TOK Title Tips, Part 1 – Getting Practical

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Having examined every May 2020 prescribed title in the last six TOK Tuesdays posts on this blog it’s time now to take a step back and highlight some basic tips to directly assist in the creation of the TOK essay.   

Many students are currently in the midst of preparing either their outline or a rough draft of their essay and are likely experiencing the all too familiar frustration of recognizing that having a clear sense of the nuances and general avenue of attack for a given PT, while clearly important, does not, in itself, guarantee the creation of a successful essay. It is, in other words, as we discussed in last week’s post for PT 6: necessary, but not sufficient. 

Generally speaking, there are two essential ingredients for any good essay: saying something insightful and saying it well. Up until now, much of our focus has consisted in searching for appropriately meaningful things to say about each one of the titles – key conceptual issues at play, enlightening examples, ambiguities that needed rigorous, clarifying definitions, and so forth. But no amount of penetrating insight into the meaning of a title is a substitute for being able to clearly and convincingly express an argument. If the examiner can’t understand what you’re saying, you will not succeed (or at least, not succeed nearly as well as you might), even if, by some objective measurement, you actually understand quite well what needs to be said.

This point is, it must be emphasized, completely general, and thus doesn’t in the slightest depend on the nature of TOK itself. It is, in the sometimes overused lexicon of our day, a “transferable skill” – indeed, one of the most important ones that any student will rely on untold times throughout her life beyond high school: knowing how to make a convincing and effective argument. 

It’s important to stress that this is not a matter of intelligence or innate ability. It is a question of learning. We’ve all met brilliant people who couldn’t convey their ideas in any appropriate way, together with decidedly less brilliant people who had developed the power to be convincing, sometimes alarmingly so. And by forcing all students to construct both a TOK essay and an extended essay, the Diploma Programme is doing its bit to ensure that all of its students are equipped to succeed well beyond high school graduation. Because the only way you learn these vital skills is by actually writing something.  

And while it’s unreasonable to ask students tasked with constructing a TOK essay over the holidays to be grateful for the rigours of the Diploma Programme, to some extent they really should be.  OK, enough IB propaganda. What are we talking about here, exactly?

In what follows I’ll highlight 5 key points (2 in this post, and 3 in next week’s post) that students should take into account in the construction of their TOK essay independent of whatever prescribed title they happen to be addressing.

1.Make an argument

The first question anyone reading an essay is going to ask himself is, “What is this person saying?”  And if the reader can’t easily answer this question, the essay writer has failed. It’s just that simple.  A good test I use is to imagine that the reader is forced to describe my essay to someone else. Would she be able to do it easily and effectively?  Something like, “He believes X and Y, on condition of Z, but not in cases like W.”   

This might sound like obvious advice, but I can assure you that it is not.   All too often, the only thing someone comes away with after having read an essay is an “on the one hand or on the other hand” type of description of the question. Which is definitely not good enough. The point of writing an essay is not simply to demonstrate that you have understood the question, or even that you have understood a range of complexities and subtleties involved in the issue, but that you have a clear opinion that you can clearly express and justify. Having an opinion certainly doesn’t imply that you have to be dogmatic (The only conceivable interpretation is X, and anyone who disagrees with me is an idiot!), it just means that you have to put a clear, distinct, and well-supported position out there.

Some essays, like the extended essay, are completely unbounded: you have to come up with the topic and the argument entirely by yourself.   The TOK essay is clearly not like that. Not only are you forced to select one of six prescribed titles, but you also have to address the question at hand. Which means that if the title asks you to “Explore this distinction” or “To what extent do you agree with this claim?”, your argument better be focused around the distinction at hand or your level of agreement of the particular claim.  

 2. Decide on your argument before you write

Anyone who has written an essay knows that the experience involves several distinct stages, often coupled with feelings of anxiety, trepidation and frustration, typically with a good dose of procrastination thrown in for good measure. But through it all, there is usually a time when one is “in” the essay, when the experience is – if not necessarily “fun” – at least challenging and interesting. Almost always this occurs when the central argument has finally been established: you know what you want to say and are searching for compelling and innovative ways of making your case.  

The worst part of writing any essay comes when you stare at a blank page and don’t know what to write.  

So don’t.  

Don’t start to write anything until you have some sense of what you want to say.  Go for a walk. Listen to some music. Talk about your essay with a friend.  Close your eyes and think about what you actually believe, or at the very least, what you are willing to pretend to believe for the purposes of the essay.  

In all likelihood, the only thing staring at a blinking cursor will do is make you feel anxious that you have an essay to write.  After an hour of doing that, the likely end product of your efforts is that you will find yourself reflecting on how you have just spent an hour of your life staring at a blinking cursor and are no better off.  In fact, you are actually worse off, as you have now just wasted an hour of your life and have drastically increased your anxiety about that essay you have to do.  

So don’t start by writing.  Start by thinking. Even if you’ve procrastinated for weeks (especially, in fact, if you’ve procrastinated by weeks), the surest way to make real and substantial progress with your TOK essay is to turn away from your keyboard and decide what sort of argument you think should be made.  Once you have a clear sense of that, you’ll be well and truly on your way.   

Six comprehensive Titled Assistance videos – one for each of the six May 2020 Prescribed Titles – are now available on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal to all individual subscribers and subscribing schools. They can be found in the Theory of Knowledge section (under “TOK Compilations”), Student TOK section and Teacher Resources section. All videos contain a wealth of revealing examples associated with each PT drawn from Ideas Roadshow’s extensive IBDP video resources. 

For information about an affordable individual teacher or student subscription which provides full access to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal, including all Titled Assistance videos PT 1-6 please visit our website, for students: here, and for teachers: here.

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