Tok Examples Essay

Examples to Avoid in ToK Essays

In Theory of Knowledge we always encourage you to use original evidence. It's always more interesting when a student uses an example (a quote, a story, a fact) that we haven't heard of before.

Original "evidence" in your essays doesn't necessarily make them better essays, but it does suggest that you've taken some time with your research and not just using the first thing you found in a last-minute Google search.

The best examples can be the worst --because they're just so darn good.

So again we do tell our students to use "original evidence", but for the student it can be hard to know what is original. As teachers we might see some of the same examples used every year. But it would be hard for a student who is new to the subject to know to know which examples to avoid. 

Good examples of bad examples

The May 2016 ToK Subject report has come to the rescue, with a list of some common examples you might want to avoid. It's not mandatory to avoid these examples, but it could improve your mark.  

And just to be clear, these examples are in this list for a reason. They really are great examples, so you might decide you do want to include one of them in your essay. If you do, just be sure to explain it very clearly and use it in a way that it helps you answer the prescribed title.

Here's the official list:

1. Serendipitous discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming

2. Mark Rothko and environmental influences on his work

3. String theory and the role of evidence in the sciences

4. Margaret Mead's perspective during fieldwork in Samoa

5. The human aspects of the story of the discovery of DNA and of its structure from Friedrich Miescher to James Watson, Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin

6. Bloodletting as an example of an obsolete practice in medical science

7. The value of the Enigma code and the work of Alan Turing

8. Alchemy as the necessary precursor to modern chemistry

9. Pablo Picasso and Guernica

10. Vincent van Gogh and Starry Night

11. Leonardo da Vinci, the Mona Lisa and Vitruvian Man

12. Isaac Newton and the compatibility of his scientific achievements and his religious orientation

13. Persistence of "anti-vaxxers" despite the exposure of Andrew Wakefield's claims in relation to MMR vaccine as fraudulent

14. The applications of imaginary numbers

15. Ludwig van Beethoven's deafness and reliance on "feeling"

16. Rounding of numbers (eg pi) as examples of simplification and inaccuracy in mathematics

17. Polynomials, factorisation and complexity

18. Music therapy as an application of knowledge in the arts

19. Different notations and ways of doing differentiation from Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz

20. Thomas Edison and the invention of the light bulb

21. The Hiroshima bomb versus nuclear fission reactors with respect to the value of knowledge

22. Work in number theory by Pythagoras, Pierre de Fermat and Andrew Wiles

23. Membrane structure from Davson/Danielli to Singer/Nicholson and the fluid mosaic model

24. Galileo Galilei’s house arrest and Pope John Paul II's admission of error in 1992

25. Friedrich Wöhler’s blow to vitalism with the non-biological synthesis of urea

26. Atomic theories from John Dalton to JJ Thompson to Ernest Rutherford to Niels Bohr to Erwin Schrödinger

27. Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer on language and eye witnesses

28. Francesco Redi, Louis Pasteur and the disproof of spontaneous generation

29. Alfred Wegener and continental drift

30. Lera Boroditsky’s article on Australian aboriginal orientation

31. Caloric vs kinetic theory with respect to "natural selection" in scientific knowledge

32. Leonhard Euler's equation allegedly having value without application

33. Development of heliocentrism from Aristarchus to Copernicus

34. Thalidomide prescribed for morning sickness and leprosy

35. The outcomes of the work of Fritz Haber for fertilizer and explosives

36. The Riemann hypothesis, large primes and Internet security

37. The Treaty of Versailles and the subsequent rise of Nazism in Germany

38. George Orwell's perspective as presented in Animal Farm

39. Thomas Young’s double-slit experiment and wave-particle duality in physics

40. The ethics of Edward Jenner's work on smallpox and vaccination

41. August Kekulé's dream and the structure of benzene

42. Antonio Damasio and somatic marker theory

43. Fritz Fischer and the alleged causes of WWI

44. Occam's razor with respect to Albert Einstein’s special relativity and Hendrik Lorentz’s ether

45. Gregor Mendel and overly neat experimental results for segregation and independent assortment (also Robert Millikan and determination of the electric charge on the electron)

46. Jackson Pollock’s art and the use of WOKs

47. The Amish and rejection of modern technology

48. The Phillips curve and transient accuracy in economics

49. Lock-and-key and induced fit models of enzyme action

50. Spherical and hyperbolic geometries as perspectives in mathematics

51. Confirmation bias and persistent error in the accepted human chromosome number

52. CERN and the Higgs boson as applied knowledge

53. Standard rival interpretations of the Cold War: traditional, revisionist, post-revisionist

54. Albert Einstein and the cosmological constant

55. Edwin Hubble and expansion of the universe

56. Ignaz Semmelweis and childbed fever

57. Conventional current and electron flow

58. The Nanjing massacre and perspectives

59. Alfred Adler and schemas in psychology as the basis for perspectives

60. Biston betularia and industrial melanism as an example of natural selection

61. Detection of gravitational waves in accordance with predictions from Einstein’s theory of general relativity

62. Feynman diagrams and quantum electrodynamics with respect to simplicity and understanding

63. Physiology from Galen to the discovery of blood circulation by William Harvey

64. The complexity of the chemistry of photosynthesis as presented at various stages of education

65. The patient’s “perspective” in connection with the use of placebos in medical testing

66. Heinrich Hertz and the subsequent application of radio waves


How to Structure a Theory of Knowledge Essay

The following structure is a very good, step-by-step method you can use on any ToK essay to get very high marks. 

Here are the main things to keep in mind when you're using this method:

    1. Your #1 priority is answering the prescribed title. If you somehow follow this method, but don't answer the question you won't score well. So make sure you keep linking back to the question as you go. 
    2. Try to use original, interesting evidence. 

(I have a full a lot of helpful advice, tutorials, evidence videos in my online ToK course, which you're welcome to join if you like. Or, if you just need some TOK Notes you can get those here.)

And I've also made a help page (similar to this) for the TOK presentation, here.

Okay here we go...

The structure on this page will give you a strong foundation for your essay and then we're going to make your essay as insightful as possible.

First, choose your PT and KQ

Before you can begin your real/final essay, you’ll want to look at the Prescribed Title (something like: “What is it about mathematics and science that makes them so convincing?” and think about it.

Get some of your initial ideas down on paper.

Second, choose 1 WOK and 2 AOKs

Now, take your prescribed title and choose two AOKs to explore it with (here are my notes: Mathematics, Human sciences, Natural Sciences, the Arts, Ethics, Indigenous Knowledge Systems, Religious Knowledge Systems, or History). Or you can use WOKs: (again here are my notes: Emotion, Faith, Sense perception, Reason,  Imagination, Intuition,  Language, Memory). Then you can explore these aspects in your essay.

I normally recommend exploring just  2 AoK's in the main body of your essay and then include a few insights into WOKs around the edges (more on this in a bit).

The essay contains two body sections (or "developments"). Each body section will look at a certain area of knowledge or way of knowing.

To explore the question we chose above, it's pretty easy to choose our AOKs because they are actually listed in the question. We'll be using  Mathematics and Natural Science. 

The courtroom analogy

The TOK essay is about knowledge (how we come to know things). It helps to think of the essay as though you're showing the most interesting bits of a conversation between two smart people, about how we know things. 

Or you could think about it like presenting two sides of an argument, in front of a judge. Each side needs to present evidence. 

One lawyer is saying YES (i.e. reason is reliable, with examples) and the other is pointing out the weaknesses in what lawyer 1 is saying (i.e. reason is often not reliable, also with examples).

Your lawyer will make the case that you can’t be guilty of robbing the bank (her thesis), by using several arguments (claims); she’ll show that 

  1. You weren’t there
  2. You’re are a moral person and
  3. You don’t have the technical knowledge to pull off a job like that.

However, if your lawyer was a ToK student they would also be explaining reasons why you might be guilty (the counterclaims).

  1. Someone said they saw you there,
  2. You admitted to lying to your mom about candy one time and
  3. You are pretty good at computers.

The lawyers would use evidence to support each of these claims and counterclaims.

Making sure your evidence actually supports your claim is one of the toughest aspects of the essay.

The step-by-step method

The method has 4 sections and 7 paragraphs overall and specific aspects need to go in each.

First, write your introduction, using 150-200 words

Paragraph 1

-Say 2 interesting things about the prescribed title. "Many people find Mathematics and Natural Science very convincing. However, many of these same people would say that they don't have a strong understanding of either of these two fields. Both of these fields rely on rigorous methodologies."

-Define one or two of the key terms in the title. Here I might define Mathematics and Natural Science. (I would also look up the term "convincing". I might not include that definition in my essay, but I would like to know whether there are any conflicting definitions. That might help me say interesting things later on in the essay--for example in the conclusion.) 

-Narrow in on one aspect which is particularly interesting. "This essay with focus on the link between replicability of results, as a source of reliability." 

-State your thesis. What is your short answer to the prescribed title, your thesis. (You might decide, by the end of your essay, that your initial thinking was wrong, but you should know the point your claims are going to be supporting). 

-Give us a roadmap, a sentence that gives us a preview. This shows us what you’re going to do in your body paragraphs (your "developments"). Tell us AOKs you're going to use and which WOK you will be focused on most. This will make it easy for the marker to know what to look for. An example: “Mathematics can be seen as more reliable because it uses reason. Natural science can be less reliable because it relies on observation. ”

Next write your first development. 2 paragraphs totalling 600 words

Paragraph 2

-Claim. A claim a topic sen­tence that outlines your argument about the prescribed title. For example you could claim that, “Mathematics can be relied on because it is a purely logical system.”

-Explain. Elaborate and clarify your claim. “Mathematics is axiomatic and independent of subjective experience.“

-Example. A real life example, to clar­ify and sup­port the claim from your own experience. Examples should be personal, specific, precise and real. Did something happen in your Science class? Did you have a conversation with your or hear a story from your grandfather? These are evidence from your own life rather than examples from Darwin or Lincoln. So you could talk about how, “In mathematics we learned that the inside angles of a triangle, in Euclidian space, sum up to 180 degrees.”

Paragraph 3

-Counter-claim. Argue against your claim above. “However, it is possible to come to different conclusions using different systems of mathematics.”

-Example. An example that supports your counter claim. “There are different It is not possible to demonstrate that the interior angles of a triangle equal 180 degrees in Euclidian space, this cannot be proven within other systems, such as spherical geometry or hyperbolic geometry.”

-Link to prescribed title. Quickly sum up the (complicated) insights of this section. “It is therefore clear that mathematics is reliable to an extent, but often it can only show something to be true within one fixed system or approach.”

Now, write another two body paragraphs, looking at your second AOK. Use the same approach you saw in paragraphs 2 and 3. 600 words

Paragraph 4




Paragraph 5



-Link to prescribed title.

Finally, write your 'conclusion'. Two paragraphs, totalling 200-250 words

Paragraph 6

-Your conclusion. Explain what big, general insights have come out of this--your conclusion. 

Implications and significance. Also tell us why it's important that we know this. When and how does it matter that we understand this lesson?

Paragraph 7

-Perspectives and extensions. If you can, try to pull in a very different perspective, on your conclusion. Perhaps you can recognize a very different way of approaching the question, which could have resulted in quite different insights than those you included in your essay. Or you could also mention one or two unresolved questions that this essay has revealed. You could also think of this as explaining some "limitations" or a weaknesses of your essay, but it's also about showing that the conversation isn't over yet. There is more to the question than you've had the room to explore.  


Obviously there is a lot more depth that we can go into about what makes a really great TOK essay, but this structure will get you started.

Here are some more ToK Essay tips you might want to consider or you can join my online program if you like



Cite this page as:
Woods, Tim. “How to Structure a Theory of Knowledge Essay” IBMastery. IBMastery, 1 Jan 2016. Web. TODAY’S DATE <>

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