This figure identifies the three key features that differentiate a Knowledge Question from a question about content in any given AOK.
Knowledge questions are questions about knowledge, and contain the following features.
•KQs are questions about knowledge:
That is, they are not questions of knowledge themselves but instead focus on the methods and mechanisms that produce knowledge—in TOK terminology they focus on ways of knowing and knowledge frameworks. In this sense knowledge questions are a little different from many of the questions dealt with in the subject classrooms. They are considered second-order questions in TOK.
• Knowledge questions are open:
They are open in the sense that there are a number of plausible answers to them. The questions are contestable. Dealing with open questions is a feature of TOK. Many students encountering TOK for the first time are struck by this apparent difference from many of the other classes in their school experience. Many find the lack of a single “right” answer slightly disorienting. Nevertheless, knowledge questions underlie much of the knowledge that we take for granted. Much of the disagreement and controversy encountered in daily life can be traced back to a knowledge question. An understanding of the nature of knowledge questions can allow a deeper understanding of these controversies.
• Knowledge questions are expressed in general terms.
The question should not be local to a specific example but should use sufficiently general language. Where the line should be drawn is a matter of judgement, but the rough rule should be that in a TOK context the knowledge question should not use specialized vocabulary specific to a particular area of knowledge. “How can a physicist know whether the Higgs boson exists?” sounds like a good knowledge question in physics but is probably too specific to be a good knowledge question in TOK. For TOK, we would be looking for a more general question such as: “how do physicists use theoretical predictions in producing knowledge?” Specific open questions about knowledge do crop up when we look at AOKs and are properly dealt with there, but they have to be made more general to be the raw material of a TOK essay or presentation.
Here are two examples of a topic that has been discussed in newspaper articles and possible knowledge questions associated with the topic.
Example 1: Future population growth in Africa.
• Not a knowledge question: “How can we predict future population growth in Africa?” This is not a
knowledge question because it is a technical question within the discipline of population studies.
• Good knowledge question: “How can a mathematical model give us knowledge even if it does not
yield accurate predictions?” This is now sufficiently general and explores the purpose and nature of
Example 2: The placebo effect and its impact on the medical profession
• Not a knowledge question: “How does the placebo effect work?” An answer to this might involve a
technical explanation in psychology. This therefore sits above the line in figure 4.
• A good knowledge question: “How could we establish that X is an ‘active ingredient’ in causing Y?”
This question is actually a rather general one about how we can know about causal links. It is a
classic knowledge question.
Other examples of Knowledge Questions include:
• what counts as evidence for X?
• what makes a good explanation in subject Y?
• how do we judge which is the best model of Z?
• how can we be sure of W?
• what does theory T mean in the real world?
• how do we know whether it is right to do S?