Knowledge Organisers – the nuts and bolts but not the structure (2)

Part 2 – Building the structure

In a previous post I outlined my view of knowledge organisers and their place in schema building, focusing on how I had found them useful as a starting point in considering the knowledge architecture of a topic before beginning to teach it. In this post I will outline how I have used them with students and how I plan to adapt my practice in the future.

Teaching with knowledge organisers

Following reading a lot about knowledge organisers, I decided to use them with some of my classes this year. A brief summary of how I used them follows. I…

  • …spent time considering the architecture of knowledge which contained the information on the knowledge organiser (see previous post).
  • …handed out a knowledge organiser at the start of each topic and instructed students to learn it as an on-going home learning task and encouraged them to refer to it during lessons.
  • …wrote key questions and answers based on the content of the knowledge organiser which I shared with students and used as the basis of low stakes retrieval testing at the start of each lesson.
  • …spent at least 10 minutes at the start of every lesson on testing this knowledge and questioning students to further develop knowledge and build links between current and prior learning.
  • …spent a lot of time in lessons developing students’ understanding and application of and the links between the key ideas set out in the knowledge organisers.
  • …gave students shed loads of practice (SLOP) (Boxer, 2017) and assessed their understanding regularly through written work and lots and lots of questioning.

Was it worth the effort of putting these resources together and changing the way that I taught these classes?  I would answer with an emphatic “yes”. My students are much more confident in their recall of key definitions and facts than previous classes which has enabled me to spend more lesson time supporting them in developing the complex schema – the explanations, applications, links and hinterland knowledge which brings a greater richness to their experience of the subject and the world.

Was it knowledge organisers that made the difference? Probably not. They were the catalyst which took me back to considering the structure of knowledge, largely inspired by engaging with the #CogsSciSci group, reading various books, and CPD provided by my school. This thought process led to me developing key questions, got me thinking about cognitive science and the benefits of retrieval practice and SLOP. It’s the combination of these things which have made a difference to my students.

There are definite pitfalls with knowledge organisers, the main one being that students see them as a revision summary of all they need to know. A few of my students have fallen into this trap and therefore struggled in topic tests and end of year exams – they knew the facts, but lacked the broader knowledge which enabled them to explain and apply these. They were exposed to this knowledge in lessons but saw the knowledge organiser as what they needed to know. It is so important to explain to our students what a knowledge organiser is (and is not).

I will keep on using knowledge organisers. My department are developing them, along with core questions, for our KS3 curriculum and we will all be using them from September. I will however be doing, and encouraging my department to do the following to ensure maximum benefit from the work we’ve put into writing them:

  • Explain clearly to students what the knowledge organiser is and is not.
  • Explain and model to students how the knowledge organiser should be used.
  • Use the knowledge organiser in your planning – think about the kernels of knowledge it contains, the links between them, what needs elaborating, explaining, modelling, practising, and give careful thought to how you will do this with the students in your class.
  • Use the knowledge organiser in conjunction with core questions and regular, low stakes retrieval testing.
  • Ensure plenty of lesson time is spent on questioning, explaining, modelling and students practising.

A set of knowledge organisers is not a curriculum. A student who can recite their knowledge organiser does not necessarily have a secure understanding of the topic. The teacher is the architect, the knowledge organiser is a starting point which contains some of the nuts and bolts required to construct the full structure. Developing the expert schema in the minds of our students is the art of teaching.


Boxer 2017 –

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