Knowledge organisers: fit for purpose?

Definition of a knowledge organiser: Summary of what a student needs to know that must be fitted onto an A4 sheet of paper.

Desk bins: Stuff I Don't Need to Know...
Desk bins: Stuff I Don’t Need to Know…

If you google the term ‘knowledge organisers’ you’ll find a mass of examples. They are on sale on the TES resource site – some sheets of A4 print costing up to £7.50. It seems knowledge organisers have taken off. Teachers up and down the country are beavering away to summarise what needs to be known in their subject area.

It is good news that teachers are starting to think more about curriculum. More discussion of the ‘what’ is being taught, how it should be sequenced and how it can be remembered is long overdue. However, I think there is a significant weakness with some of these documents. I looked at lots of knowledge organisers to prepare for training our curriculum leaders and probably the single biggest weakness I saw was a confusion over purpose.


I think there are three very valid purposes for knowledge organisers:

  1. Curriculum mapping – for the TEACHER

Identifying powerful knowledge, planning to build schemas, identifying transferable knowledge and mapping progression in knowledge.

  1. For reference – for the PUPIL

In place of a textbook or a form of summary notes for pupils to reference.

  1. A list of revision items – for the PUPIL (and possibly the parents)

What the teacher has decided ALL pupils need to know as a minimum at the end of the topic.


All three purposes can be valid but when I look at the mass of organisers online I suspect there has often been a lack of clarity about the purpose the knowledge organiser is to serve.

Classic confusions of purpose:

  1. Confusing a curriculum mapping document with a reference document:

A teacher sits down and teases out what knowledge seems crucial for a topic. As they engage in this crucial thinking they create a dense document full of references that summarises their ideas. So far so good…but a document that summarises a teacher’s thinking is unlikely to be in the best format for a child to use. The child, given this document, sees what looks like a mass of information in tiny text, crammed onto one sheet of A4. They have no real notion of which bits to learn, how to prioritise the importance of all that detail or apply it. This knowledge is self-evident to the teacher but not the child.

  1. Confusing a knowledge organiser with a textbook:

Teachers who have written textbooks tell me that there is a painstaking editorial process to ensure quality. Despite this there is a cottage industry of teachers writing series of knowledge organisers which amount to their own textbooks. Sometimes this is unavoidable. Some textbooks are poor and some topics aren’t covered in the textbooks available. Perhaps sometimes the desperate and continual begging of teachers that their school should prioritise the purchase of textbooks falls on deaf ears and teachers have no choice but to spend every evening creating their own textbooks photocopied on A4 paper…

…but perhaps we all sometimes need to remind ourselves that there is no virtue in reinventing the wheel.

  1. Confusing a textbook with summary notes:

The information included on an A4 sheet of paper necessarily lacks the explanatory context contained in a textbook or detailed notes. If such summaries are used in place of a textbook or detailed notes the student will lack the explanation they need to make sense of the detail.

  1. Confusing a reference document or notes with a list of revision items for a test

If we want all pupils to acquire mastery of some basics we can list these basic facts we have identified as threshold knowledge in a knowledge organiser. We can then check that the whole class know these facts using a test. The test requires the act of recall which also strengthens the memory of these details in our pupils’ minds.

Often, however, pupils are given reference documents to learn. In this situation the details will be too extensive to be learnt for one test. It is not possible to expect the whole class to know everything listed and so the teacher cannot ensure that all pupils have mastered some identified ‘threshold’ facts. Weaker students will be very poor at recognising what are the most important details they should focus on learning, poor at realising what is likely to come up in a test and the format in which it will be asked. Many will also find a longer reference document contains an overwhelming amount of detail and give up. The chance to build self-efficacy and thus self-esteem has been lost.


If you are developing knowledge organisers to facilitate factual testing then your focus is on Purpose C – creating a list of revision items. Below is a list of criteria I think are worth considering:

  1. Purpose (to facilitate mastery testing of a list of revision items)
  • Exclude knowledge present for the benefit of teacher
  • Exclude explanatory detail which should be in notes or a textbook.
  1. Amount
  • A short topic’s worth (e.g. two weeks teaching at GCSE)
  • An amount that all in the class can learn
  • Careful of expectations that are too low and if necessary ramp up demand once habit in place.
  1. Threshold or most ‘powerful’ knowledge
  • Which knowledge is necessary for the topic?
  • Which knowledge is ‘collectively sufficient’ for the topic?
  • Which knowledge will allow future learning of subsequent topics?
  • Which knowledge will best prompt retrieval of chunks of explanatory detail?
  • CUT any extraneous detail (even if it looks pretty)
  • Include relevant definitions, brief lists of factors/reasons arguments, quotes, diagrams and summaries etc.
  • Check accuracy (especially when adapting internet finds)
  1. Necessary prior knowledge
  • Does knowledge included in the organiser presume grasp of other material unlikely to yet be mastered?
  1. Concise wording
  • Is knowledge phrased in the way you wish it to be learned?

Happy knowledge organising!


Mastery does NOT mean full understanding

“For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known” 1 Corinthians 13 v12.

‘Mastery’ means ‘full understanding’ according to many teachers on twitter. So ‘mastery teaching’ means not moving on with your course until something is fully understood. I don’t think teachers really think this because there is a one insurmountable problem with this definition of mastery – there is no such thing as full understanding. For example:

  • When a KS1 child is first taught ‘place value’ is it conceivable that they can fully understand the notion, with all its implications? Surely many GCSE students could do with understanding place value better than they do?
  • My year 10 history class use the word ‘dictatorship’ with some confidence in their writing suggesting they understand it but sometimes they do use the term incorrectly so do they understand the full implications of the term? I know they don’t because I have a better understanding of the term than they do. Do I understand the full implications of the term dictatorship? I know I don’t because the historian Richard Evans definitely understands it better than me.
  • My eight year old son has started reading Harry Potter books by himself. Does he understand them? Well I don’t suppose he realises (as J K Rowling must have appreciated) that the Hogwarts house elves illustrate the Marxist notion of false consciousness. I don’t even think he gets the same depth of meaning from these books as his thirteen year old sister. So when will he be able to ‘master’ Harry Potter? Should he wait to read them until he is able to gain an appreciation of Marxist theory or just until he is mature enough to understand Harry’s teen romances?

In reality of course teachers, as professionals, don’t hang around waiting for FULL understanding – that would be ridiculous. They actually make sensible decisions about the ‘degree’ of understanding necessary for a child at that stage with the curricular content they are learning. The word, ‘mastery’ can’t tell us a thing about what this sensible degree of understanding might be.

Unfortunately the mistaken notion of ‘full understanding’ is not harmless in practice. It can mean teachers do hang around for too long focusing counter-productively on ever greater understanding. A maths teacher may be convinced that a KS1 child must fully understand place value when the notion has been taught at a basic level. They may introduce word problems to check for mastery or ‘full understanding’ of place value. In their pursuit of ‘full understanding’ they fail to consider:

  1. Ability to use learning in new contexts (like word problems in maths or knowledge in history sourcework or applied GCSE science questions) tends to lag behind initial learning because newly learnt knowledge is what is called ‘inflexible’. To overcome this inflexibility you need to accumulate a greater store of related knowledge, facts and examples.
  2. In the case of reading, holding children back so they can ‘fully understand’ what they read, can mean they lack exposure to the very new words and ideas that will allow greater understanding to develop.
  3. As Willingham explains, knowing more facts makes many cognitive functions such as comprehension and problem solving operate more efficiently. Therefore a focus on memory (really knowing what is taught long term) as well as initial understanding is important. This means better understanding often develops after greater FLUENCY OF KNOWLEDGE has been achieved so, for example, lots of practice gaining confidence and really knowing a mathematical method can open up the possibility of further understanding of related concepts. Knowing more about the causes of World War One will make it more possible to demonstrate understanding in an essay.

I like to think of understanding and fluency of knowledge as the partners in a traditional dance. Sometimes they work in unison:

Netherfield Ball 4 (2)

And sometimes they work apart, one going before the other, like dancers executing moves that do not involve their partner.

netherfield ball 1

This means, dare I say it, sometimes it makes sense to teach knowledge and ensure it is remembered even though it means understanding lags behind. It is the teacher that needs to decide whether greater fluency of knowledge or greater understanding is more necessary at any given point. When making this decision perhaps we should bear in mind that in modern education the trend has been towards overemphasising initial understanding at the expense of necessary fluency of knowledge through ensuring that what is taught has been remembered confidently long term.

Where does this leave the word ‘mastery’? We’ve already established that mastery is not a principle we can use to judge the degree of detail in which students must grasp curricular content. Mastery can, however, describe how well children have grasped or can perform whatever the teacher has considered that they need to know or be able to do at that given point  whether that is fluency of knowledge or understanding. When used in this sense the term mastery is useful. The confusion occurs because teachers think about ‘mastery’ in curricular rather than pedagogical terms:

Curricular decision: What should I teach? I should teach this concept fully

Pedagogical decision: When should I move on? When they understand and have committed to long term memory what I have decided they need to know.

The latter pedagogical goal is a useful way to think about mastery. The former curricular goal is actually impossible (unless, perhaps you are in heaven with God and the angels…)


We’ve Taken Out The Glue.

A post on teaching cause and effect in history

I believed at least some of my history GCSE students when assured me they really did revise for their mock exams. However, the ‘splurge’ some deposited on the page didn’t look much like the careful explanations of cause and effect they had been taught to write. They also totally bombed the simple chronology question for which they just have to put five events in order.

But why wasn’t their revision paying dividends? I had already introduced regular factual tests and was happy that my classes were remembering more of what they learnt and I could see the benefit of this in their ongoing assimilation of the events and better informed written work. Therefore last year I tried to solve the problems presented by the basic chronology question. I asked my class to learn the key events for their topic in order, for a homework. Then, to stop them forgetting, I asked them to practise putting the events (written on cards) in order as a starter activity once or twice a week and continued every now and then even when we had moved onto new topics. Most of my current year 11 class, reaching the end of our study of China 1911-1989, can put about 30 event cards into a pretty accurate order. Their grasp of chronology clearly showed through in the mock exam results.

However, by this time I had realised that the failure with the chronology question was actually just a symptom of a deeper problem. This realisation dawned when I tried to get my classes to see that they could work out the order of events by thinking about the logic of the story.

“Look, the Kapp Putsch must come after the Treaty of Versailles because it was a reason right-wingers staged the coup in the first place”.

Each time I’d say something like this I got that feeling my class heard the words but not my meaning. This was perplexing as I knew that I had never learnt the chronology of the events using cards, it was the logic of the story that allowed me to get the events in order. So why didn’t that work for my students?

I gave my class a flow diagram of events. Their task was to explain the link between each event (the logic of the story). My goodness they hated this task (I wrote about it here) and it became quite apparent that (despite my best teaching efforts) my students had learnt the events as isolated incidents. This explained the problems some students had with the mock exam. Telling them they needed to ‘learn the technique’ to do better next time rather misses the point. Many wrote about the events, (not the causes or effects of the events) because they hadn’t revised the causes or effects and couldn’t work them out. This seems like an interesting example of the way the knowledge of novice learners is ‘inflexible’ as explained by the cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham.

“When new material is first learned, the mind is biased to remember things in concrete forms that are difficult to apply to new situations. This bias seems best overcome by the accumulation of a greater store of related knowledge, facts, and examples.”

That I could appreciate the ‘logic of the story’ shows I have accumulated a greater store of related knowledge, facts and examples than my students. It is fascinating that a simple chronology question can so effectively expose a more fundamental issue with the grasp of a complex web of events. Ironically, because we carefully teach and students dutifully learn the causes of the events that are most likely to appear in the exam, you can’t necessarily tell how well they understand the flow of events using the exam’s ‘cause’ questions. One solution often used is to identify the biggest events and take the time necessary, perhaps using card sorts, diamond nines (or whatever else occurs to you) to teach for a more complex understanding of their causes. However, for our IGCSE paper you can be asked the causes or effects of many events and each one can’t get ‘the full treatment’. Also we presume that by teaching ‘causes’ of key events the child must automatically be making connections back to the relevant previous events. In fact, as Willingham predicts my students could spend a whole lesson learning the causes of the Kapp Putsch (including the Treaty of Versailles) and fail to mention the Putsch when subsequently asked to list effects of the Versailles Treaty.

I had a revelatory moment recently. I had really pushed my year 10 class (studying Weimar Germany to 1923) to explain back to me how each key event so far could link to one previously. On the spur of the moment I decided to set a homework in which the class just ‘told the story’ of 1918-1923. They had to use all the events listed and each event had to be linked to at least one previous event. I was chuffed with the product of their (and my) efforts. My previous initiatives had ensured my classes tended to remember previous events but across the ability range there was now something more. My focus on ‘the logic of the story’ had led to better grasp of the causal web of these particular events.

This made me realise something more fundamental that seems problematic with the way we teach history. Because GCSE wants our students ‘to analyse’ events we teach them pre-packaged analysis. I now wonder how I could ever have thought that learning causes or effects was intellectually superior to learning to describe the events themselves. Further, I now wonder if by de-emphasising the ‘story’ of history in favour of teaching analysis (cause and effect etc) we have taken out ‘the glue’ that holds events together and actively hindered childrens’ ability to move beyond their tendency to remember the events in isolation.

Do we get things back to front? We tell our classes that real history involves giving reasons for our arguments when in fact our arguments emerge from our complex grasp of ‘the story’. We tell our classes that a ‘skill’ of history is to come up with ‘links’ between the events when it is because we know ‘the story’ so well that we can see the links.

History shouldn’t be ‘one damn thing after another’ and I think telling the story is the way to avoid that.


Does our teaching look a bit like this?


We need to talk about ‘transfer’

I am a history teacher but am I fulfilling my role as a teacher if children walk out of my lessons simply knowing more history than when they walked in? Should my goals be broader? The influential educationalist Guy Claxton denies that my goals should centre on teaching history at all:

‘Knowing the Kings and Queens of England…are not top priority life skills. Their claim for inclusion in the core curriculum rests on the extent to which they provide engaging and effective ‘exercise machines’ for stretching and strengthening generalizable habits of mind’

In education today it is rare that the content taught is justified as worth knowing just for its own sake (although I have tried). As Claxton illustrates, it is so often a ‘means to an end’.

  • Learn history to develop analytical skills
  • Learn maths to improve problem solving skills
  • Play sports to learn to work as a team
  • Do brain training programmes to improve your memory
  • Use playdough in Reception to improve writing muscles
  • Set story writing to make children more creative
  • Learn chess to improve critical thinking skills

In each case we are making an enormous leap. How do we KNOW that the skill or trait acquired in one area will ‘transfer’ to other areas; that it will generalise? I might encourage my daughters to show ‘love’ towards each other but it would be farcical to presume this would help them ‘love’ studying geography at school.

My gut feeling is that playing sport is a ‘good thing’. However, I’m often astonished to hear of the skills displayed by a child on the sports pitch that I see no sign of in the classroom. Ability to work as part of a team learnt in sport does not seem to mean children will play their part in class group work. Maybe some skills and traits just need time to sink in. When my son was three his nursery started teaching the class half an hour of yoga a week because apparently yoga improves concentration. No one seemed to question the likelihood of such a brief exposure being efficacious, let alone whether transfer to other contexts was ever likely.

Once we accept the very obvious point that there are limits on how far a skill or trait we teach will actually ‘transfer’ between contexts we must concede that we can’t just presume such transfer will happen.

Even when the two contexts are close such as applying your knowledge of essay writing in one subject to another we still see transfer problems. I asked my year 13 class the other day whether what they had learnt about essay writing in English helped them write history essays. No, they replied, the two essay types are just SO different. I was at the time attempting to show them that the structure of their two history coursework essays was basically the same. They struggled to see even that similarity which was so glaringly obvious to me.

It is clearly incorrect to state that skills or traits don’t ever transfer to different contexts. However, they don’t necessarily transfer as READILY as we like to presume and it depends on:

  • Whether the skill/trait means the same thing in different contexts. I might use the word ‘analysis’ to describe what I do in essay writing and chess but maybe the similarity is only word deep.
  • How CLOSE or similar the two contexts are. For example I presume an accomplished horse rider might use their skills to learn bareback riding quite quickly, to ride a camel quicker than the average but might not be much quicker to learn to ride a surf board!

There is excellent and enormously extensive research on transfer. Take critical thinking, we know that beyond similar or analogous circumstances reasoning principles are not transferred. We also know that you need expertise to recognise the similar features of superficially different problems which explains the inability of my class to recognise the similarity of essay structures. There is a superb summary of the research here that is very well worth a read.

Despite there being such useful research and the obviousness of fact that transfer can’t be presumed when do you EVER hear a discussion of the likelihood of transferability when debating the worth of an educational initiative? We must stop presuming that just because we teach something in one context our pupils will apply it in another. If we don’t want to simply waste valuable teaching time we just must start talking about transfer. We must question whether it is likely. We must discuss what we can do to make it more possible.

We really, really need to start talking about transfer.

“You’ll put them off”

How easy is it to put someone off something they would otherwise enjoy? How able are we to prevent our children finding pleasure in an experience because of negative associations?

I’d really like to know because my three children have, respectively, Minecraft/Crossy Road/Sims Addictive Disorder. This, along with a deep-set addiction to teeth rotting sweets and junk food and a compulsion to take pleasure from causing each other distress are the root cause of most of the familial disharmony in the Fearn household.

You might be forgiven for thinking it is pretty easy to put children off these pleasures. The fear of ‘putting children off’ from learning seems to haunt teachers and even parents to such an extent that they will go to great lengths to avoid their children developing even the merest association between a desired good and pain, boredom or even a mild sense of ennui. Using such logic all I needed to do to stop a predilection to chocolate fudge cake was to give it as a punishment. I should have replaced five minutes on the naughty step with a session on the ‘naughty ipad’ and all desire to fritter time on Clash of Clans would disappear.

There are always exceptions but such tactics wouldn’t work or parents would be using them. I think it would take some pretty full on and scarily warped conditioning techniques to create the sort of negative associations that would put most children off such obvious pleasures. On twitter today I admitted that when my children are naughty I have sometimes given them lines from Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. I pointed out, only half- jokingly, that while the lines were the punishment, the fact they were able to copy them from Jane Austen was a privilege. It means they now know those beautifully crafted first lines virtually by heart and funnily enough they continue to read avidly – because they find reading fun. It is an obvious pleasure. My husband once gave my girls the Hobbit to do lines from. It worked a treat in terms of provoking a desire to read more of the book and our daughters took great pleasure in pointing out what a failure that punishment was. If you fear that the merest association with negativity would put your student off just what does that say about the actual confidence you have in the pleasure that can be gained from the subject matter?

I have been told all of the following:

  • Teaching my child to read before school would put them off learning as they would be bored.
  • Making my child practice reading when they did not want to would put them off books.
  • Making my child do extended practice to automaticity in maths would make them hate maths.
  • Boring testing and essay practice would put my own students off history
  • Lessons that did not involve snazzy and exciting activities would put my students off history.

None of this has proved to be true. In the case of reading there is a confusion. The motivation to read comes from interest in the subject matter in the book not whether you enjoyed the mechanics of reading acquisition. How many children don’t get enough practice to be able to read fluently (and thus enjoy books) because parents or teachers feared compulsion would ‘put them off’? It is tragically counter-productive.

I think it is very much harder than is assumed to persuade anyone that they do enjoy what they don’t or don’t enjoy what they do (whatever the positive or negative associations)! The idea you can create innate enjoyment in a  school subject from sugar coating activities is pretty questionable. I suppose doing so can act as a successful bribe. A child might grow to love an activity once they get into it and that might need bribery or coercion!

However, I can think of nothing more pointless than trying to persuade a child that will not read for pleasure that reading is fun. For them it clearly isn’t. If it was fun for them they would read.

Rather than trying to psychologically manipulate the child you could insist a child reads so they get the practice needed to read more fluently. You could give a child subject matter they find more interesting or take away more instant forms of gratification so they persist with a book. However, no matter how many posters you stick up you won’t convince people to enjoy what they find boring.

It is possible to put children off. For example:

  • If they can’t see that they are making progress with what they are learning it can be disheartening.
  • Sometimes the subject matter IS genuinely less interesting for many students, for whatever reason. The problem isn’t that students have negative associations with otherwise interesting subject matter.
  • You can put students off by teaching them material they have no access to. A child might avoid exposure to such material in the future as they assume they will find it boring when in fact they will grow to like it.
  • The pleasure may be so marginal that bribery is enough to destroy intrinsic motivation to pursue it.

However, the idea that generally negative associations can put children off what they would otherwise find interesting needs challenging.

Can character be taught?

Yesterday I took part in a panel discussion at the “Character v Knowledge” event organised by the East London Science School and  The Education Foundation.  Below is the transcript of my brief opening talk:

If Ignatius Loyola did say the famous Jesuit maxim, ‘Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man’, I don’t think it was an idle boast but I am sceptical that many of the schools that claim to change character, to psychologically engineer our children’s attributes, are achieving anything of the sort.

Character, in this context seems to mean a jumbled mix of values, virtues, skills and attributes. If the goal of character education is to inculcate virtues, for their own sake, then why are successful programmes judged through improved exam results? Doing the right thing doesn’t necessarily make one successful, it is an end in itself. In practice, the rhetoric of character education seems more instrumentalist than virtuous, a training in skills that provide the means to achieve exam success and other personal gains.

Character is a skill according to many keen promoters of character education but if so then why is the problem of transfer largely ignored? Take being a ‘loving person’. The fact I am loving with my children doesn’t necessarily mean I will show love to my neighbour and certainly not that I will love studying geography. We use one word ‘loving’ but it means different things in different contexts. How much more transferable between domains are the ‘skills’ we have named curiosity and resilience?

My school’s rugby sevens team has just won the national trophy. Despite the character traits their many hours of training must have inculcated why is it that I can only guess which students in my classes were in the team through their muscular bulk, not their approach to cooperative work? If sport does inculcate useful attributes it seems transfer isn’t easy or guaranteed.

Such questions should be enough to give pause for thought – even without considering how unsuccessful large scale attempts at character education have been to date. In East Germany from 1958 – 1976 the full power of the state got behind the inculcation of a ‘socialist personality’ with attributes such as ‘mutual help and comradely cooperation’. There is some hubris in believing you can engineer a better society. Our own government’s attempts have been no more successful. Look at the dismal impact of PHSEE lessons, and the failure of SEAL.

Hope springs eternal and over the last few years many schools, influenced by Dweck, have opted for exhortation with general maxims or providing helpful prompts when task setting. They hope that reasoning with students will encourage them to apply suggested principles. Schools seem less willing to allow children to actually live with the consequences of failure or to compel children to behave in ways that could one day become good habits. Sure, efforts that have a narrow enough focus, for example on persuading children to work harder in school, should have some positive impact but has character changed?

Increasing self-esteem was the last big thing but we now know that often our efforts did more harm than good. What if too much perseverance stops people behaving pragmatically, thinking of clever short cuts? What if significant perseverance is learnt through serious failure? What if our unskilled attempts at amateur cognitive therapy go wrong?

It is possible to mould values and change children’s habits over the span of their childhood in reaction to the myriad of situations that arise naturally, through a judicious mix of exhortation, example and crucially compulsion also. That is what traditional parenting and schooling does and all we really know will work until such time as we can realistically claim to have a formula for creating good character. To quote Roger Scruton, “…wisdom is seldom contained in a single head, and is more likely to be enshrined in customs that have stood the test of time than in schemes of radicals and activists.”