What are knowledge organisers and how can we use them in the primary classroom?

In this blog, Caroline takes a closer look at a resource that's gaining popularity in primary schools: the knowledge organiser.

Although I’ve known about knowledge organisers for a while, mainly in a secondary context, my interest in them has recently piqued because they are making more of an appearance in primary schools. This may be due, in part, to the Government and Ofsted’s recent focus on ensuring that children acquire and retain key knowledge in subject areas. Whatever the reason behind their growing popularity, I decided to dig a little deeper into the purpose and uses of knowledge organisers and uncover any of their potential pitfalls.

Meanwhile, the curriculum team here at Cornerstones have already been busy creating knowledge organisers for our topics that are clear and engaging (click here to download a free sample), and I know they took a lot of careful thought and research to create. I managed to grab our Curriculum Manager, Catherine, for a quick podcast to discuss knowledge organisers and her team’s work, which you can listen to here. In the meantime, here’s my low-down on what knowledge organisers are, and my go-to tips for using them in the classroom.

What is a knowledge organiser and what should it include?

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 the essential facts about the topic, usually laid out in easy-to-digest chunks; key vocabulary or technical terms and their meanings; images such as maps or diagrams; and famous quotations, if relevant.

What a knowledge organiser includes will depend on the subject. For example, a ‘World War Two’ 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.

How do you decide what information goes on a knowledge organiser?

We all want children to gain specific knowledge in each curriculum subject that builds up over time. Knowledge organisers can play a useful role here, as they can focus on one topic at a time, 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, though, as writing them 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 that initial work is done for you, and you can base your knowledge organisers on existing project coverage.

How can we use them in the classroom?

There are several ways that you can use knowledge organisers with children. Here are my top 11, tried-and-tested ideas to make the most of them in your school.

  1. Send the knowledge organiser home with the children before the start of a topic to encourage discussion and prior research.
  2. Talk through the knowledge organiser at the beginning of the topic, asking the children what information has sparked their interest, and if they have any questions.
  3. Use the knowledge organiser to identify knowledge gaps throughout the topic.
  4. Display an enlarged copy of the knowledge organiser on a working wall, encouraging children to add information around it during the topic.
  5. Share the knowledge organisers on the school website, to help with home learning.
  6. Use knowledge organisers to strengthen teacher knowledge in a subject area.
  7. Stick the knowledge organisers into the children’s topic books for regular reference, or cut up the sections to focus the children and deepen their knowledge in a particular area.
  8. Make links between knowledge organisers to help children understand how their learning connects. For example, remind the children of a previous year’s knowledge organiser and compare it with what they know now.
  9. Use the knowledge organiser as a revision tool. This is best done as ‘low stakes’ quizzing during or at the end of a topic, rather than a formal test. Do the children know more than is included on the knowledge organiser? Can they add detail to it? This is the ideal scenario, as it means they have deepened their knowledge beyond the baseline outlined on the knowledge organiser.
  10. Use the knowledge organiser as a handy spelling and vocabulary reminder. Keep it visible at all times and expect the children to use the proper vocabulary correctly.
  11. Use the knowledge organisers as guided reading texts (this way, you can help children read the information and check they understand it).

What are the benefits of knowledge organisers?

For me, the main benefit of knowledge organisers is that they give children and teachers the ‘bigger picture’ of a topic or subject area. 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 nuggets of knowledge within that subject area link together. 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 deeper understanding over time.

The other benefit of knowledge organisers is that they make the knowledge explicit. So, even if a child misses a lesson, they have a constant point of reference. In the same vein, because every child has the same knowledge organiser, it gives 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 may have visited museums and done hours of research over half term!)

For a teacher, the knowledge organiser supports, and can even direct, 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 helps teachers work out the overarching themes of a topic and the pared-down essential knowledge they want children to learn.

What are the potential pitfalls of knowledge organisers?

As with any teaching resource, there are pitfalls to knowledge organisers – mainly in 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 curriculum with the big ideas 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 (what Ofsted call the ‘intent’ of your curriculum).

Writing knowledge organisers is a tricky job (we have written many, so can attest to this!) They take lots of 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! It goes without saying, but facts need to be accurate, relevant and up-to-date. Use trusted sources of information, or the wrong facts will be learnt (and it’s hard to unlearn stuff!)

Make sure that knowledge organisers are written to suit your class, age-related expectations, national curriculum programmes of study in that subject area, and are engaging, clear resources that children trust and use as independently as possible. I’ve spent hours trawling the internet for a suitable knowledge organiser for my own daughter in the past, looking for one that’s pitched right and won’t bore her to death!

Some children need more than written reminders, so consider another mode of making knowledge and learning more explicit – possibly by recording an audio version of the knowledge organiser or asking children to role-play or present the information in their own words (my daughter likes to recite information as a story, for example). You could also display the information in different, eye-catching ways such as mind maps or flash cards if that helps.

Finally, if you include everything on a knowledge organiser, it can ‘give the game away’ and destroy the element of surprise and discovery before a topic has even begun. You’ll need to decide which facts are ‘spoilers’ and which will encourage curiosity. For example, we have just written a knowledge organiser for our Year 6 project, A Child’s War, and have decided to omit the fact that Anne Frank died, as it would affect the children’s experience of uncovering her story during the topic.

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.

Free knowledge organisers

If you are a Cornerstones school and already have our curriculum, we have recently uploaded knowledge organisers for all of our Year 5 and Year 6 projects, and are busy creating more for other year groups. However, we are also giving away two sample knowledge organisers with this blog that you can download by clicking on the image below. We hope you and your children find them useful and engaging.

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Caroline Pudner

Caroline is a Curriculum Consultant at Cornerstones. She writes curriculum materials, teaching resources and blogs. Caroline has 10 years primary teaching experience and has worked in both museums and galleries education and adult education.

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