How do you know that? (A TOK-able moment)

What’s the world’s population today?

If you said 7.5 billion, you’d be about right (at the time of writing)*. How do you know that?

But, it’s not necessarily the correct answer.

When I start a new unit or even a new subtopic, I often begin by asking my student what they already know. This is important so I can establish the level of grounding required before we get into more complex ideas.

A great way to encourage students to think more deeply is to ask ‘how do you know that’? Often, the response is “I don’t know” or “I just heard it”. This is a good opportunity to establish all the different ways of knowing. Many students will have been studying a course in the theory of knowledge, and will be aware of the different ways in which they encounter knowledge.

In the IB Diploma Theory of Knowledge course, there are eight ways of knowing that students are expected to engage with (Goulder and Mitchell, n.d.):

  • Language
  • Sense perception
  • Emotion
  • Reason
  • Imagination
  • Faith
  • Intuition
  • Memory

As Geographers we can go even further and investigate problems with ‘what’ the students claim to know. For example:

  • Does your knowledge of this issue change with time?
  • Is it ‘correct’ right now? Will it be different in a few minutes/days/months/years?
  • Would the answer be different if you were someone else? (Think nationality, gender, race, class, political beliefs and so on.)
  • Would the answer be different if you were somewhere else?
  • Does your answer depend on someone else’s methodology, and could that be flawed?
  • How precise does your answer need to be to be ‘correct’?
  • Is your answer fact or opinion?
  • If an opinion, how are you justified in believing that?
  • If a fact, how can you be sure?
  • Can you confirm this knowledge?

These questions are always useful at the beginning of any inquiry as a way to focus students on using appropriate evidence, and having the ability to support their argument with a list of sources.

* At the time of writing in January 2018 the latest estimate from the United Nations Population Division was 7,550,262,101 (UNPD, 2018).


Goulder and Mitchell, n.d. What are the ways of knowing? Accessed 30 January 2018.

UNPD [United Nations Population Division], 2018. World Population Prospects 2017. Accessed 30 January 2018.

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