Personal and shared knowledge as a trap: Why has the difference been removed?

Alexey PopovAssessment, Curriculum

The terms “personal knowledge” and “shared knowledge” have been removed from the Guide, but the difference is still implicitly there. In fact, it is really important because it affects assessment.

This blog post belongs to a series entitled “Traps and loopholes in the new TOK syllabus.” You can access the full list of blog posts in the series here

Earlier I explored traps and opportunities in the new TOK syllabus associated with the “compulsory” knowledge framework and the new “themes” (for an overview of the new TOK spec, see The new TOK syllabus at a glance). Now I switch over to another interesting change – the removal of terms “personal knowledge” and “shared knowledge.”

Read more:

Why have these terms been removed?

The distinction between personal and shared knowledge was removed from the new Guide because it does not sit well with the Optional themes. It is easy to explain that the Core theme “Knowledge and the knower” is (kind of) about personal knowledge and Areas of knowledge are about shared knowledge. But with Optional themes, it’s a mixture of the two. Not easy to separate.

When you try to find the place for personal and shared knowledge in the new syllabus, you realize that:

  • The Core theme (“Knowledge and the knower”) is kind of about personal knowledge. “Kind of” – because in principle you could talk about the collective knower, but the knowledge questions suggested in the Guide all revolve around how we as individuals obtain knowledge about ourselves and the world around us. The Core theme was designed to help students relate TOK to their personal everyday learning situations. 
  • Areas of knowledge are about shared knowledge. Nothing changed here. Physics is shared knowledge. Your understanding of physics is personal knowledge. These are not the same. Physics belongs with areas of knowledge. Your understanding of physics belongs with the Core theme (“Knowledge and the knower”). 
  • Optional themes are a mix of the two. For example, in “Knowledge and language” you can discuss our collective knowledge of how language influences thought (shared knowledge), but you can also discuss how the use of language in your everyday life is misleading to you (personal knowledge). 

It is too difficult to explain what Optional themes are, in terms of personal versus shared knowledge. I think this was the reason the distinction between personal and shared was removed from the new Guide. 

What’s the trap?

We need to remember one important thing: the TOK essay will be based on areas of knowledge. Shared knowledge, in other words. Arguments related to personal knowledge are weak arguments for the TOK essay. Students should focus their essays on arguments related to shared knowledge. 

Themantic TOK course brings back the terms “personal and shared knowledge”. This is done to provide students with clear expectations about the TOK essay.

Take the following knowledge question (that was an actual prescribed essay title recently): Do good explanations have to be true?

  • Student A says: There is no way we can know if an explanation is true, but it can be good enough to be accepted by us provisionally beyond a reasonable doubt. For example, when the plum pudding model of the atom was proposed, it was not true (as we know now). But this model was a good explanation of the atom because it fit the data that was available at that time. 
  • Student B says: Sometimes to be convincing, explanations have to be a little false. For example, when you explain a difficult scientific concept to a five-year-old, the child will not understand if you use complicated scientific study. Instead you can explain by telling an interesting story or through a game, and you can simplify the truth to make it more relatable to the child. 

Student A is writing a good TOK essay focused on shared knowledge. Student B is misinterpreting the title and missing the point. 

Conclusion: Although the distinction between shared knowledge and personal knowledge has been removed from the Guide, it is still implicit in the course. In fact, it has never been more important. It doesn’t make much difference for the Exhibition, but it makes a tremendous difference for the essay. 

Read further: Personal and shared knowledge as an opportunity: Why we need these terms back when we teach thematically