the student to develop and justify a stance using their conceptual understanding. 

The question now is how do we best achieve this and what might that look like?

  • A conscious and communicated effort to highlight the overarching concepts between disciplines will strengthen students ability to work with key concepts. For this to occur, departments need combined planning time to discuss overarching concepts to ensure that conceptual understandings are harmonious across the teaching body and are therefore harmonious across the teaching and learning that occurs.
  • Enhancement of the MYP vocabulary to strengthen connections between the programme and TOK.  For example, in the sciences a laboratory assessment would be understood as a vehicle for students to synthesise  and test knowledge claims using their observations and data. Essay tasks are seen as an opportunity for students to evaluate first order knowledge claims. Further to an enhancement of the language, could opportunities for reflection on and/or assessment of conceptual understandings of second order claims that use key concepts be better built into the MYP unit planning process? Perhaps this is another utility for journaling/ePortfolios, or perhaps it is a further interpretation of the assessment criteria. (I will try to wrangle with this in the example below) 
  • Interdisciplinary connections are powerful opportunities for students to realise the second order nature of key concepts. If interdisciplinary units were planned by not just subject teachers of the subjects involved, but experienced TOK teachers then perhaps this opportunity could be taken better advantage of. 

Lenny Dutton has already create a wonderful array of concept driven questions and claims that can be used in various subject areas to allow students to practice developing and justifying conceptual understandings. (ExcitedEducator.com)

Achieving Conceptual Understandings Through Critical Thinking

Until this point we have focused on the conceptual understandings that need to be developed in the MYP for preparation of the TOK course. We have identified that units that push beyond factual questioning and that challenge students to analyse the key and related concepts in their unit and to apply them to real life situations prepare students to successfully establish an understanding of the key concepts in order to successfully answer a knowledge question. Further to this, we have seen that debatable questions might further challenge students to defend a value judgement in much the same way that they might in a TOK essay.

Now I would like to turn towards the Approaches to Learning in the MYP; specifically the critical thinking skills. The TOK guide opens with the line ‘TOK is a course about critical thinking and inquiry…’ and so it is no surprise that the critical thinking ATL’s stand out as an area in TOK and MYP can work toward a common goal. Below I have place these ATL’s in a numbered list so that they can be easily referenced later on.

  1. Practise observing carefully in order to recognize problems
  2. Gather and organize relevant information to formulate an argument
  3. Recognize unstated assumptions and bias
  4. Interpret Data
  5. Evaluate evidence and arguments
  6. Recognize and evaluate propositions
  7. Draw reasonable conclusions and generalizations
  8. Test generalizations and conclusions
  9. Revise understanding based on new information and evidence
  10. Evaluate and manage risk
  11. Formulate factual, topical, conceptual and debatable questions
  12. Consider ideas from multiple perspectives
  13. Develop contrary or opposing arguments
  14. Analyse complex concepts and projects into their constituent parts and synthesize them to create new understanding
  15. Propose and evaluate a variety of solutions
  16. Identify obstacles and challenges
  17. Use models and simulations to explore complex systems and issues
  18. Identify trends and forecast possibilities
  19. Troubleshoot systems and applications

Immediately we see that we have have been addressing an ATL all along in discussing the formation of factual, conceptual and debatable questions (11). There are also ATL’s for considering ideas from multiple perspectives (12) and developing contrary or opposing arguments (13), both of which are important skills for building an essay in TOK.

Below I attempt to give an example using a sample unit play from the MYP Sciences guide. 

An Example: The MYP Sciences

The Key Concepts in the sciences are Change, Relationships and Systems.

Change is a conversion, transformation or movement from one form, state or value to another. Inquiry into the concept of change involves understanding and evaluating causes, processes and consequences.

Relationships are the connections and associations between properties, objects, people and ideas — including the human community’s connections with the world in which we live. Any change in relationship brings consequences—some of which may occur on a small scale, while others may be far-reaching, affecting large networks and systems such as human societies and the planetary ecosystem.

Systems are sets of interacting or interdependent components. Systems provide structure and order in human, natural and built environments. Systems can be static or dynamic, simple or complex.

Statement of
Scientists observe patterns and use them to construct systems that explain how the world works.
Patterns, Development, Models
Personal and Cultural Expression

In this unit, one might ask the following knowledge questions (Taken from the TOK Guide)

  • How can one decide when one model/explanation/theory is better than another?
  • How can we know cause and effect relationships given that one can only ever observe correlation?


During their MYP education students use inquiry questions to explore a topic. During this justify knowledge claims made about key concepts and related concepts. During interdisciplinary experiences, students are given authentic opportunities to explore the interrelatedness of concepts between disciplines.

There must be sufficient opportunities for interdepartmental discourse for discussions around concepts to become harmonious throughout the school.