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Why Every Teacher Should Use Knowledge Organisers

Knowledge organisers can turbocharge progress, level the learning playing field and slash teacher workload, says Becky Sayers – but only if you do them right…

  • Why Every Teacher Should Use Knowledge Organisers

My department has been using knowledge organisers for around three years now, and they are a key part of our practice.

In the past I have referred to them as the ‘ultimate tool of inclusion’.

However, introducing them has been a learning curve – we have discovered that, if implemented poorly, they can vastly increase workload, have a negligible impact on learning and, in a worst-case scenario, can cause pupils to become overwhelmed and disengaged.

Teacher time is precious, and knowledge organisers take significant time to create. When written and implemented well, they can be valuable resources which can be used year on year.

However, if this isn’t the case, they can become seemingly pointless time eaters that make teachers resentful.

In order to ensure the former, therefore, my department has developed four key questions to ask about the process:

1 | Is the content of the knowledge organiser essential?

I have to admit, I quite enjoy creating knowledge organisers; they can feel like an opportunity to showcase my subject knowledge, particularly when I’m writing about topics which I enjoy or know a lot about.

Unfortunately, this level of enjoyment can also cause knowledge organisers to become bloated.

In the early days, I had a tendency to start writing about what was interesting, rather than what was essential – often finding that the final stage of my drafting process was to remove unnecessary material, rather than to add anything else.

To minimise the need for seemingly endless trimming and redrafting, I now ask myself one question whenever I’m writing facts on a knowledge organiser page: do pupils need to memorise this?

If the answer is no, it probably does not need to be included.

2 | Has the department engaged with the knowledge organiser?

It is often tempting, as educators, to see ourselves as islands. Throughout my training I was encouraged to develop my own resources; and this is a key skill for any teacher.

However, it can create the impression that using colleagues’ resources, even within our own departments, is somehow ‘cheating’ or ‘stealing’.

This, in turn, can result in teachers not engaging with knowledge organisers, either through a habit of self-reliance or a culture of not planning as a team.

This can lead to knowledge organisers not being in line with lessons, causing teachers and students to either feel overwhelmed, or to view the resources as pointless.

Equally, without proper guidance, some teachers can become overly reliant on knowledge organisers.

They become a fact sheet which replaces teacher input, or the centrepiece of every lesson.

The result of this approach is that pupils’ knowledge will be extremely shallow, as they have only been given the bare minimum, leaving them unable to make connections or understand the significance of events.

Knowledge organisers have to be fully integrated within a scheme of work and all teachers of that topic must engage with them: they should be a thread in the tapestry for every teacher, rather than a patch or the entire picture for some.

In our department, we achieve this through a mix of training and homework.

At the beginning of each unit, the heads of subject deliver ‘masterclasses’ for teachers on their subjects, explaining the key themes and points within the knowledge organisers.

Even then, our department does not use knowledge organisers in lessons; rather, our initial input of knowledge is via teachers giving carefully planned explanations which are in line with the knowledge organisers (often building on them).

The rest of the lesson is spent checking, explaining and using that knowledge. For homework, pupils reinforce their knowledge by either answering centrally planned questions based on sections of their knowledge organiser in their quiz books, or testing themselves on previous quizzes from memory.

3 | Are pupils engaging with the knowledge organiser?

When I first started using knowledge organisers, I set homework which most pupils were extremely happy with (on the surface): ‘Learn the knowledge organiser page about [topic].’

It was ineffective: almost all students either diligently read and highlighted the sheet only to become frustrated and disengaged when they found that couldn’t remember what they had read, or, as they were not expected to provide any proof, they didn’t bother to read it at all.

Pupils tend not to recognise the value of homework, and research shows us that novices often cannot differentiate between activities which they find easy and activities which are effective.

If pupils are given a knowledge organiser with little instruction other than to ‘learn’ it, the majority will opt for ineffective methods or will not bother at all.

The methods we use as a department, such as quizzing and interleaving, are designed to ensure that pupils are accountable, while also ensuring retention through strategies supported by cognitive science.

4 | What barriers might pupils face when using the knowledge organiser?

In the past, common reasons for not doing knowledge organiser homework were usually “I didn’t understand it” or “I didn’t have the sheet”.

If knowledge organisers are to be effective and ‘the ultimate tools of inclusion’, these two reasons must be effectively tackled; the resources must, therefore, be academically and logistically accessible to as many of the targeted pupils as possible.

Academic accessibility is ensuring that, as much as possible, learners can understand knowledge organisers independently.

When writing ours, we attempt to cater for this by including key words on each page (so pupils do not have to hunt for definitions), by avoiding ‘chains of definitions’ in our key words sections, and by using diagrams whenever possible to complement definitions.

Meanwhile, in our department “I didn’t have the knowledge organiser” is not an excuse for incomplete homework: all pupils are given a week to complete the task (we have a centrally set timetable); all staff have access to the knowledge organisers (which are saved according to common headings on the staff system) so they can print replacements; all knowledge organisers are uploaded onto the school website; and all pupils are given a paper copy at the beginning of each unit.

Getting it right – 6 key questions:

  1. Is the content of your knowledge organiser essential or just interesting?
  2. Do your knowledge organisers reflect your scheme of work?
  3. Are all of your team aware of the content of your knowledge organisers?
  4. How will you know that pupils have engaged with your knowledge organisers?
  5. How will you know that pupils have learned the content of your knowledge organisers in the long term?
  6. Can all pupils use your knowledge organiser, regardless of socio-economic background?

Becky Sayers (‘The Passionately Boring Teacher’), is head of humanities in a 11-16 secondary school in Wiltshire @MissSayers1.

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