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

Knowledge organisers

‘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.’

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. Knowledge (and skills) progression are integral to a coherent curriculum. Resources such as knowledge organisers are the ‘foot soldiers’ of your curriculum. They are tools to help children gain, retain and build the knowledge and skills as set out in your curriculum intent.

Learn more about the knowledge and skills-rich Cornerstones Curriculum

downloadFREE KS1 knowledge organiser

 

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FREE KS2 knowledge organiser

 

But more on this later. In the meantime, let’s look at what they are.

Knowledge organiser close-up

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 easily digestible chunks
  • key vocabulary or technical terms and their meanings
  • images such as maps or diagrams
  • famous quotations, if relevant.

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.

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 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.

How can we use them in the classroom?

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.

  1. Upload the knowledge organiser on your website and send it 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 as a regular retrieval tool. Mix up practice using short, low stakes quizzes, games, partner discussion, and so on, rather than constant formal testing. Do the children know more than is included on the knowledge organiser? Ask higher level ‘why’ questions to stretch the children’s understanding and add detail. This is the ideal scenario, as it means they have deepened their knowledge beyond the baseline outlined on the knowledge organiser and have formed stronger schemata.
  4. Use the knowledge organiser to identify knowledge gaps throughout the topic.
  5. Display an enlarged copy of the knowledge organiser on a working wall, encouraging children to add information around it during the topic.
  6. Use knowledge organisers to strengthen teacher knowledge in a subject area.
  7. Glue 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 discuss how their new knowledge links and builds upon it. 
  9. 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.
  10. Use the knowledge organisers as guided reading texts. This way, you can help children read the information and check they understand it. Schools with the Cornerstones Curriculum often use our knowledge organisers in this way.

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, forming schemata. 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.

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 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. 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 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 – 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 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 of the knowledge organiser 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. 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 already have an active Cornerstones Curriculum licence, we have uploaded knowledge organisers for all of our KS1 and KS2 projects on Curriculum Maestro or The Hub.

If not, you can still download these KS1 and KS2 free samples and give them a try.

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Caroline Pudner

Caroline is a Curriculum Developer 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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