Knowledge Organisers

Specify subject knowledge in meticulous detail

What’s the difference between a knowledge curriculum and other curricula? A knowledge curriculum specifies, in meticulous detail, the exact facts, dates, events, characters, concepts and precise definitions that all pupils are expected to master in long-term memory. Many teachers underestimate the value of specifying (and sequencing) such detail. It is rare to find an English, Science or even History scheme of work that sets this out. The most powerful tool in the arsenal of the curriculum designer is the knowledge organiser. These organise all the most vital, useful and powerful knowledge on a single page. Here is an example for Year 7: the timeline, activists, quotations and political and legal vocabulary for a unit on apartheid South Africa. KnowledgeMapSA There are two reasons they are so useful: clarity for teachers, and memory for pupils.

Clarity for teachers

Knowledge organisers clarify for everyone, from the Headteacher to brand new teachers, exactly what is being taught. At Michaela, Heads of Department think deeply about the difficult trade-offs between breadth and depth. If, for instance, you only have one religion lesson a week, what exactly about the Bible should your pupils study, and what will you omit? A broad range of stories, or fewer stories in greater depth?

We try hard to choose the most valuable content that we want all pupils to remember for ten years and beyond. And for each unit, we discipline ourselves to distil it onto a single page.

When a new teacher starts in a school, one of the first questions they have is ‘what do I teach?’ At a single glance, knowledge organisers answer that. Everything our pupils need to know for the year is set out clearly in advance.

Now, any teacher can pop into anyone else’s lesson, look at the unit organiser, and see what every kid is working on. I love seeing the fantastic knowledge they are learning: from astronomy in Science, to European geography in Humanities, to grammatical structures in French. I love asking them questions about their subjects, and seeing their eyes light up as they see others love science, geography and history too.

Memory for pupils

Knowledge organisers are given to all pupils at the start of each unit to help them remember what they’re learning. No longer out of sight, out of mind: instead of leaving behind previous units’ content, teachers can recap quickly and easily in lessons. Instead of forgetting all about it, pupils continually revisit and retrieve prior learning from their memories.

Every lesson, across all subjects, we use knowledge organisers printed off as a pack of in-lesson quizzes. The numbers and columns here help turn the grids into simple in-class quizzes. Emboldening key words allows pupils to peer-mark the complex definitions, working out which terms are vital in them: KnowledgeQuizSA1 KnowledgeQuizSA2 Lastly, knowledge organisers are brilliant for revision. In the past, I hugely underestimated the sheer volume of retrieval practice required for pupils to master all their subject knowledge in long-term memory. Specifying the exact knowledge is just a starting point. Sequencing it, explaining it, checking it, quizzing on it, practicing combining it, testing it, and revising it for years are vital if pupils are to remember it for years to come.

Next time, I’ll write about our five-year revision strategy across subjects.

UPDATE: James Theobald has started this brilliant collection of knowledge organisers across subjects.

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About Joe Kirby

English teacher, education blogger
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47 Responses to Knowledge Organisers

  1. LeahKStewart says:

    Hi Joe, thanks for the article. I have a question: what about students who enjoy creating their own knowledge organizers? As a student my ‘most fun’ was taking a years worth of detailed lesson materials and pulling out the key knowledge onto a one-page organizer, as you have done here. This joy was ruined when it stopped being about filtering and refining a mass of materials and instead became about drilling the basic facts already listed for me. The process of creating my own pure summary from a mass of wrangled information was how I revised.

    On the flip side, as a student I was asked to tutor other students in my lunch breaks and I brought my summaries for them… I could see how these helped clarify for them what was required to be learnt, and therefore helped them in tests, but their gifts were in conversation and by talking with them I learnt and developed myself further than I could on my own. If the tests were ‘hold an interesting conversation on this topic’ those students would ace it and I’d have been the ‘struggling’ one.

    P.S. Your headers are great: Timeline, People, Quotes, Vocabulary… They can be applied to so many topics! Makes me want to create a summary right now! 🙂

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  3. misslisa67 says:

    I like this. It gives me lots of ‘food for thought’….and it also sets off lots more questions. For instance, where do the skills of the subject fit in? Maybe the essay writing, paragraph structuring, evaluation strategies..? These questions aren’t criticisms…I’m just wondering how you interleaved it all together. As an English teacher, I’m currently thinking about this in terms of KS3 and how we want it to lead into skills needed for GCSE. Within the factual coverage, do you also consider ‘how and why’ factors, and at what point? Throughout? Or after a foundation of knowledge is established at first? I’m fascinated by the Michaela approach – don’t know if it would work everywhere, but that’s not the issue – and rather envious of the way you can go back to first principles like this. Would love to see how your English curriculum is developing.
    @Lisa7Pettifer

  4. How I wish I had a knowledge organizer when I did my GCSE. Teachers seem to have the curriculum because they are always rushing us through it. Recommended textbooks often give too much. What we depended on was past year questions, going back 5 years or more. We write model answers and have the facts ready in memory, in case a question on a similar subject turns up. The dictum was “exam is curriculum”. It is true also for other exams I went through including HSC(A level), MBBS and the FRCS examinations. For the last two, we wait outside the examination hall and queried candidates coming out regarding the questions they were asked.
    The knowledge organizer for any subject is certainly good for passing exams but (hopefully) it also defines the minimum (breadth and depth) a student need to know to have a good grasp of knowledge in general. To take it beyond preparation for exams is a challenge.

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  7. Useful summary of factual information. But how do you approach the deep structure underpinning the facts? Is there a way of displaying that in the knowledge organiser?

  8. “The most powerful tool in the arsenal of the curriculum designer is the knowledge organiser. ”
    That is a bold statement.
    It may be the first thing you need but I don’t think it is even half the story.
    And I am not convinced it is knowledge, so much as a list of facts. Until the relationships and processes are in place the facts have little value.
    If the new member of staff is given that organiser and told that is what they have to teach it is going to be a pretty poor diet.

    The big question for me is, what are the students to DO with these facts?

    How will they show understanding?

    • mkibbio says:

      This is my question- how to keep students from stopping at the recall stage. I would use this strategy as finalizing the fine points perhaps but not initiating. Too tempting for attempting memorization of minimal knowledge.

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  10. It’s really encouraging to see the detail of what you’re doing at Michaela. I’m putting together something similar for my department, but using a question and answer format. Q: What type of play is Julius Caesar? A: Julius Caesar is a tragedy.Q: When is Julius Caesar set? A: Julius Caesar is set in ancient times, during the era of the Roman Republic. And so on. I’ve found this to be really effective, as it builds in a way for students to test each other. Once everyone has learned the questions and answers by heart, you can pick someone to ‘be teacher’ and fire questions at their classmates. They really enjoy this. Whoever said drill couldn’t be fun?

    • Brian says:

      The plot thickens as the comments build.

      I believe I am with logicalincrementalism on this one. I wouldn’t want my students to remember that Julius Caesar is a tragedy, I would want them to “understand” that Julius Caesar is a tragedy (hence why).

      I see no great reason why we would not facilitiate the acquisiation of facts, along with the knowledge of concepts, along with the acquisition of the ability to use both to solve problems in the real world.

      I give my students lots of facts to learn but they rarely learn them by rote. They organise them into deeper structures. I am not holding myself up as any sort or model teacher, this is simply what I do. I thought this was what all teachers did and I do it having been informed by decades of research (before Dan Willingham was invented).

      For me this is a nice clear example of what has been the bread and butter of teaching throughout my career.

      “Whoever said drill couldn’t be fun?” ….. Oldandrew. he maintains that fun and learning are incompatible. I believe he is in the minority though.

      • You’ve created a false dichotomy between facts and understanding. This is a method that has been used repeatedly to scorn the teaching of factual knowledge. It is not an either/or. The facts are the starting point for building understanding.

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  15. Really interesting, I think the process of creating the knowledge organiser can also be very useful clarification for the teacher when planning. I would love to see examples from the English department if possible? @stephanootis

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  32. Jennie says:

    Hugely helpful. Thank you.

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