Knowledge Organisers – the nuts and bolts but not the structure (1)

Part 1 – Architects of knowledge

Knowledge organisers have become ubiquitous. Teachers are putting a lot of time and effort into creating them. I have been writing knowledge organisers and my department are in the process of developing them for our KS3 curriculum. With so many knowledge organisers flying around I share my reflections as I come to the end of my first year of using them systematically in my teaching.

The concept of knowledge organisers is not new. I have used similar resources throughout my teaching career, mostly as a revision tool which I gave to students as we came towards an end of topic test. Over the past 18 months, as I have read more about the curriculum, powerful knowledge (Young, 2014) and cognitive science, and considered how these are applicable in my own teaching practice and in leading my department, I have realised that the knowledge organiser can be a much more powerful tool than a simple revision checklist. In this post I will outline how I view knowledge organisers as a tool to support and scaffold the building of a rich schema (the structure of knowledge and understanding), in the minds of students. A second post will then describe how I have used them with students, the pitfalls I have encountered and how I will adapt my practice in the future.

As teachers, we are seeking to build the schema of a subject in the minds of our students. The schema has been helpfully represented as dots (the things you want students to know) with lines (the connections) between them (Boxer, 2019). I have been considering how knowledge organisers fit into this model. Initially, I thought that the knowledge organiser provided the dots or ‘facts’, with the links between them being developed by the teacher in the classroom. The reality is much more complex.

A representation of the schema. In the second image, red sections represent knowledge which can be obtained through learning the knowledge organiser.

The knowledge organiser can provide students with knowledge of some facts and simple links between them. However, even in defining key words, which could be represented by dots, elaboration and explanation from an expert (the teacher) may be required for students to gain a full understanding of new vocabulary. In addition there is knowledge which is necessary for a working understanding, but which students will not acquire from memorising a knowledge organiser. Surrounding this necessary knowledge is a whole world of information which may not be necessary in understanding and applying the key concepts, but which will enrich their knowledge and understanding of the broader narrative of a discipline, this has been referred to as hinterland knowledge (Counsell, 2018). It is so important that we, as teachers, are clear about this in our own minds and that we communicate it to our students. Memorising the knowledge organiser is not the same as building the schema. It is easy for students to fall into this way of thinking.

To elaborate, a typical knowledge organiser that I use in Science (example shown) lists key vocabulary with definitions, has a summary of some key facts and perhaps some mathematical formulae or labelled diagrams. I use the term ‘knowledge organiser’ as it seems to commonly be applied, although I prefer to call it a ‘knowledge summary’ as documents like the example below do not necessarily ‘organise’ knowledge. Ruth Walker (2018) has written about this in more detail.

So how does this fit into the schema diagram? Considering a small portion of one Year 7 topic serves to illustrate the complexity of the situation. Take the example of the three non-contact forces – magnetic, electrostatic and gravitational. Given the knowledge organiser shown, students could learn the definitions of these terms and that they are linked together, but do they really understand what they mean? Careful questioning will be required to tease this out.  Some might then get as far as recognising that magnetic and electrostatic forces can be attractive or repulsive, whereas gravitational forces are always attractive. These are crucial facts and definitions and an automatic knowledge of them will support students in taking the next steps. However, this knowledge organiser will not be able to develop their understanding of examples of these forces, their ability to predict repulsion or attraction, a deeper grasp of the concept of a force field and how it is represented, or the factors affecting its strength. The richness of learning about the Earth’s magnetic field and its use in navigation or the complexities of living on the International Space Station in a situation of zero gravity would be missed if we see the knowledge organiser as the sum total of what students should know.

The most powerful thing that I have done with my ‘knowledge summaries’ is to use them as a starting point in my planning. They outline the key knowledge I wish to impart to my students. I construct a true knowledge organiser, largely for my own benefit, and often in my head, by considering the following questions:

  • How do the facts link together?
  • What will need additional explanation?
  • What areas will require students to practise?
  • What ‘hinterland’ knowledge would enrich students’ understanding and appreciation?
  • What misconceptions will I need to address?
  • Are there links to other topic areas which I should emphasise?

The example below is constructed from a small section of the example knowledge organiser above.

Thinking carefully about the structure of knowledge in this way is something which I had fallen out of the habit of doing. I don’t think I have mapped out knowledge so carefully since I was a trainee teacher. Doing so again, with the wealth of experience I have gained from eight years in the classroom was an eye opener. I noticed links and misconceptions which I hadn’t thought about before. I was able to recognise right at the start of my planning that certain aspects of a topic would require more time because they needed students to practise certain skills or contained particularly challenging concepts. As a result of carefully considering the architecture of knowledge in this way my teaching was better planned, more thorough and coherent.

The knowledge organiser provides the nuts and bolts which will enable students to build the structure of knowledge they need to move towards developing an expert schema. As teachers we are the architects and the builders of this structure and the knowledge organiser is a great place to start. Although my original plan in using knowledge organisers was to support my students (Part 2 will describe how I used them in this way) the greatest direct benefit came from the careful planning that I engaged in as a result of considering the architecture of knowledge, and thinking about how best to build this structure in the minds of my students.

References:

Young (2014) – https://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/Images/166279-the-curriculum-and-the-entitlement-to-knowledge-prof-michael-young.pdf (accessed 18/6/2019)

Boxer (2019) – https://achemicalorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2019/03/26/what-to-do-after-a-mock-assessment-sampling-inferences-and-more/ (accessed 18/6/2019)

Counsell (2018) – https://thedignityofthethingblog.wordpress.com/2018/04/07/senior-curriculum-leadership-1-the-indirect-manifestation-of-knowledge-a-curriculum-as-narrative/ (accessed 17/6/2019)

Walker (2018) – https://rosalindwalker.wordpress.com/2018/11/03/knowledge-organisers-and-quiz-sheets/ (accessed 17/6/2019)

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