I teach, therefore I am.
There’s been an interesting set of discussions recently on the blogosphere about the use of knowledge organisers in schools. I don’t think there is a magic bullet which is the answer to educating children, I recognise that there are a variety of ways that teachers – and schools – find successful when they are trying to teach their pupils. I also hear the arguments from all sides that most teachers try to impart knowledge to their pupils. I think that there are nuanced arguments to be had about what teaching knowledge actually means and indeed what we mean when we say ‘knowledge’. However that’s a subject for another blog (or a whole series). I also don’t presume that knowledge organisers are the answer to teaching all knowledge, even the knowledge that I think should be taught. Yet I take issue with the idea that knowledge organisers are a fad, or an imposition. I think this is to fundamentally misunderstand their purpose or a sign that perhaps they are being used or interpreted in unhelpful ways.
I will explore this from two angles: the value of knowledge organisers as a teacher planning curriculum and the value of them for the pupils using them (these two obviously overlap but there is sense in looking at these separately, as I hope will become apparent.)
I have been using knowledge organisers in English for the past year – it wasn’t something we did as a department initially, and it hasn’t been adopted full scale across the school – although I think there is merit in this. I came to them, like most other Twitter teachers, by reading Joe Kirby‘s blog posts on them, and decided to give them a go. I wasn’t fully convinced at the start that they would work but I have been persuaded of their value through the process of designing and using them.
Constructing a knowledge organiser from scratch is a much more difficult and complex process than it first appears. When I construct a knowledge organiser, I do so surrounded by the texts that I’m teaching alongside critical material such as literary criticism, historical and philosophical texts as well as our curriculum in its full. Distilling all of this information requires a ruthlessness that I’ve found has made me think more deeply about my subject than ever before. Essentially you are selecting the most powerful and purposeful knowledge, which you view as foundational to understanding and engaging with the unit of work (in my case, the text(s) we are studying). This forces me to evaluate, with precision, what it is that my colleagues and I – or indeed external experts in our subject – know that allows us to understand, to comment on and to analyse the given text(s). As a subject expert, it is often difficult to break down your own knowledge. Having spent years studying and practising your subject, it is difficult sometimes to articulate to pupils how they can build towards that level of expertise. How do you know how to answer an essay question on a text in such a detailed and sophisticated manner? How do you explain what happens in your brain when you sit down to write an essay? Sometimes I’ve even looked back at my own essays at university and thought – did I really write that, how did I know to take that angle, to phrase my response in that way? I have always found English ‘easy’. I could just do it. But why?
It is through the process of creating knowledge organisers that I’ve realised that I have simply built up a body of knowledge through my years of studying and reading my subject. Therefore I know that a certain allusion in a text is actually a reference to Shakespeare or a Greek myth or the Bible. I understand when a text is being satirical because I’ve read other texts of that time and I’ve learnt about current events through my browsing of The Guardian and an addiction to Radio 4, or my study of History and Classics has given me an insight into what the author is mocking. Much of this has sadly come later than necessary because I didn’t understand – until very recently – that this knowledge and my endless reading were the foundations of my expertise. At school, I crammed for exams and we didn’t learn to memorise facts other than at that the last minute. At university, I picked modules I already liked and had read about; I absorbed a lot of it naturally or crammed necessary gobbets of information to help me answer a question. I muddled through, not always understanding why I had successes or failures.
Therefore the construction of a knowledge organiser has been invaluable subject CPD both in highlighting what I do know and the many things that I don’t – whether because I never learnt them or I crammed them and then forgot them immediately. I have never felt more secure in my knowledge of my subject than I do today because of the effort that I have taken to distill that knowledge, to break it down and to supplement it with wider knowledge of the context of the texts I teach. By context, I don’t mean a bolt on of historical knowledge but instead the richness of the social, cultural (including literary), moral and historical world in which the text was created. As we require our pupils to know the material off by heart, this also puts a pressure on us to know it too and I love that I can now reel off dates and quotes as well as knowing that I have an acute sense of where a text is placed within the world – literary and wider.
Constructing a knowledge organiser and then discussing this with your team, also means a shared conversation about the most valuable foundational knowledge needed to grasp a text. This can involve editing the organisers by taking on expertise from other teachers, that you might be missing, as well as determining the bare bones of your lesson content. We all teach the same texts across a year, so knowing that you have the same foundational knowledge as a team brings a cohesive quality to your schemes of work and lessons, that a shared activity can not achieve. It focuses the department on the subject and leads you to centre your conversations – and meetings – around the valuable knowledge you teach. This doesn’t mean that our teaching or indeed our discussions are limited to a list of facts on a sheet, but it is a springboard from which to begin that relationship with, and to critique, the knowledge and texts.
When you make teaching an interesting intellectual experience for both teachers AND pupils you are getting to the core of great teaching.
Knowledge organisers have a utilitarian function for pupils: they are a practical resource for pupils and parents whether it be for revision, or catching up when pupils have been absent. However this isn’t the main value for me when I think about why we use them; the real enriching value comes when we go back to thinking about this body of knowledge that I discussed earlier – one that I had built somewhat scrappily (and with a fair few gaps) through my own studies and reading.
One of the assumptions that educated people can make is that they did well or achieved without a diet of factual recall or knowledge organisers, as indeed have others they know. This is where we need to think about ‘the Matthew effect’ which Hirsch and Willingham, in particular, explore in their work. If you are someone who reads, who comes from an educated family or has a natural thirst for knowledge – you will quite possibly build a decent block of knowledge implicitly. I would still argue, in my own experience, that this leaves gaps and that this is a missed opportunity – the filling of these gaps is enriching – but there is no doubt that some people can be successful without drilling and recalling a list of facts. Yet there are also people who will really struggle to do this, and it will mostly be those who start with a lower level of base knowledge – those with a less expansive vocabulary, those who therefore might struggle with reading, those who don’t come from families who have a wide knowledge base themselves. Our lowest attaining pupils are those who arrive at our doors in secondary in exactly this position. It is these pupils who motivated me to really push ahead with knowledge organisers – they are the clearest examples of pupils who need the opportunity to build this foundational knowledge in order to catch up with their peers. These are also the pupils who struggle the most in retaining this knowledge, so they need to be learning it from as early an age as possible. They can’t get by in an exam with their natural vocabulary acquired from home or books, and a quick cramming session before the exam season. That will not work and they will flounder. It doesn’t put pressure on them to learn and drill these facts, it takes the pressure off. If by the time they got to secondary, they knew key dates from literary and historical timelines and had memorised a range of vocabulary, speeches and poems then launching into an analysis question they would already have a whole font of knowledge to rely on and use at their will. Knowing stuff feels great and gives you the confidence to think for yourself, to challenge and to argue. How can you do this, if you’re still struggling to recall the basics? This isn’t joyless, it’s joyful – pupils love chanting back facts and showing off everything they know.
It’s also worth remembering that this factual knowledge provides pupils with the opportunity to write and analyse texts in a unbelievably sophisticated manner. The fact that our pupils have been asked to memorise dates and context over the years means that our Year 10s can embed knowledge: drawing on their understanding of the Enlightenment and Romanticism to explain the duality present in ‘Frankenstein’ or linking the conflict in Juliet’s character between obeying her parents and pursuing her love, with the conflicted feelings of Jane Eyre over her religion and her love. Some pupils have begun to make their own intertextual links based on books that they have read or knowledge they have acquired from other subjects – because they have started to see how this enriches their interpretation. They have begun to join the conversation of our subject and to really grasp what it means to be scholar of English, because they are ‘in the know’.
Example knowledge organiser for Year 10 ‘Frankenstein’
I will start where I begun – I don’t think knowledge organisers are the only ways of achieving the above (although I’d certainly recommend them) and they are not the sum of what it means to teach knowledge. They are a tool, but one which I have found empowering for our teachers and our pupils. Yet they seem to have been represented as either a reductive scheme of work, a replacement for teaching or as a symptom of a Gradgrindian approach to education. This concerns me because once something is misinterpreted, it can easily be dismissed. For those of us who use them, we also need to ensure that they are not misused and therefore laid open to misinterpretation. Most importantly it signals to me that there is a real debate still to be had about what knowledge we are teaching in our schools and why this is important. Teaching facts is not a fad and it’s not the enemy to creativity or criticality: it opens the door.