Are ‘knowledge organisers’ now essential tools in the classroom?

Primary teacher Jon Brunskill and secondary teacher Mark Enser explain how they use KOs and respond to the inevitable backlash against the teaching aids

Jon Brunskill & Mark Enser

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It was Twitter that kicked things off. A growing number of teachers were sharing intricately crafted documents that laid out the core details of a subject or topic in an organised and easily accessible way. Word spread. Knowledge organisers (KOs) quickly became the “in” thing.

The reaction was mostly positive: these were useful tools for staff and students alike – both to make clear to the teacher the core knowledge that they should be instilling in students, and to help pupils to organise their memory of key facts.

Then came the backlash: “They’re spoon-feeding children”; “They’re unsuitable for our youngest students – they have no place in primary”; “Whose knowledge is it anyway?”; “Why that knowledge?”

In the midst of the arguments, two key voices in favour of KOs – one from primary, Jon Brunskill, Year 2 lead at Reach Academy Feltham, and one from secondary, Mark Enser, head of geography at Heathfield Community College – discussed how KOs should be used, how they differ between the two settings, as well as their response to the criticisms. Here’s how their conversation unfolded.

Mark Enser: At our school, and in my department, we use KOs much like we did a crib sheet. For example, our KO on India for Year 7 includes a map of the country, some information on development indicators and how they change and some facts on how tourism affects the country. Do you use them in the same way at primary?

At our school, and in my department, we use KOs much like we did a crib sheet

Jon Brunskill: I’ve only recently started using KOs in Year 2. The original rationale was to ensure that my subject knowledge was up to scratch before teaching a unit of work in a foundation subject. I started out by asking myself what the five key things were that every child must know by the end of the unit.

Originally this was just a primer for medium-term planning. But I’ve since started to embed it into teaching, learning and assessment, not least because I’ve come to learn that curriculum and assessment are so closely linked.

I assume you’re constrained much more by exam specs then we are in primary in terms of what you include. How do you go about ensuring children actually engage with this as a document?

'Informal' decisions

ME: I don’t think we have really looked at KOs as something to aid us as teachers in agreeing/deciding what to cover. I suppose we do that informally when we sit down to plan out a new unit together.

You are right that, at key stage 4 and KS5, the specification can be quite prescriptive in what to cover (although at least in geography we can decide which places to look at as examples). At KS3, though, the national curriculum is very loose and we can largely study whatever we think is important. Starting with a KO could be a good approach.

We ensure that pupils engage with the KOs by linking them to checklists. These checklists contain statements of what we think pupils should know by the end of the unit, such as “how climate varies across India”. This information is contained in the KO, so pupils can use this if they are uncertain.

JB: It’s interesting to hear your approach to knowledge selection. When we were writing our all-through curriculum [Jon teaches in an all-through school], we [primary teachers] asked the secondary teachers what they would like the children to know when they arrived. Within the humanities, the teachers tended to respond: “We don’t care what they know, we care about the skills they come up with. Can they analyse a source, assess evidence and write a balanced essay?”

My argument would be that these skills are largely dependent on how much you already know about a subject. What determines how sophisticated your arguments are in an essay on changes in global temperature is how much you know about those trends and the underlying causes.

We ensure that pupils engage with the KOs by linking them to checklists.

So let me lay down a challenge for you. What would a KO (briefly) look like for geography for the whole of secondary? Could you identify one or two knowledge items that, if the children were to leave without, you’d consider them to have been failed in the discipline?

ME: Wow, that is one heck of a challenge! I think at the very least I would expect all students to leave with a broad knowledge of the location of major physical landforms and ecosystems, along with their characteristics. I would expect them to know the causes of the processes that shape our world, from migration to tectonics. I would expect all students to know how the hydrological cycle works and its implication for flood management…I’m afraid I could keep going for some time.

I can see that question being a debate at our next department meeting.

This brings us to some of the potential issues with KOs. They are certainly not universally liked and one of the issues some teachers have is that it is not for the teacher to decide which knowledge is important.

Certainly, I have found it tough trying to select the knowledge to include. I have started trying to think in terms of “liminal” or “threshold” knowledge: the knowledge that you need for later learning to make sense.

'Core' knowledge

JB: Yes, the “whose knowledge is it anyway” debate is certainly a good one and, although I think we have to be careful not to perpetuate a narrow world view, I believe there is a largely identifiable body of core knowledge that children should be exposed to if they are to be successful later in life.

So although I do think we should make an effort to unearth great figures who have been neglected and ignored due to race, gender or whatever, I also think that there has been a “best that has been thought and said”, and that children deserve to be taught this. I’d go so far as to say it’s a dereliction of duty not to.

Another common criticism of KOs is that memorising this information is pointless, as we can look it up and we should be concentrating on “21st century skills”. I’m tempted to be quite hostile and say that 21st-century skills are the same as 20th- or 19th-century skills. I’m convinced by the argument that the internet doesn’t fundamentally change anything, but could widen the [attainment] gap as the more knowledgeable exploit it more easily.

As for memorisation, the students are still foundational in their reading and writing skills. If the purpose is for them to write an information text, then you want them to have the knowledge at their fingertips, so all of their cognitive effort is focused on crafting a piece of writing. If they need to go and read a text each time they want to write a sentence, they will stumble each time they attempt to write something down.

There are clearly problems in looking up knowledge every time you need it

ME: I agree completely on the teaching of 21st-century skills. There are clearly problems in looking up knowledge every time you need it. There is only so much that you can hold in your working memory.

So we seem to be in agreement that KOs are a good thing to produce each time we start a new topic, both in primary and secondary. But do you think they have made a genuine difference to how you teach and how the kids learn?

JB: It has changed the way that I have approached planning. Sequencing content in lessons becomes much easier and I think I deliver with more clarity. I think it also becomes more transparent for children in terms of what they are expected to learn.

I think that KOs have made a big difference in upping the game in terms of what we expect of students. It’s actually a pretty quick exercise and helps to organise the key points in my own head. How about you?

ME: I think the biggest difference it has made to our teaching is that we are all much more aware of what the basic requirements are for each unit of work and this leads to more consistency between classes. It also leads to some interesting discussions on just what it is that we consider to be important knowledge in our subject. And I guess, at any level of education, anything that gets us talking and better defining what we want to teach can only be a good thing.

It seems KOs will continue to develop in both our settings but this conversation has given rise to an idea: I would have thought that sharing KOs would be an excellent way of ensuring continuity between schools, in breaking that traditional barrier between settings and starting conversations across the primary-secondary divide. More conversations like this would only be a good thing, right?

JB: Definitely, I think so much could be gained from better discussions – or just a discussion, full stop.

Jon Brunskill (@jon_brunskill) is the Year 2 lead at Reach Academy, Feltham

Mark Enser (@EnserMark) is head of geography at Heathfield Community College

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Jon Brunskill & Mark Enser

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