A Parent’s Guide to International Baccalaureate (IB): Understanding the “Theory of Knowledge” Course

More and more secondary schools across the globe – and especially in North America – are going through the process of certification to offer an International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma program. An overview of the IB diploma program is beyond the scope of this article, but you can find such an overview here. This article explains the central role that “Theory of Knowledge,” an IB course, plays in the diploma program. This article also discusses how the Theory of Knowledge requirement distinguishes the IB program from other high-rigor programs such as the College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) courses and exams.

What is Theory of Knowledge?

Parents are often befuddled by the Theory of Knowledge course because it appears to be a course about nothing. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The IB program places Theory of Knowledge at the center of the IB curriculum and requires that every single content course (such as math, biology, literature, and so on) draw connections to the skills students learn in Theory of Knowledge.

So what skills does Theory of Knowledge teach students? In short, how to examine problems critically. The goal of the course is to help students learn to use different types of “knowing” to form better support for their arguments, and to better articulate the differences between arguments that use varying justifications for their conclusions.

Sound confusing? Sometimes an example makes the class more understandable for parents. A common Theory of Knowledge activity is to provide students with a reconstructed automobile accident scene, replete with a map showing the locations of the two cars involved as well as the location of all the witnesses at the time of the crash. Students explore the statements of different witnesses, such as school children on a playground and business people in their cars, taking into account the “ways of knowing” that each witness uses to support his or her statement. In general, the children’s statements focus on the physical act of the two cars colliding, whereas the business people tend to frame their statements in terms of their prejudices about race or gender, or in terms of the effect of the accident on their busy schedules. Alternatively, a blind witness may provide crucial but non-visual evidence. Students also generally explore the statements of the two motorists, one of whom is embarrassed and accepts responsibility even when her fault is unclear.

The goal of the activity is to show students the difficulty in reconstructing the “truth” of what happened. Instead of thinking of one single “truth,” students learn to see each statement as a product of the “way of knowing ” that produced it. In other words, students learn to seek out what type of evidence is being used or favored, and then they can make critical distinctions among various viewpoints about their reliability for different purposes (such as an officer making a decision about whom to cite for the accident or one of the motorists deciding whether or not to sue the other).

Why Does Theory of Knowledge Matter?

Most content courses require students to engage in critical thinking, but teaching the actual thinking skills is not part of the curriculum for any one course. Therefore, students who take a regime of AP courses might learn lots of content in the subject area, but they might struggle to apply that knowledge to solve problems or synthesize new applications.

One of the weaknesses of an AP program is that the courses each stand independent from one another. Accordingly, each teacher has an incentive to give as much work as possible without regard to how that decision will impact other AP courses. In the IB program, Theory of Knowledge works to unite each of the content areas, and in order for a diploma program to meet with IB approval, teachers must have time reserved each week for common planning and communication. In other words, the act of connecting each class to Theory of Knowledge helps all the teachers work together to balance the assignment load for students.

Also, colleges and universities generally seek out students who have demonstrated success in rigorous courses that teach critical thinking. Because the curriculum for Theory of Knowledge is at least partially standardized, college admissions officers feel comfortable knowing that a successful score in the class and on the class’s external assessment (sort of like an AP exam) means students have the strongest possible preparation for applying advanced critical thinking skills in college. It is no surprise that many colleges admit IB diploma students with sophomore standing.


Theory of Knowledge is part psychology, part philosophy, and part self-awareness. Its inclusion in the IB curriculum is a defining feature of the IB program, and the lack of a similar course demonstrates one weakness of the AP program in comparison to the IB program. Parents can find more information about Theory of Knowledge and the other IB courses by clicking here.

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