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At the end of this sentence, I’d like you to pause for a few moments and think about something that you know a lot about… Maybe you thought about gardening, or about how to cook your favourite meal. Perhaps you went for the Crimean War, or sustainable energy.
It doesn’t really matter what it was – what matters is what you did when thinking about it.
As soon as you stopped to think, facts stored in your long-term memory were brought to mind, firing up a beautifully complex, interconnected web of knowledge.
This may have been the best months to plant daffodil bulbs, or which fertiliser to use for roses. Or perhaps you were reflecting on the religious tensions between Catholic France and Orthodox Russia, and the 1853 riots of Bethlehem.
Cognitive psychologists might call this ‘schema activation’. Schema, here, refers to the mental model that you have of any given subject, and it is furnished by everything that you have ever learnt about it.
As teachers, schemas (or schemata, if you want to be fancy) are the currency that we deal in. We seek to carefully build increasingly sophisticated schemas in our pupils’ minds, allowing them to think more coherently, critically and creatively.
As pupils learn more about a particular subject they have a larger and tighter web with which to catch new pieces of information. In this way, then, knowledge begets knowledge. That is to say: the more you know, the easier it is to learn.
However, building these complex schemata within our pupils’ minds is no easy task. For one thing, like all humans we suffer from ‘expert blindness’ – the phenomenon of overestimating what others know about a topic.
This can lead to a confusing and frustrating experience for lots of children, as they struggle to pick out the important facts that allow the kind of sophisticated thinking you engaged in at the start of this article.
The problem, then, is that schemata, which are so important for understanding a particular topic, are internal and invisible.
Imagine if we started planning a unit by making the schema as explicit and as visible as possible? This is exactly the purpose of a knowledge organiser, a curriculum tool gaining huge popularity in primary classrooms up and down the country.
In this post – the second in our curriculum series – we will explore exactly what a knowledge organiser is, and how it is used in the classroom. Let’s start with the ‘why’ – the exact purposes of a knowledge organiser, which are threefold.
First, it acts as a planning tool, setting out all of the core, foundational facts that must be learnt to understand and master a particular topic.
Second, it is useful as an assessment tool, allowing you throughout a unit of work to quickly check that pupils are learning exactly what you hoped they would.
Lastly, and perhaps most powerfully, is the knowledge organiser’s function as a quizzing tool, helping pupils to recall with lightning speed the key information needed to make sense of the topic.
Every topic at our school, Reach Academy Feltham, has a knowledge organiser at its heart. It is both the anchor and the lodestar of any unit of work.
Whether it’s the Tudors or Tectonic Plates, we begin by meticulously listing everything we expect every child to know. This can require a little subject knowledge development from teachers, researching the unit to curate and organise those essential facts.
Here, then, the schema is made explicit and the expectation for what should be learnt is transparent to pupils, teachers, leaders and parents.
Quickly, we find that these facts can be chunked into different sections (for example ‘key vocabulary, ‘important people’ or a ‘timeline’).
Brevity is key here, and individual facts should be kept snappy.
It is difficult to remember long paragraphs, and so a very short summary – for instance ‘Winston Churchill: British Prime Minister during WWII from 1940-1945’ – will suffice.
Explanation and elaboration will come in the lessons, with the item on the knowledge organiser a useful primer and aide memoire for pupils.
Images, maps and diagrams may be necessary for certain topics, but they take up a lot of space and so should only be included if absolutely necessary.
Now, we have our knowledge organiser. A single sheet of A4 paper with all of the essential facts that together represent the schema of a topic. These facts are organised into sections, with each knowledge item concise.
But just writing a knowledge organiser is not enough. It must also be implemented with care if we want to supercharge the curriculum. This brings us back to the three functions of a knowledge organiser: as a planning, assessment and quizzing tool.
Let’s take each of these in turn. To plan from a knowledge organiser, it is important to make sure that all of the content included is covered over the course of the lessons.
So if we wish to include the six major biomes on our Y3 geography knowledge organiser, it makes sense to include a lesson on each, exploring the unique climate, features, flora and fauna.
As an assessment tool we can, throughout a unit, refer back to the knowledge organiser and ‘check off’ what has been taught in depth during lessons.
This could be by asking pupils to spend a few moments taking it in turns to explain one particular section with their partner, or you may wish to start each lesson with a ‘pop quiz’ to test what pupils have retained.
Of course, quizzing does not have to be directed by the teacher. Knowledge organisers are perfect tools for ‘self-quizzing’.
This means asking pupils to cover up one column on their knowledge organiser (for example the names of the important people in a period) and then see if they can recall these names from their descriptions.
Or maybe vice versa, pupils could try and write out the descriptions you have written based on the names.
This process of self-quizzing is low-stakes, hugely motivational and has massive learning benefits. It increases what cognitive psychologists Robert and Elizebeth Bjork refer to as retrieval and storage strength of key knowledge.
In this sense then, weighing the pig actually does fatten it! Known within the literature as the ‘testing effect’, it is one of the most robust findings in psychology, and will set up your students with a powerful studying strategy for the rest of their lives.
Lastly, knowledge organisers have a hidden value. With the exact content in any given unit set out so transparently, links can be made between different topics.
When our pupils study Roman Britain in Y4, they learn about the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century. However, their teacher knows that in Y3 they will all have learnt about the collapse of the Shang Dynasty in Ancient China in 1046 BCE.
Thus, explicit links can be drawn, giving pupils multiple concrete examples of building and maintaining an empire. They will encounter this theme again when studying the Benin Kingdom of west Africa in Y5.
These conceptual links can only be established with clarity around exactly what is being learnt in each unit.
So knowledge organisers are valuable for senior leaders, as well as teachers and pupils, because they provide a more coherent and sequenced curriculum that is mapped over years, not only weeks.
We should be clear – knowledge organisers are not a silver bullet. They do not, by themselves, constitute a curriculum. That glorious cathedral must be built with all manner of materials, borne from a range of thoughtful minds.
However, when carefully written and intelligently implemented, they can form the very foundation stones from which we build. Why not give them a try in your next topic?
Read more about knowledge organisers and their use, and see some examples, at Jon Hutchinson’s blog, Pedfed, here.
Find all six articles in this series on taking a curriculum deep dive, here.
Jon Hutchinson is assistant headteacher at Reach Academy Feltham. Follow him on Twitter at @jon_hutchinson_.
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