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Knowledge Organisers: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

The term "knowledge organiser" has been used a lot over the last few years. They are a tool of which I am a passionate advocate. However, opinions of them appear to be divided; While I have met many teachers who share my passion, others have been nonplussed or told me to 'just use a revision guide'.

To me, knowledge organisers are the ultimate tool of inclusion. They will never replace the benefit of being taught by an expert. However, they create a situation in which every child, regardless of special need, attendance or socio-economic status, can have access to the core knowledge they need to succeed.

However, this only happens if knowledge organisers are written well; I believe, in order to realise their benefits, knowledge organisers must be focused, sequential and accessible.

Many pupils will arrive at secondary school lacking in cultural capital, with a limited vocabulary or with little experience of subjects such as history or geography. Therefore, if the aim of knowledge organisers is to make core knowledge available to all pupils, it is vital that their content is accessible.

This is not to say that the content cannot be challenging. All pupils are capable of learning and using specialist terms and understanding complex concepts. However, unless the absolute core concepts are explained in the most accessible possible terms, we risk tripping and demotivating pupils at the first hurdle.

My school’s humanities department uses three main techniques to achieve this:
1.       Key word banks are incorporated into the side of every knowledge organiser. These definitions are written by teachers to ensure that they are suitable for different year groups.
2.       Pupils are introduced to the knowledge organisers via a specific ‘homework lesson’ at the beginning of the year. This allows teachers to model how to read the text and check the meaning of different words with pupils.
3.       The knowledge organisers are broken down into small boxes for each sub-topic. These are designed to be read individually.

As subject specialists, it is often tempting to get a bit carried away when writing knowledge organisers. My first year 7 history knowledge organisers (which I gave out every week!) contained everything from in depth explanations of laws introduced by Edward VI to quotes from Elizabeth I. This enthusiasm comes from a good place; we’re writing about topics which we’re passionate about and we’re keen to share that passion with our pupils.

If we are to avoid information overload, there are three main questions we need to ask before even planning the sections of any knowledge organiser:
  • What contextual knowledge do pupils already have?
  • What do pupils need to know to be successful in this unit of work? (Does the scheme of work have a specific focus?)
  • What will pupils need to know in order to be successful in future units?

Initially this may feel restrictive. However, knowledge organisers are the foundations rather than the buildings themselves; we are still free to communicate detailed and passionate subject knowledge in our lessons, but we can do it safe in the knowledge that all pupils should have a grasp of the key concepts they need to explore further.

The need for knowledge organisers to follow a logical sequence is twofold:

  • If pupils are to actually use knowledge organisers in a meaningful way, they need to be woven into the curriculum; they should be given the same level of importance as assessments or schemes of work. Without a sense of progression which follows the unit of work, knowledge organisers simply become an ‘add on’ which are used by the few but not the many.
  • While knowledge organisers should be accessible, this accessibility should take into account the other content which has been covered; a sequential approach allows knowledge organisers to cover more complex concepts over time and impresses on pupils the importance of revisiting previous knowledge.

Knowledge Organiser Section:
1.       Why is the earth like a boiled egg?
1.       The earth’s structure
2.       Where do tectonic hazards occur?
2.       Plate boundaries
3.       What is a volcano?
3.       Shield and composite volcanoes
4.       Why do composite volcanoes occur?
4.       The formation of composite volcanoes
5.       What is an earthquake?
5.       Earthquakes
6.       How are earthquakes measured?
6.       Measuring earthquakes
7.       What happened in Chile in 2010?
7.       Prediction, preparation and protection (PPP)
8.       What happened in Haiti in 2010?
8.       Chile, 2010 (HIC)
9.       Why do the effects of earthquakes vary between LICs and HICs?
9.       Haiti, 2010 (LIC)

The ultimate factor:
Ultimately, a good knowledge organiser takes time and care; if teachers don’t understand their core purpose or fail to carefully weave them into their overall curriculum, they run the risk of creating documents which demotivate pupils and widen the gap further. If knowledge organisers are worth doing, they are worth doing well.


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