Knowledge Organisers: Research and Implementation
This is the first of two articles on the subject of knowledge organisers in the classroom. In this first article, I discuss the research behind memory and retaining information, giving rise to the benefits of knowledge organisers as a form of retrieval practice before discussing how they have been implemented in my school.
In recent years, knowledge organisers have been the subject of many conversations around the subject of retrieval practice and its implementation both in primary and secondary schools. The term was first coined by Joe Kirby in 2015 as “the most awesome tool in the arsenal of the curriculum designer… These organise all the most vital, useful and powerful knowledge on a singular page.” This focus was primarily based on their inclusion for secondary students as a form of independent study and revision for GCSE and A-Level students. but the conversation since then has also been as to whether they could be implemented in the primary setting.
Kirby also goes on to explain how, when a new teacher starts in a school, one of the first questions they have is ‘what do I teach?’ At a glance, knowledge organisers answer that. Everything pupils (and teachers) need to know is set out clearly in advance – as any well-thought-out curriculum should be.
Based on this, teachers, including myself, have seen a great benefit to both teachers and pupils alike in primary and I have spent the past two years (since the first lockdown) creating my own, based on the thoughts of Kirby, Jon Hutchinson and Kate Jones as to how they can be most effective in the primary classroom.
The introduction of these in my setting has been gradual, focusing on History and Geography initially and focusing on the attention of key dates, key events, important individuals and the links to prior learning. It is then my job to create these for my class teachers.
However, to understand the benefits of knowledge organisers as a form of retrieval practice in the primary classroom, it is important to think about the research behind how we retain information.
Daniel Willingham, in Why Don’t Students Like School? said that “Memory is the residue of thought” and this quote has been used worldwide when discussing cognitive science and memory. So what makes something stick in your memory, and what is likely to slip away?
Willingham states that one important element to consider is the environment where learning is taking place and the attention paid by the student as teaching is taking place and it was here that the memory model was born and has since been replicated by Oliver Caviglioli as seen here:
This understanding of memory and the environment where teaching is taking place provides us with an understanding of the need to make sure that teaching is focused on what needs to be learned. An example of such is the teaching about Stonehenge by building it out of custard creams. Reader, I can see your eyes rolling into the back of your head at the mere thought of this idea.
Yes, it sounds lovely and the children will have a great time taking part in such a fun activity. However, what they will remember is that they used custard creams to build Stonehenge. What they don’t remember is that Stonehenge was built in the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods; that the top stones on each arch are called lintel stones and that the standing stones are called sarsen stones, and this is where knowledge organisers can play a key part.
Bjork (2012) states that “using your memory, shapes your memory”, and Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve of 1885 shows a key link to the benefits of retrieval practice when looking to use and shape said memory.
Agarwal (2021) defined retrieval practice as “…the act of recalling previously learned information—improving long-term learning and memory.” Retrieval practice – such as the use of knowledge organisers as one example of this – enables taught information to become embedded, and therefore learned information, over time.
Our working memory is very limited, so it is naïve to think that everything that we ‘teach’ our students will stick. This is made even more difficult for those children who have a more limited working memory than others.
Through rehearsal and retrieval, more information can be stored in long-term memory. However, this information is not immune to being forgotten and by revisiting this knowledge through retrieval practice, it is easier to bring this knowledge back from the long-term memory to the working memory.
Kate Jones (2019) states that “as educators, our role isn’t to simply transfer information to students’ long-term memory, we also need to support them so that they can retrieve that information when required.”
I am not the first teacher to have thought about the use of knowledge organisers in the primary classroom. One pioneer of this was Jon Hutchinson. He explained how a well-planned curriculum (and the use of knowledge organisers within this curriculum) meant that teachers thought carefully about what they wanted children to know at the end of a topic, as opposed to what activities they wanted to fill lessons with.
I really enjoyed the example that he gave at the end of a Stone Age unit covered in Year 3. His children took part in many ‘fun’ activities including building neolithic roundhouses out of card and straw; learning a stone age song and creating stone age jewellery using beads and string to name a few. Hutchinson explained how the children loved it.
The problem was though that none of the children knew what ‘neolithic’ meant. So much time had been spent on creating fun activities for the children to complete with links to the unit, that all the children remembered was completing these activities and not the learning behind them. What is important is finding a fine balance between the two – ensuring that learning is taking place but in a way that is in context for children to use and apply.
This is where knowledge organisers have a place – providing children with the key knowledge behind a unit – for example, what the term neolithic means – and referring to that within learning for this to be remembered.
As stated by Hutchinson, knowledge organisers should be a planning, teaching and assessment guide for teachers as well as pupils and parents. This does require teachers to ‘teach’ pupils how to make the most of these and the consistent referral to the knowledge included within them will help to achieve that. It is not enough to just stick them into books and hope that, by the power of osmosis, the appropriate knowledge will be acquired.
Opportunities to assess that learning has taken place come in the form of retrieval practice techniques, including those laid out by Kate Jones in her series of books on the subject. Well-planned multiple-choice questions are one way of demonstrating this. But, whilst knowledge organisers are a great tool in the retrieval practice arsenal, implemented independently is not enough. Entwined with other forms of retrieval practice is where they really come into their own. As with anything, you will see the greatest benefits of something based on the way that it is utilised within the classroom.
As has already been stated (but cannot be overstated), knowledge organisers are a great tool for teachers in the classroom when it comes to planning, teaching and assessment. However, children need to be given the opportunity to engage with them. One way of supporting this outside the classroom is by sharing them with parents.
The way that we have done that in my setting is, at the beginning of each term, our knowledge organisers are sent to parents via our school bulletin with a preamble as to what they are and how they can be used effectively to support the learning of the children.
We also state how parents can be supporting the acquiring of key knowledge with their children themselves. What this sharing of knowledge organisers also achieves is communication with parents as to what is being taught in the classroom. It promotes revision techniques as we ask for these to be printed, pinned to the fridge or bedroom wall and it also promotes discussion around the dining table.
In a world dominated by screens and digital media, we see this as a great way for children (and parents) to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of a unit.
In the next issue, I discuss how I have created knowledge organisers for my school, explaining the process and the thought behind them as well as the ‘dos and don’ts’ regarding their creation, ensuring that the benefits of them provide children with the perfect platform to retain and retrieve core knowledge around a subject.