For some time now, I have been really interested by the concept of a knowledge organiser. I first came across this idea on Joe Kirby’s blog a few years ago and have tried over the years to understand how it might be applied to primary (in amongst getting on with the day job and everything else). More recently I have seen examples of knowledge organisers being used at primary level, and it led me to experiment with creating a few. This blog is about my thoughts on how I think they might be used and how they might support teaching and learning.
My understanding of a knowledge organiser
A knowledge organiser is a document which details all the important facts and relevant information needed for learners to understand the topic they are learning. These are listed on a simple document and children are given copies at the start of the unit, encouraged to spend 10 minutes a night reviewing this information, and can be regularly tested on the content in a similar fashion to times tables tests. They ensure that all members of the school community understand the expectations of what is to be learned in a unit of learning.
Do knowledge organisers represent didactic teaching?
I am certainly not against didactic teaching; I think it is a tool that suits certain situations better than others and can be used very effectively. My concern would be if only didactic teaching were used in primary science because I think children, like adults, need to encounter concepts in different ways and have multiple experiences with those concepts to truly develop understanding.
I did initially think, perhaps due to my perception of some of the practices at the school where Joe Kirby works, that knowledge organisers represent rote learning. Having been trained at university by a science department that held at its core a social-constructivist view of learning (as I feel I myself do), I wasn’t sure how I felt about this. However, I am moving towards the idea that knowledge organisers in their simplicity would provide a grounding in the topic children are learning. A grounding in vocabulary and facts that children could then use to make sense of more practical and stimulating classroom lessons.
For example, if children came to a science lesson having an awareness of terms such as force, friction, air resistance and gravity, any experiences with parachutes or feathers or hammers or whatever is dropped from a height would then be able to fit into a conceptual framework and develop understanding. Even if children had no understanding of the definitions they had learned beyond recital, further experiences would then develop this understanding by providing examples and deepening their knowledge. I would argue that both examples align with a social-constructivist view of learning, where the core knowledge is the starting point and surface knowledge can more readily be established so that deeper understanding can more readily be obtained. Moreover, if children regularly review knowledge organisers, their understanding of each term would be reshaped and refined as they bring their experiences to their mind whilst revising the core knowledge.
Knowledge organisers as a shared language of learning
What really excites me about knowledge organisers is that the knowledge components of the curriculum can be made visible to everyone: teachers, parents and most importantly pupils. Moreover, I hope that these components might support subject knowledge for teachers who have not had specialist science training.
Our curriculum has deconstructed the National Curriculum objectives and aligned them to the ASE’s Big Ideas of Science so we have a conceptual curriculum which is progressive in each of the main ideas year-on-year. The reasons for this were numerous but one key reason was to give teachers autonomy over how they structure science learning in line with the rest of the curriculum – to prevent them from being restricted about what is covered and when, which they might find if we used a scheme of work. This intended freedom has then created a work-load issue for staff in terms of building content knowledge for each objective. By specifying the knowledge content of each objective, this will create consistency for all children but hopefully reduce teachers researching time so they can spend more time planning and preparing exciting lessons.
How will knowledge organisers change the format of science lessons?
I envisage that if children review, revise and quiz themselves (using their chrome books) on knowledge components of the curriculum, lessons can be dedicated to developing these ideas through activities which require higher order thinking. For example, lessons in Year 6 on the circulatory system could be spent comparing the circulatory system and the respiratory system, rather than spending time labelling parts. Role play of change of state would be more meaningful if children had the language to discuss what their actions actually represented. If Year 3 learned about the different theories of gravity, not only could they develop the understanding that the scientific view of the world can change, but they can also then spend lessons recreating famous experiments and distilling key aspects of why scientists such as Galileo made the theories he did. In conclusion, lessons can be more ambitious, challenging and motivating because all children will have the chance to engage in higher order thinking. It goes without saying that this would raise attainment for all pupils, particularly those at risk of underachievement.
I have created 20% of the knowledge organisers for our curriculum and it has taken me about 10 hours in total so far (an example of one for geology is here). I do not want to be the one to exclusively make them because I value the contribution of others and truly believe the knowledge organisers would be better constructed in collaboration with others. However, everyone is extremely busy and a start is better than nothing at all. I want to trial and investigate the impact the knowledge organisers have on science teaching and learning and gather pupil and teacher voice to check how they fit with the many assumptions I am making about the benefits I hope they will bring. I think all of the important aspects of science teaching – particularly in gathering what children’s pre-existing ideas about concepts are to identify misconceptions which need to be addressed – can sit alongside knowledge organisers, which will provide a consistency and commonality that should increase engagement and attainment.
I would absolutely love and welcome and feedback, thoughts or comments anyone has.