Developing Knowledge Organisers for Teachers
Anna Patuck and Linda Pascoe from Cambridge Primary Education Trust reflect on the creation and implementation of Knowledge Organisers, as part of their CTSN/UCL IoE 'How do we know it works? Leading Change' project.
Cast your minds back to September 2019. Inset day and a school hall full of teachers. The usual excitement of a new school year echoes around the room. It's hard to remember such a time, after what became a year of COVID restrictions, video conferencing, remote learning and a host of other upheavals.
Back on that Inset day, a group of us were asked to participate in a project entitled How do we know it works? Leading Change with the brief of investigating the use of Knowledge Organisers (KOs). These were completely new to us and the leadership team were interested in finding out whether the creation and implementation of Knowledge Organisers for teachers would have a positive impact on teaching and learning. The initial concept was to develop and trial KOs in a range of subjects and investigate their success and/or failure before rolling them out across all subjects.
We agreed to take on the task whilst silently panicking that we had no idea what a Knowledge Organiser even was - one of us having just returned from a year's maternity leave (it's not until you take a year out that you truly realise just how fast things move in education) and another new to their role as History lead. Several hasty internet searches later, we had a basic idea of what KOs were.
Knowledge Organisers are largely accredited to Joe Kirby (2015). According to Kirby (2015), they should outline the exact facts, dates, events, concepts and precise definitions that children are expected to remember. In this way they ‘organise all the most vital, useful and powerful knowledge on a single page’ (Kirby, J. 2015). In their original conception KOs serve a dual purpose, being both for teachers and children, but as a Trust we were clear that in the first instance our KOs were to be for teachers, as a tool for planning knowledge-rich units of work. This aligned with the Trust’s ongoing development of a knowledge-rich curriculum. It could further contribute to the ongoing challenge of getting children to remember more by focusing teachers' attention on the exact knowledge that should be emphasised, revisited and quizzed through units of work.
We then narrowed the scope of our research and framed the research question: ‘Do Knowledge Organisers for teachers promote the use of subject specific language?’. Looking specifically at subject specific language would enable us to collect quantifiable data that could show impact on learning.
So it began. In the spring of 2020, we began to collect baseline data for the project, looking at children’s books and observing lessons in order to get a feel for the language being used. Little did we know that things were about to change so abruptly. Initial observations in Science indicated that there was a lot of subject specific vocabulary in use. However, it was noted that the scientific language being used was primarily used by the teacher and not the children. Children would parrot new scientific vocabulary in an ‘I say …., you say …’ fashion; however, when engaged with independent work, they were not using the language to talk scientifically to one another. We felt this could lead to meaningful staff discussions around how we can best support children to use the key technical language they are being exposed to.
After this, the project changed course significantly as schools closed during the first lockdown. This was both a blessing and a curse for the research project. On one hand, it provided time for the development of KOs. On the downside, whilst we were able to start using Knowledge Organisers upon our return in September 2020, we haven’t been able to fully research their effectiveness through observations and interviews with children as we would have liked.
In the development process, subject leaders produced KOs for each unit of work. Subject leadership teams were given a rationale for their development and then worked to create these remotely. It is here that, on reflection, we feel a vital step in the research and development process was missed. As a result of lockdown, we did not have the opportunity to provide subject teams with the background research we had discovered. Therefore, the KOs were completed without a shared purpose or an understanding of the wider picture of creating a knowledge-rich curriculum and aiding student’s retention of knowledge. This in some instances led to resistance amongst teachers along the lines of ‘why should other teachers who have never taught my year group tell me what I should be teaching?’. We believe that such opinions may stem from both a misunderstanding of the purpose and rationale of the Knowledge Organiser and from our inability to fully include everyone in the process of their creation. For any curriculum initiative to be successful, teachers must buy into it and this is something we are working on as the project evolves.
Initial feedback from teachers regarding the KOs has been largely positive. Teachers particularly like the key vocabulary and definitions which they say have led to these terms being emphasised and constantly referred to, as well as being checked in the form of quizzes. They also cited the prior knowledge on the KOs as being useful in providing a context and initial assessment opportunities. It is noted however that, of the teachers responding to the questionnaire, only 3 out of 13 had read all the KOs for the units they had taught, with 10 of the 13 having read some of the KOs. This is an interesting statistic given that teachers’ responses seem to value them yet they have not needed to consistently read them.
The next steps for us in this process have become clear. Now we have a selection of Knowledge Organisers and have gathered initial feedback, we must act on the feedback and re-engage all teachers in developing them further. This is by clearly and concisely setting out the key knowledge that we wish our children not only be exposed to, but to stick with and retain. Once we have developed KOs further, we would like to return to our initial research question to assess their impact on children’s independent retention and use of subject-specific vocabulary.
Kirby, J., 2015, Knowledge Organisers
About the authors
Anna Patuck and Linda Pascoe are part of the Cambridge Primary Education Trust. They participated in the CTSN/UCL Institute of Education 'How do we know it works? Leading Change' project in 2019-2021.