Does he write his own rhymes? Well sort of, I think ’em. That means I forgot better s*** than you ever thought of.
– Kanye West, Diamonds from Sierra Leone
This is the second of four posts on knowledge organisers in primary education. The first post set out what they are and why I wanted to use them. This post very briefly addresses some general and specific objections that have arisen since I originally suggested their use. The third expands on these rebuttals, and clarifies what I take to be the purposes and limitations of a knowledge organisers drawing on research from education, psychology and cognitive science. The fourth post sets out exactly how the knowledge organiser was actually used in practice. The final post sets out my reflections on using a knowledge organiser and implications for further use (or abandonment).
Knowing Things is Cool
I used to cry a lot as a child, often in the middle of the night. Usually it was about not wanting to die, but I remember one occasion when I traipsed downstairs to my parents in a terrible state. When my blubbering had finally stopped, they were baffled by the cause of my meltdown – “I’m not going to know everything!” I loved knowing things and was convinced that one day, given enough schooling and learning, I would own all human knowledge.
That fateful night it struck me, after reading about remote Amazonian tribes, that even if I memorised all books ever written, there would remain some colloquial phrase in some far flung corner of the globe which I could never be aware of. It ruined me. I had to accept that ‘know-it-all’ would remain the touching nickname from my teachers and never become a bona fide, official title.
It’s with this, admittedly quirky and perhaps psychologically questionable, world view that I am slightly bemused when people question the value of knowing things. I think that knowing things is glorious and beautiful and makes the world sing. And so I think helping others to know things is the greatest gift of all, and why teaching is the most important and noble of professions. There is no nugget of data too small, trivial or inconsequential for me. On my good days, this is the face that I show to my students, whether they are 6th form, year six or age six. Helping children know more things is, for me, what school is all about.
Introducing Knowledge Organisers to Primary School
Recently, I wrote about using ‘knowledge organisers’ in primary schools. It gathered some interest, and some other teachers have even shared their own attempts at writing knowledge organisers for their primary classes. I was especially pleased that Michael Tidd, who is in my opinion the leading mind on primary education, took to private message to challenge me on some of the details of my own thinking, and debate the purpose of the resource. I’m pleased that he then set out his thoughts in this excellent blog.
There have since been several others who were taken enough by the idea to have blogged on the subject, notably Sue Cowley and Debra Kidd. The original idea, I should note, originates from the inimitable Joe Kirby and his blog sets out the rationale for the approach with far more lucidity than I could ever hope to aspire to. Many people have been in touch over email and DM to politely (but with a satisfactory robustness) challenge my thinking or request clarifications. I started the initial blog by stating that it was early days and that I welcomed feedback, and I really meant it. My thinking on this is still in its infancy, and the friction from the resistance is ultimately, I hope, what will polish a diamond.
This blog aims to answer some of the questions and criticisms that have arisen since my original post. But it would be dishonest not to begin by stating, without apology or equivocation, that I believe knowing things is worth it just for the sake of knowing things. Knowing stuff is cool.
Objections to the Use of a Knowledge Organiser
I’ve listened carefully to the kind colleagues who have taken the time to challenge my thinking on this. The most common objections were the following:
- Isn’t this just an MTP?
- This looks incredibly dull.
- That’s too many facts to learn.
- Who gets to choose the knowledge?
- What’s the point in learning specific dates?
- Why don’t you get the children to ask questions first?
- Children will forget most of this.
- How will this fit into an enquiry curriculum?
- Books are much better sources of knowledge.
- This is just a list, it’s not ‘organised’ at all.
- How will children learn what’s important if you just tell them?
(If I’ve missed any please feel free to add them in the comments, I’ll do my best to respond).
Here are my trigger finger responses to the objections:
Isn’t this just an MTP?
I wrote this before I wrote my MTP, which was heavily informed by it. My contention is that defining the knowledge that should be learnt by the end of the unit will have an impact on how lessons are then structured and sequenced.
This looks incredibly dull.
If it was the only thing presented in the lessons I’d agree with you. The content it represents is anything but dull, though, and once you’ve defined the content you can go about making learning memorable with all your teaching expertise.
That’s too many facts to learn.
I don’t think it is. Some children would learn all of this content even if I hadn’t made the knowledge organiser, and they’ll flourish as a result. My expectation of all children learning all of it is an expectation which will level the playing field. It will, however, require employing learning techniques like retrieval practice, which aren’t always features of lessons in primary.
Who gets to choose the knowledge?
The teacher, or other relevant subject expert. They have sifted enough information and have the requisite contextual knowledge to identify the salient facts which represent mastery of the topic.
What’s the point in learning specific dates?
Because I taught this in the context of a narrative to make it more exciting and memorable, and the dates help with the story. Also, the end of unit goal is to write an information text and great information texts are precise, detailed and accurate.
Why don’t you get the children to ask questions first?
Because they don’t know anything about the subject, and it would take ages for them to stumble across interesting or insightful questions. You can’t ponder why all of the astronauts were men if you don’t already know that all the astronauts were men. You can’t be curious about stuff you’re ignorant about.
Children will forget most of this.
That’s probably true, and that’s ok. There are a few items I’d want them to retain long term, but mostly just long enough to write their info text. I think the process of becoming a master of a topic for a particular purpose is very powerful, even if they go on to forget finer details.
Is that all they’re going to learn?
I certainly hope not, but it is a bare minimum. And since knowledge begets knowledge, I’d hope that nailing the KO would accelerate the learning of more stuff about the lunar landing.
How will this fit into an enquiry curriculum?
It almost certainly doesn’t; you can’t enquire about that which you don’t know about in the first place.
Don’t you lose the awe by reducing something so gripping to a list of facts?
You can lose the awe of any topic if you teach it badly. The facts in the KO, I believe, unlock the awe of this topic.
Books are much better sources of knowledge.
The two aren’t mutually exclusive, and mastering the content in the KO makes books more accessible. I have lots of wonderful non-fiction books which I’ll be using in this topic, and they’ll make so much more sense when the children know the key facts about the topic.
This is just a list, it’s not ‘organised’ at all.
I hadn’t even considered this, and immediately realised it was an accurate and damning challenge. Will inform future efforts.
Some children won’t want to learn about this.
Some children don’t like eating healthily or becoming numerate. It’s our job as adults who care about them to make them do it anyway.
How will children learn what’s important if you just tell them?
There is certainly a case for children to begin to rank importance of different knowledge items, but you can’t begin to do this before you know about the subject. Also, teachers understand which knowledge items will be necessary for future success in school, play and life.
What it is (and what it isn’t)
Some of this reveals what I take to be the purpose of the knowledge organiser. Or rather, purposes, as I believe that it has value in three distinct but related functions:
- As a planning tool for the teacher.
- As a resource for the child and parent.
- As an assessment tool.
I would have thought that it goes without saying, but the knowledge organiser is not a replacement for other planning documents. It isn’t the only thing they will ‘do’ in lessons. It doesn’t preclude the use of other resources. I don’t think that it even necessitates a particular ‘teaching style’ – you could probably do all of this through dance if you wanted to (although it would likely take much longer). The key is setting out what you want all children to learn (not just the ones who go home and learn it all regardless of what you do in lessons), and then holding yourself to account for that.