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!



As I scrolled my twitter timeline the other day I was drawn in by a tweet written by a teacher at Michaela School in Brent. It contained a photo of a beaming Year 9 student. The girl was in the school playground very proudly holding up a copy of a book titled ‘The Malay Archipelago’.

The tweet read:

“This pupil arrived in UK 4 years ago without Eng. Now she’s reading ‘Malay Archipelago’ by A.R. Wallace. Rushed over to show me her fave page!”

It was the lovely smile that did it. Oh sweet! I thought. Sure, there was nothing so very unusual in a child enjoying a quality book but there was something so heartwarming in the thought of this girl skipping across the playground to share her book with her teacher that I could understand why the teacher had shared the event.
I wondered what she had been reading so I googled it:


malayThe Malay Archipelago
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Malay Archipelago is a book by the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace that chronicles his scientific exploration, during the eight-year period 1854 to 1862.




Wow! Now I was REALLY impressed. As one teenager, myself as was, (hooked on 19thC literature) to another (intrigued by 19thC science writing) I saluted her taste! More than that – I acknowledged all that Michaela School, an inner city school with a tough intake, had achieved to create a culture in which this sort of event was likely. I’ve visited Michela. In the morning on the tube, on my way to the school, I saw Michaela kids reading their books as they travelled in. When I arrived I found out about all the policies in place to raise reading ages way beyond normal expectations and the carefully chosen knowledge curriculum that gave children genuine access to more difficult texts. My own daughter is the same age and goes to a lovely school but, goodness, it doesn’t quite have the reading culture Michaela has created. Perhaps Michaela isn’t unique but I was impressed and tweeted this:

“Brilliant work. @MCSBrent throws down the gauntlet to the rest of us. If they can make this happen so can we all.”

I, rather naively, hadn’t anticipated the barrage of negativity my little tweet of admiration would create. Apparently, according to some on twitter, there was nothing unusual about this little event. Many, many schools across the land achieve similar every single day. Yeah, sure thing I thought. Who hasn’t come across Year 9 kids reading the original works of nineteenth century explorers? Normal, normal, normal.

Then after reading a few more rather unfriendly twitter notifications the penny finally dropped… The readers of my original tweet hadn’t even noticed the title of the book this girl was reading. They had totally misunderstood the point I was making because they had seen one acronym:


…and got no further. The sight of this term had compartmentalised any interpretation of my tweet as a comment on…

‘Work With EAL’.

That this child had been reading for pleasure showed the success of…

‘Literacy Policies For EAL’

and presumably this could be measured on some EAL progress spreadsheet somewhere.

How tragic that this is the mentality our education system creates. Why weren’t these angry tweeters actually interested in WHAT a child (whatever her background) had been reading?

Surely the most notable aspect of the little tweet story I’d shared was NOT that an EAL student had read a book? Wasn’t it obviously more noteworthy to teachers that a 13 year old had got beyond reading pre-teen romances and made a foray into the syntactically dense but beautifully turned phrases of Victorian writing? Wasn’t it of most educational interest that she had delved into some original scientific observation?


Surely the quality of the literature a child is reading is of more educational interest than her background and the particular label she has been given in a progress spreadsheet?

Terms like EAL or even ‘literacy’ only have meaning in so far as they help us discuss how we can help children learn the actual, specific content we want to teach them. My twitter notifications over the last few days starkly illustrate how labels designed to help teachers do their job better can so often lead to the compartmentalising of children and a focus on means (EAL provision) over ends (a child learning something great).

Reading fluency and the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’

Is reading fluency important for academic success?

I’d imagine everyone reading this would agree it was very important – crucial in fact.

This description from Quirky Teacher of many children’s reading in year 6 must sound quite familiar to secondary teachers:

I am worried that children in KS2, despite being officially ‘able to read’, are still not really fluent, even when they get to year 6. When you ask them to read to you, they stumble slowly through a text, sometimes randomly substituting trickier and new words, never able to add intonation and not really getting the bigger picture.

As I outlined in my post yesterday that does not mean that at secondary level we ensure children get enough daily reading practice to ensure our students DO read fluently. One reason for this is that the need for bulk practice is not appreciated. There is another reason why, even when the importance of sustained reading is acknowledged, children still don’t end up with enough practice to become fluent readers. This reason can be explained using the economic principle of ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’.

What is this principle?

I like using this cartoon to explain the principle when teaching my A level politics students (about ecologism).


The tragedy of the commons is an economic theory of a situation within a shared-resource system where individual users acting independently according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting that resource through their collective action.

At secondary level the ultimate goal of subject teachers is to ensure their students learn their subject, biology, geography, RE etc, probably measured through their success in public examinations. Aside from the ultimate benefit to the pupil, if children are fluent readers it helps all teachers achieve the academic goals they have for their students and therefore no teacher would quibble that reading fluency is important.  The reading fluency is a ‘common good’- a shared resource that benefits all teachers as they teach their subject to the student. However, that does NOT mean it benefits the individual teacher to focus on reading fluency. If you look at the wiki definition above, rather than gaining an individual advantage from ‘depleting’ a resource, subject teachers gain an advantage by not adding to a shared resource. It takes valuable lesson time away from subject learning to focus on building the commonly shared resource – fluent reading. I’ll explain using an example from my own teaching:

I want my year 9 students to learn about the 1916 Battle of the Somme. After a series of lessons the class will write an essay on whether the Somme was entirely a disaster. As a subject teacher I will get the most reward from getting the best possible essays as quickly and painlessly as possible. SO should I cover the key detail on the Somme by:

  1. Using a great article I found on the internet. I can abridge it to ensure that while it challenges the students it is accessible. I know this article covers the ground well but it will take a long time to read and the students won’t exactly be enthralled that they are doing lots of reading.
  2. Use a documentary from Youtube that covers all the issues in full technicolour and takes half the time the article would. Hey – we can practice note taking!
  3. Play some sort of fact finding games. Not as effective to get the content across as the article but it will look great if you are observed as the class will love it. They’ll walk out of the lesson saying they prefer history to geography. This means they’ll probably work harder on their history essay and opt for the subject at GCSE.

Let’s be honest. How often do we opt for A because we know it serves the greater good? The common goal of reading fluency is inevitably sacrificed. I don’t think individual teachers should be blamed for this. The incentives are all wrong. How many teachers can get by on a warm glow of self-righteousness when other teachers and other subjects get better results, no one opts for your subject at GCSE and the kids complain that (comparatively) your lessons are boring. We are far more likely to kid ourselves that what amounts to a tokenistic amount of reading is ‘doing our bit’ because we’re not into career suicide.

So what should be done? As my A level politics students know – this is an argument for centralised control. The incentives need to be changed by those with the power to do so – SLT. If sustained reading is the norm in ALL lessons then students just get used to it and will start to read the amount necessary each day to become fluent.

Perhaps this shift towards more sustained reading can be achieved as at Michaela School by having a quite centralised control over the materials used in class. Perhaps SLT can agree with subject departments a notional number of words a week that need to be read in each subject, as appropriate (i.e. not appropriate for maths!). Maybe lesson observation can be used or book scrutinies can look for evidence that there has been very regular sustained reading at the right level of challenge. Ultimately, a sensible, intelligently implemented,  way needs to be found to end what amounts to a ‘tragedy of the commons’.

Why can’t our students read fluently?

Lots of children learn to read well despite very poor or minimal teaching. I think I was probably one of those children. I don’t think my mum ever listened to me read but somehow I now read fluently. I remember seeing my big sister chuckling over an Enid Blyton Image result for child reading blytonand feeling jealous because I couldn’t read and then I remember being able to read Blyton myself. I think I must have read constantly from about the age of six to twelve only surfacing for school lessons. With my sister I spent every Saturday in the children’s section of the local library. I had a long walk home from school and I would hitch my bag straps over my forehead to allow me to read my latest volume as I dawdled along the pavement.
At first sight my experience does seem to suggest that motivation provides the key to growing a strong reader and that is certainly the assumption of our schools. I disagree.

There are, in fact, many factors that make it more likely that children will read well, the area is very well researched, but perhaps the most crucial factor tends to be overlooked – bulk practice. Surely, you may say, we all know children need to read lots. Schools bend over backwards to encourage children to read lots. I’m not so sure we really DO appreciate the importance of bulk practice for reading fluency OR that we do the right things to ensure that this practice happens.
At the heart of the problem is the faulty supposition that the only lever teachers have is exhortation. The assumption seems to be that we must persuade our children that reading is fun and if they won’t listen we just throw our hands up and bewail the situation or embark on ever more elaborate campaigns to entice reluctant readers to open a book. Motivation is important. We do want to ensure our children have good role models, attractive environments and great reading options. Schools are right to ensure these elements are in place. I think though that we forget that it is not motivation that grows a reader – it is reading that grows a reader – bulk reading. The world renowned reading researcher Keith Stanovich calls this the ‘Matthew Effect’.
It is true that I was motivated to read but that is hardly surprising when you consider that my unusual childhood involved no computer screens, no television, no after school activities; nothing to provide higher gratification than I could gain, aged six, from puzzling out the letters that let me into the world of St Clare’s and the hilarious tricks the girls played on their French mistress. I had nothing ‘better’ to do and so I read in bulk. Can we simply cross our fingers that children today, faced with a plethora of instant forms of gratification, will be persuaded to persist with a book?

Image result for child on a screen

One way or another children need to read enough words in a day, a week, a month, a year, to attain fluency. As Quirky Teacher pointed out in a recent blog, at primary level the typical group reading sessions involve very little sustained reading (see here also). At secondary levels teachers try and cut the amount of reading in lessons, using other mediums to make the subject learning more accessible. Thus in the average school day a child does not encounter anything like the number of words they need to read to become fluent readers. To be blunt, currently the education provided through school alone is not adequate to create fluent readers.
The fascinating work of the late Jeanne Chall suggests this drive for accessibility has been very counterproductive. She found that in America schools had been gradually reducing the reading age of subject textbooks to make learning more accessible which correlated with a decline in reading ages. Chall suggested that, as children were less challenged, the reading ages of children gradually dropped, creating a negative spiral in which textbook publishers continued to lower the challenge of text to keep up with the falling reading age of the students.
Children need to read lots because the vast majority of the vocabulary children encounter in text is not used in everyday speech. Written communication follows different conventions to the spoken word. However, even those children who do enjoy some David Walliams aren’t therefore being exposed to more academic forms of writing which build the stamina for engaging with more abstract texts that children will need if they are to succeed academically (as I explain here.) For this they need to engage with the more academic forms of writing they should repeatedly encounter at school.

Whatever children may choose to read should be a bonus. Something as crucial as reading fluency should not be dependent on whether we can cajole children to read for pleasure.  In their schooling they should encounter enough text, fiction and subject based, at the right level of challenge, to ensure they progress towards becoming fluent readers. This may be partly through initiatives like ‘Drop Everything And Read’ although for weaker readers this won’t help –they need more time reading with an adult. Not much of this bulk reading should be in maths or PE lessons BUT sustained reading should be a normal part of most lessons – including science, geography, business and RE etc. At one school (which many on the blogosphere may have heard of it) children read ten thousand words a day. I’ll repeat that with emphasis TEN THOUSAND WORDS A DAY! I think we can rest assured that Michaela school is growing fluent readers! I’d suggest that in most schools children don’t come anywhere near this total. When children present as struggling readers it would be interesting to investigate just how much bulk practice they have had in the past. I’d bet quite a lot that it was not very much!

For a very clear and more detailed outline of the problems of primary see this.

Developmentalism v Mastery

I wrote piece recently for Schools Week on the problems with the idea of waiting until children are ‘ready’ to learn:

Developmentalism vs mastery: should teachers be ‘flinging mud at the wall’?

Research and primary education

I took part in a panel discussion at the national ResearchEd conference yesterday. The subject of the discussion was primary education and I thought I would post the thoughts I shared:

At all levels of schooling classroom research is undoubtedly useful but the process of generalising from this research is fraught with difficulty. As E D Hirsch explains, each classroom context is different.

I think ideally we would like to base educational decisions on

  • Converging evidence from many years of research in numerous fields
  • That integrates both classroom research and lab based work so…
  • We can construct theoretical accounts of underlying causal processes.

These theoretical insights allow us to interpret sometimes contradictory classroom research. We actually have this ideal in the case of research into early reading and the superiority of systematic synthetic phonics. Despite this evidence the vast majority of primary schools ignore or are unaware of the research and continue to teach the ‘multi-cueing’ approach to reading.

While research on phonics is ignored some lamentably poor research has been enduringly influential in early primary education and treated with a breath taking lack of criticality. In the 1950s a comparison study of 32 children found that children taught at nursery using teacher centred methods showed evidence of delinquent behaviour in later life. However, this was a tiny sample and there was a tiny effect. No account was taken for the fact the teacher led research group had many more boys than the comparison child centred group – among other fatal flaws. Despite this that piece of research is STILL continually and uncritically cited. For example, the OECD used this study to support character education.  It is also central to the National Audit Office definition of ‘high quality early years provision as ‘developmentally appropriate’.

That flawed research features in the literature review for the EPPSE longitudinal study that has become one of the highest impact educational research programmes in Europe and whose findings underpin billions of pounds of government spending. EPPSE claims to have demonstrated that high quality pre-school provision is child centred and to have shown that such provision has an incredible impact on outcomes at aged 16. However, merely scratch the surface and you find there were obvious flaws with EPPSE. The scales used by classroom observers to discover the nature of quality provision lacked validity and actually predefined what constituted high quality provision as child centred. The researchers admitted problems with the control group meant causal connections couldn’t be drawn from the findings but then ignored this problem, despite the control group issue undermining their key conclusions.

It seems the key principles influencing early years education are too frequently drawn from obviously flawed research. These principles are also the product of misuse of the research we have. For example, it is statutory to devise activities to build resilience in early years education. However, Angela Duckworth, an international authority, admits that although it is a desirable trait we don’t really know for sure how to create it.

What explains the astonishing situation where theoretical research from cognitive psychology is ignored, obviously flawed huge government funded research projects become influential and new pedagogical approaches, based on faulty understanding of the evidence, are made statutory?

A glance along the bookshelves at any primary teacher training institution gives us a clue. There is a rigid child centred and developmentalist  orthodoxy among primary educationalists. This explains the lack of rigorous scrutiny of supportive research. In fact, except on social media, sceptical voices are barely heard.


You know that idea that you can be divided by a common language – when you suspect you aren’t making sense to others even though you are using a common vocabulary? I feel like that about the word ‘homework’.

Homework to me is essential time for my classes to work independently reviewing learning and practising extended writing which will also consolidate their understanding and aid future recall. Yet when I read about homework on twitter it is often condemned as a waste of time – a method disproven by research although this isn’t entirely the case. I can’t get my head around these arguments and I’ll explain why.

A typical GCSE history class of mine will have:

  • Two homeworks a week of 30 minutes each
  • There are 33 weeks in my school’s year
  • My class will write one essay/piece of extended writing every week for homework.
  • About once every two weeks they will revise for a short test on previous material for homework.
  • Other homework will be either extra time to write longer essays or tasks that cover new material or review learnt material.

So (if we generously lop off a few weeks that inevitably get lost each term due to school events etc) over the two years of the GCSE my class will have completed the following homework:

I genuinely don’t understand. How likely is that that this homework is a waste of time?

  • Fifty four essays is an awful lot of practice, review and consolidation of learning and builds crucial writing stamina if the teacher keeps upping expectations.
  • The class get 54 extra lots of feedback on misapprehensions, technique issues and ways to extend their thinking. They generally complete a short feedback task directly focused on clearing up any problems I noticed when marking.
  • We know how important it is to review learning with short factual tests so how can that learning homework be anything other than worthwhile?
  • If my GCSE classes had had no practice building the habit of knuckling down to some private study how likely are they to develop those habits necessary to do the huge amounts of personal revision required to get good grades at history GCSE? If students don’t develop those work habits they’ll do far worse than those who have them, whatever their original potential.
  • There is a good chance students unused to knuckling down to independent study will feel virtuous at revision time despite having done a fraction of the work they actually have the capacity for.

The odd idea that location of the worker rather than task choice dictates degree of efficacy

Surely it isn’t the location of the worker, home or school, it is the appropriateness of the task that dictates usefulness of the work students complete? I don’t suppose endless wordsearches and posters are very beneficial homework tasks. They aren’t particularly useful class tasks either but we don’t suggest that we should close schools because some teachers make poor activity choices in lessons.

Research suggests that at primary level doing work at home, rather than school, isn’t especially effective. This is quite shocking news. I have spent the last nine years listening, every single evening, to some or all of my three children as they read from their school issue reading book. I’d say that the reading practice work that goes on at home with primary aged children is absolutely crucial – ditto learning timestables. I actually think that it is very wrong that schools rely on parents to ensure children learn to read. It means educational inequality becomes inevitable as some parents don’t or can’t manage but the idea that reading practice (because it is done at home, not school) is fairly ineffective, is nonsensical.

It seems reasonable that homework should be set once children are old enough to work independently on a task and take responsibility for completion. That said, I don’t underestimate the enormous challenge involved in creating a homework culture among students in some schools. Neither am I pretending there aren’t serious workload problems for some teachers when regular homework is set and needs to be marked. I’m not pretending that it is easy to ensure homework set by all teachers in a school will be useful. I am, however, saying that the whole debate over homework is unhelpful because it focuses on location rather than task appropriateness and that students who complete regular, well-chosen homework have a significant advantage over their peers.