A knowledge organiser (KO) is a planning, teaching and assessment tool which precisely defines the content of a particular topic or unit of work. Children are expected to learn everything on a knowledge organiser off by heart. There are a few essential features which all good KOs should adhere to:
- It should fit on one side of A4 paper.
- It should be ‘chunked’ into clear sections (usually including ‘vocabulary’).
- Each item of knowledge (or ‘fact’) should be numbered.
- Each fact should be short and clear (no rambling explanations).
- Skills have no place on a KO (see below).
A knowledge organiser doesn’t replace a medium term plan or individual lesson plans. However, it does set the agenda for what your lessons are likely to include. If you begin with the knowledge organiser, it sets out a roadmap for how you should break down the content over the unit of work.
The knowledge organiser should be lean and set out the most critical knowledge necessary to have a proper understanding of the topic. When writing one, I often consult Wikipedia pages, subject guides and text books to tease out what information comes up regularly.
Another question I ask myself is ‘What would I expect an intelligent adult to know about this topic?‘ This sets out the necessary (but not sufficient) content which all children deserve to have in their brain as a starting schemes.
All of the material should be explained and practised within lessons, so once you have decided to, say, ensure all children understand that the Stone Age was made up of the palaeolithic, mesolithic and neolithic eras, you may choose to include a lesson on each, explaining the key features of them.
As a planning tool, then, the knowledge organiser allows you to ‘backwards plan’, or work back from where you want all children to get to: a secure understanding of everything included within the knowledge organiser.
Without becoming embroiled in a debate on teaching methods, I believe that there is compelling evidence for favouring explicit instruction; whole-class, interactive teaching to best secure the understanding of the items included within the knowledge organiser. There would certainly never be any carousel activities or ‘discovery learning’ approaches, because i think lots of children don’t actually learn any stuff with these approaches, and so it widens the attainment gap. Having said that, with a KO acting as magnetic north, it is possible to be more creative with lessons without the risk of losing rigour.
For example, you may be delivering a lesson on Shackleton’s third Antarctic expedition and would like the children to recreate the journey through a piece of drama. If the timeline of the expedition is included within your knowledge organiser, you can ensure that children include each of these milestones within their performance, thereby aiding the retention of the core content.
On the whole, however, Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction and the Deans for Impact summary have guided our lesson structure to look something like this:
1. Recap of previous lesson (usually a no stakes quiz).
2. Explicit instruction (this could be explaining the features of a map, or telling the children a historical story).
3. Partner task (this gives the children a chance to orally rehearse what they have just learnt, speaking the new vocabulary).
4. Independent task (sustained thinking about the new information, to improve retention and deepen understanding).
5. A review. (Usually a no stakes quiz)
All children should learn everything on the knowledge organiser. The simplest way to assess this is by including frequent, low-stake quizzes throughout the unit. Such an approach has the added benefit of improving retrieval strength of key facts through what is known as the ‘testing effect’.
A simple way to do this is by deleting some of the content within the KO (for example, leaving the dates in the timeline, but removing what happened at each of those dates) and then asking children to fill in the blanks. Alternatively, you could write short multiple choice quizzes at the end of each lesson, or at the beginning of the next lesson.
Once the children become proficient at using their knowledge organisers, you can teach them to self quiz by covering one column with a piece of paper (for example the definitions in the vocabulary section) and then write down all of the definitions they can recall in two minutes. This aids retention but also tells the children (and you) what they are weakest on recalling and so need to practice more.
You may also like to include a larger, summative piece at the end of the unit, which allows children to utilise all of the knowledge that they have learnt. An example of this may be preparing a speech for a debate on ‘Who was the greatest Roman emperor?’ after studying the Romans. We finish all of our topics with an essay, which frames the learning throughout the unit. Example titles for year four have been ‘Making contact with European Traders did the Benin Kingdom more harm than good. Do you agree?’ And ‘Who was the greatest English Medieval Monarch?’
All knowledge? What about the skills?
I have written and spoken a lot about Knowledge Organisers over the few last years, and although the reaction to them has been mostly positive, there have been some criticisms. I address most of these in this FAQ blog post, but it’s worth quickly dealing with the most common here. It is the criticism that knowledge is pointless without the ability to apply it. What we are really interested in is critical thinking, not mindlessly regurgitating an endless list of facts. So should a knowledge organiser really be what we are putting at the centre of our learning?
It’s a compelling criticism, and in a sense is correct in terms of its aim. Of course we all want children to be critical thinkers, and to be able to ask insightful questions about the topic that they are studying, and debate and reason and probe. But whilst we may all agree on the aim, there is debate about the journey that we must take to get there. Daisy Christodoulou, in Making Good Progress, categories these different approaches in method as:
- Teaching Skills Directly – the generic-skill method
- Teaching Skills Indirectly – the deliberate-practice method
Drawing on empirical evidence from psychological experiments, Christodoulou argues convincingly that there is no such thing as a ‘generic skill’, and so trying to directly teach, say ‘critical thinking’ is a lost cause. You may be wonderful at thinking critically about, say, Baroque art, but that will help you not a jot if someone asks you to critically evaluate Presocratic schools of philosophical thought.
In fact, your success in either of these pursuits rests on your underlying knowledge of the respective domain. That is to say, the more that you know about Baroque art, the more critically you can think about it (and vice versa). So really, the skill of ‘critical thinking’ about a particular subject is just short-hand for describing how much you know about that subject.
With this in mind, the best chance that we have at ensuring children can achieve all of those aims that we agree are so important, is to fix within them a comprehensive foundation of facts about that subject. This will help develop a web of interconnected facts, or a schema, which will not only ensure that future learning about that subject is easier, but will allow the possessor to reason and evaluate and synthesise information about the topic.
Additionally, this web ensures that falsehoods (so important in these days of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’) are less likely to be accepted, as they contradict the facts already within the web. For example, if you know the following two facts:
- Dinosaurs became extinct around 65 million years ago
- Homo sapiens emerged around 200,000 years ago
then the assertion “Dinosaurs and humans lived alongside one another” is easily dismissed and unlikely to set in as a misconception.
For these reasons, skills should not feature on a knowledge organiser, even if they are our ultimate aim when delivering a unit of work.