On Knowledge Organisers

When Jon Brunskill recently agreed to share his work on Knowledge Organisers in primary school, I was excited to see what he came up with. I wasn’t disappointed, and I’m sure many others have been looking with interest. I think there’s a lot of merit in the model, but inevitably I think there is some refining to do.

I say this not as an expert – far from it, I’ve cobbled together one Knowledge Organiser in my life and remain unhappy with it. However, having spoken briefly to Jon about his, I think we both agree that there is merit in unpicking the model further.

Firstly, with Jon’s permission, let me share an image of the organiser he shared (I highly recommend reading the accompanying blog before continuing further with mine!)

At first glance, it looks like a lot of content to learn. I think that’s partly because most of us have spent a good many years teaching broad ideas, and not expecting children to learn detail off by heart. I think there are also very few of us who could hand-on-heart say we know all this content to recall. But I think that represents the shift we need to make rather than something to fear.

That led me to question the purpose behind the Knowledge Organiser. I haven’t spent enough time thinking about them, and certainly not enough time using them, but when I have, I’ve usually considered it a vehicle for outlining the key information that I expect students to learn and retain for the longer term. Often over longer units of work these might include key ideas which are integral to later understanding, whether that’s later in the school year, or later in their education career.

By way of illustration of my thinking, let me share a knowledge organiser I constructed a couple of years ago for my Year 5/6 class

kodraft.png

My first attempt at a Knowledge Organiser in 2015

The differences are quickly obvious. For a start, mine is clearly based on a wider period of teaching, and perhaps more indicative of a basic revision guide, rather than providing content in advance of a unit. I think perhaps that’s also its biggest downfall. It’s worth noting that it’s something I tried and didn’t come back to.

But I think there is maybe a useful middle ground. In Jon’s case, much of the content set out – particularly on the timeline – is content that is useful for the purposes of writing an information text about the event itself (a task which Jon plans to do in his Y2 class). However, I don’t think he expects those students to secure that detail in the very long term. Arguably, this brings the organiser perhaps closer to the cramming model of revision than the more successful spaced practice approach.

Ruth Smith posted a comment on Jon’s blog saying she could imagine the organiser being used as a prompt during writing. While I can see the merits, I do think that the risk then – as Jon would rightly say – is that we replace the value of knowledge with the reliance on someone/something else to do the work for you. That’s not the aim here.

It leaves me wondering what the function of a Knowledge Organiser should be. I’m not persuaded of the value of knowing the date of leaving quarantine after the lunar landing. That said, the value of learning the word ‘quarantine’ is something I think is highly valuable.

The question for me becomes one of later testing (and let me be honest, I’m only at the very beginning of this journey; don’t for a second presume that I’m an expert. I’m a way behind Jon on this!)  In a knowledge rich curriculum, I think one of the key functions of a Knowledge Organiser is to set out the key knowledge that I want students to retain and that I will test for.

We know of the great merit of spaced testing to aid learning, and it strikes me that a Knowledge Organiser should aim to set out that content which would likely later form part of such tests. In the context of Jon’s organiser, I could see merit in testing much of the vocabulary, the date of the landing, and perhaps the names of the crew. However, I’d also want to include some wider context – perhaps a bit more detail behind the Space Race, mention of JFK’s 1960 aim, etc. Might these replace some of the less significant dates of 1969?

Of course, we’re talking about 7-year-olds in Jon’s context. They will lack much of the wider historical knowledge to place events in context, and so there is a risk of expecting too much. But equally, if we train children that knowledge is to be learned, then ought we not be training them to learn it for the long term?

The content I think* I’d like to see on Knowledge Organisers is the detail that I would also expect to use in a brief pop quiz a week later, but also on a test mid-year drawing on prior units, and again at the end of the academic year, or in the first days of the following September. There is a risk that using Knowledge Organisers to aim for short-term recall of detail that is later lost, will develop a cramming ethos, rather than one of long-term storage of information.

What does this mean for Jon’s example? I’m not sure. Maybe a separation of the content that he expects children to retain in the long term from information which would be useful in this context? There is certainly some merit in having this timeline clear in the child’s mind as they are writing – not least because it helps to build a narrative, which is a great learning technique –  but is it necessary for it to be stored in long-term memory? Indeed, is a two-week unit even long enough for such a transfer to be made?

Yet there is unquestionably information here which would be re-used in future that would allow such a long-term retention.

More thinking to do… but well worth doing, I think.


*I say I think, because I am not entirely sure that I won’t think completely differently in six months time.

If you haven’t already, I again recommend reading Jon’s original post here.

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14 thoughts on “On Knowledge Organisers

  1. teachwell 2 January 2017 at 7:27 pm Reply

    I think that I would have created a different knowledge organiser to Jon too but I think it will be a case of trial and error (as I am sure it has been for our secondary colleagues). I think they do need to come with self-quizzing cards and we need to think about the whole curriculum in terms of the usefulness of certain terms compared to others. However, in terms of a knowledge-based curriculum, this is all the start of the journey for the schools that are adopting it.

    • Michael Tidd 2 January 2017 at 7:56 pm Reply

      Yes, exactly. I’ve tried to be very careful to couch my arguments in terms of my current thinking. Who knows where things might be in a few months and years time…

  2. nancy 2 January 2017 at 7:53 pm Reply

    You raise excellent points here, Michael, and I am in complete agreement with you.

    The questions I find I am asking myself, as I sit here in front of the fire and not being in a position to use one are:
    To what purpose will such a resource be used?
    Should children, regardless of age/stage of development be using such a resource – and what will the consequences for their attitudes to learning be if we do?
    How do we go about selecting the bits of knowledge to be learned – this is perhaps more pertinent in the field of humanities, where knowledge is much more politicised (or, perhaps, we could say the same about science, I expect we could if we really thought about it)?
    And the one you raise,which also concerns me, are we in danger of creating a ‘cramming’ atmosphere – which goes back to my first question.

    Apart from anything else, as I tweeted, they do look terribly dull – and I would hate to put any child off learning something.

  3. Michael Tidd 2 January 2017 at 8:02 pm Reply

    In response to your specific questions:
    *That’s at the crux of the discussion here: I think it should be used as a starting point for everyone to know what knowledge is expected to be transferred to longer-term memory
    *Of course the answer to any question that includes “regardless” is always “no”. But should most children be able to use such a resource? I don’t see why not. If the objection is to black-and-white text for Year 2, then I suspect we are at risk of dumbing things down.
    *In primary very little of the knowledge taught is really politicised. On the wider question, that is at the heart of every debate about the curriculum and isn’t really related to organisers.
    *Yes, there is a risk of cramming if we focus on short-term retrieval and then never use it again. That’s partly why I think we need to plan carefully for the content that we use in this context, in a way which is different from the thinking that goes into the broader curriculum experience.
    *If the difference between engagement with learning and being put off learning is down to appearance, then I fear we have bigger issues. I don’t believe any children are any more willing/able to learn knowledge because it’s in pretty colours and surrounded by pictures

    But as I say in the blog.. it’s early days!

  4. The Wing to Heaven 2 January 2017 at 9:40 pm Reply

    I think the question about how much of this stuff a pupil should remember in the long term is interesting. In this article http://www.aft.org/periodical/american-educator/spring-2004/ask-cognitive-scientist Willingham suggests that key content falls into three categories.

    1. The core skills and knowledge that will be used again and again.
    2.The type of knowledge that students need to know well in the short term to enable long-term retention of key concepts. In this case, short-term overlearning is merited.
    3. The type of knowledge we believe is important enough that students should remember it later in life.

    I think some info in this KO falls into category 1 – some into category 2 and 3. I think category 2 is perhaps the most overlooked or unconsidered one. There is some important detail you need to know in the short term in order to enable the long term understanding of key concepts. Some of the detail may be forgotten later on, but it is necessary in the moment to enable long term understanding of the key concept.

  5. Jenny C 3 January 2017 at 9:28 am Reply

    A few thoughts to consider in this discussion:
    Young children learn by experiencing and talking – doing, and will do so if engaged and motivated – I think you will find this is true of older children and adults too.
    If you want children to remember knowledge you teach it in a variety of interesting ways and develop in children triggers for memory recall…’do you remember when we…’
    I would agree that children need to find ways to remember and the ‘knowledge organiser’ is one way – it reminds me a little of my large A3 sheets I used to revise for my O’ and A’ levels (giving my age away here).
    We need to remember that all children are different – one size doesn’t fit all. And we certainly don’t want to put children off learning by making it boring or tedious!
    Fundamentally, teaching is about inspiring children to want to learn and develop in them the skills so that they can do this independently – a knowledge organiser could do this…for some, but not for all.
    So often I see teachers jump on an idea and think it is the be all and end all. I wish that we could just remember our individuality and creativity and do what we think is best to achieve the best results – we can actually all do this in a variety of ways.
    Teachers need more time to think about how to engage children and to re-visit a time when teachers got as much out of learning with the children as the children themselves.
    Learning should be enjoyable for all.
    Please consider what would work for your children and then enjoy making it happen – but give them choices.
    This is what I think Michael is suggesting we do 😉

  6. Bigger Than Yours | Freeing the Angel 3 January 2017 at 6:53 pm Reply

    […] specifically in Year 2. Jon Brunskill’s blog is here, and Michael Tidd’s blog is here. And I found myself feeling troubled, and needing to respond in order to get my thoughts in line. […]

  7. Knowing stuff is cool. | Pedfed 7 January 2017 at 3:53 pm Reply

    […] Recently, I wrote about using ‘knowledge organisers’ in primary schools. It gathered some interest, and some other teachers have even shared their own attempts at writing knowledge organisers for their primary classes. I was especially pleased that Michael Tidd, who is in my opinion the leading mind on primary education, took to private message to challenge me on some of the details of my own thinking, and debate the purpose of the resource. I’m pleased that he then set out his thoughts in this excellent blog. […]

  8. monkrob 9 January 2017 at 4:01 am Reply
  9. […] judgement of the teacher comes in. They cannot become ‘cramming documents’ because this will not aid long-term memory. As part of a broader package of teaching, students are able to make sense of the […]

  10. […] quite a bit written about knowledge organisers of late. Heather Fearn wrote here about the purpose; Michael Tidd and Jon Brunskill have explained their use in primary; Debra Kidd expressed her misgivings here. I […]

  11. teachingbattleground 27 January 2017 at 11:58 am Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  12. Knowledge Organisers | Pearltrees 25 June 2017 at 12:14 pm Reply

    […] On Knowledge Organisers. When Jon Brunskill recently agreed to share his work on Knowledge Organisers in primary school, I was excited to see what he came up with. I wasn’t disappointed, and I’m sure many others have been looking with interest. I think there’s a lot of merit in the model, but inevitably I think there is some refining to do. I say this not as an expert – far from it, I’ve cobbled together one Knowledge Organiser in my life and remain unhappy with it. However, having spoken briefly to Jon about his, I think we both agree that there is merit in unpicking the model further. […]

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