13th September 2019
In this blog, Caroline takes a closer look at a resource that’s gaining popularity in primary schools: the knowledge organiser.
Have you noticed that knowledge organisers are making more of an appearance in primary schools recently? This is no doubt due to the recent focus from Ofsted, the DfE and other influential bodies on children acquiring and retaining subject knowledge. Whatever the reason or your opinions of them, knowledge organisers look as though they’re here to stay.
So, what’s their appeal? What exactly are knowledge organisers? And how do you use them with primary children?
Before I dive in, though, I think it’s important to remember the bigger picture here. Carefully sequenced knowledge acquisition is integral to a high-quality curriculum, enabling children to develop a deeper understanding and to perform increasingly complex skills. Resources such as knowledge organisers are the ‘foot soldiers’ of this curriculum. They are tools to help children gain, retain and build the knowledge and skills as set out in your well-sequenced curriculum – not a separate bolt-on resource.
For a bit of background on our approach to knowledge and skills, please read our blog Knowledge and skills: getting the balance right across the primary curriculum.
But more on this later. In the meantime, let’s look at what they are.
A knowledge organiser is a document, usually no more than two sides of A4, that contains key facts and information that children need to have a basic knowledge and understanding of a topic.
Most knowledge organisers will include:
What a knowledge organiser includes will depend on the subject. For example, a ‘Second World War’ knowledge organiser and a ‘Rivers’ knowledge organiser would both include maps, but the former would also include a timeline, and the latter would need diagrams.
We all want children to gain specific knowledge in each curriculum subject that builds up over time. Knowledge organisers play a useful role here, as they focus on one subject or topic and grow in complexity across year groups.
However, it can be hard to know what to include about a topic on two sides of A4 – and what to leave out. This quandary can be a blessing in disguise as it forces us to think about what we actually want children to learn. As Mary Myatt explains in her book, The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence: ‘The real power of knowledge organisers is that they make us think hard about what we are going to teach.’ If you already have a well-structured, coherent curriculum like the Cornerstones Curriculum, then this huge body of work is already done for you.
There are countless ways to use knowledge organisers, but here are my top 10 favourite ways to make the most of them in a primary setting.
For me, the main benefit of knowledge organisers is that they give children and teachers the ‘bigger picture’ of a topic, subject area or specific concepts. Some topics can be complicated, so having the essential knowledge, clear diagrams, explanations and key terms on one document can be really helpful.
Research shows that our brains remember things more efficiently when we know the ‘bigger picture’ and can see the way that chunks of knowledge within that subject area link, forming powerful schemas. Making links, essentially, helps information move into our long-term memory. And, as Ofsted’s Sean Harford recently remarked, knowledge becomes ‘sticky’ – the more you know, the more you learn – which helps children gain a deeper understanding over time.
Another key benefit is their use for retrieval practice. Regular retrieval of knowledge helps us remember more effectively (Roediger et al, 2011). Again, it helps us store knowledge in, and recall it from, the long-term memory and frees up space in the working memory to take on new knowledge (Hirsch, Why Knowledge Matters (2016).
The other benefit is that they make the knowledge explicit. So, even if a child misses a lesson, they have a constant point of reference. They give a class a ‘level playing field’ of knowledge, with more children having a general awareness and set of knowledge about a topic, rather than just a handful of children who did hours of research over half term!
For a teacher, the knowledge organiser supports or directs what you’re teaching in each lesson. You can shape your teaching around it to ensure that you cover the key information over a sequence of lessons and that you assess knowledge-based outcomes based on it. As mentioned before, I think it is essential that you have already got a well-mapped curriculum that details the larger concepts, aspects and essential component knowledge that you intend children to learn over time.
As with any teaching resource, there are pitfalls to knowledge organisers – mostly around the way they are used. Here are some of the main issues and how to avoid them.
Use them as another tool in your resource kit, and not as an end in themselves. The body of knowledge that children gain at the end of a topic should be deeper and wider than what is outlined on the knowledge organiser.
If a school doesn’t have a coherent, well-sequenced curriculum with the larger concepts and key knowledge mapped out first, then it’s hard to create knowledge organisers that build upon each other across year groups. There will be unnecessary overlaps or gaps in knowledge. Avoid this by being clear about the key knowledge you want your children to attain as they move through school (see curriculum intent).
Writing knowledge organisers is tricky (we have written many, so can attest to this!). They take time, and you need to read deeply around your subject. As said before, it can be hard to decide what to include and what to omit, and colleagues may disagree on this!
Facts need to be accurate, relevant and up to date. Use trusted sources of information or incorrect facts will be learnt (and it’s hard to unlearn stuff). Likewise, don’t just copy and paste from online encyclopedias or use resources that may be protected by copyright laws – always check!
Ensure they suit your class, age-related expectations, national curriculum programmes of study in that subject area. They should be engaging, clear resources that children trust and use regularly.
Some children may need another mode of making knowledge more explicit. Record an audio version or ask children to role-play or present the information in their own way. Use other visual representations such as mind maps or flashcards if that helps.
Finally, if you include everything on a knowledge organiser, it could ‘give the game away’ before a topic has even begun. You’ll need to decide which facts are ‘spoilers’ and which will encourage curiosity.
These potential pitfalls are easy to avoid and should not put you off writing and using knowledge organisers in your school. Indeed, I see them as an essential tool in your resource toolkit, supporting a coherent, well-planned curriculum.
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