Last week, Andy Tharby wrote about Durrington’s journey with knowledge organisers and in particular how we are using these to improve retrieval practice. Andy’s blog generated a lot of interest, perhaps because it taps into the current debate regarding the possible advantages and dangers of using knowledge organisers as a central resource for classroom learning (and because it is expertly written, of course).
One of the major issues we at Durrington have faced on this journey is ensuring a cohesive approach to using knowledge organisers in a way that tackles some common misconceptions about their design and use. Below is an outline of our experiences so far.
The Pros and Cons
At Durrington, we are aiming to have knowledge organisers in place for all units of work, in every curriculum area and for all year groups. This, of course, is an ongoing process and something that we hope to achieve over the next two to three years. To support this process, we have used the EEF’s implementation guide so that we can maximise the chances of this change being successful and having the desired impact on students’ outcomes.
We see knowledge organisers as having a lot of positive potential, especially with regards to our knowledge-based curriculum (you can read about this here). However, we are also highly aware that in order for this potential to be fulfilled we have to be judicious, informed and reflective in terms of their production and our expectations of how knowledge organisers are used by teachers and students. We do not want it to be the case that teachers dedicate a huge amount of time to producing knowledge organisers that are either ineffectively designed in the first place or created with expertise and attention but then fade out of consciousness as the year unfolds.
In the exploration phase of our implementation plan, i.e. when we were systematically investigating the practices tied into the use of knowledge organisers, it became increasingly apparent that there is not any robust research evidence that supports their use. As an evidence-informed school, this was a clear issue for us. Firstly, the current dearth of research evidence underpinning knowledge organisers means that there is also a lack of guidelines for best practice, or even concrete ideas about how they might be effectively used in classrooms of different contexts. Accordingly, any school that is thinking about implementing knowledge organisers as a whole-school approach, or even departmentally, faces somewhat of an abyss when it comes to knowing exactly what to do. However, the experiences of schools that have adopted knowledge organisers seem to align so closely with our T&L principles that it was deemed a path worth pursuing. In addition, it is important to keep in mind that the research evidence does not exist yet, meaning that nothing has been tested either way.
Tackling the Issues
After much research and careful thought, we decided to ask all curriculum areas to create knowledge organisers for the units that will be studied by Year 9 and Year 10 students in the first term of this academic year. Crucially, however, we also decided that the knowledge organisers needed to be the mechanisms for our three current whole-school T&L approaches: retrieval practice, explicit vocabulary instruction and developing metacognitive learners. By emphasising that the knowledge organisers should be developed and used in a way that supports our three evidence-informed T&L foci, rather than as a different pedagogic approach altogether, we felt that we were reducing the risk of them becoming obsolete bits of paper stuck in books, or at worst injurious resources that would narrow the curriculum.
In summary, we have come to believe that knowledge organisers as an isolated pedagogical tool are probably not the way forward, but using knowledge organisers as a way of enabling teachers to incorporate retrieval practice, explicit vocabulary instruction and metacognitive learning in their lessons seems very fruitful indeed.
So far, the whole-school implementation of knowledge organisers has not been easy – they require a substantial amount of time and expertise, and tend to throw up more questions before any answers emerge. There have also been lots of very understandable doubts that we have struggled to quell with ease. However, some of these concerns were rooted in misconceptions that we have been able to overcome. These misconceptions include:
- I can’t fit everything a student needs to know on one side of A4.
- I don’t know what to put on a knowledge organiser.
- I’ve already got excellent resources, why would I need a knowledge organiser as well?
- It doesn’t work in my subject.
- They take too long to make.
- Surely I can just photocopy the exam specification?
Expectations for Using Knowledge Organisers at Durrington
To tackle these misconceptions we consistently emphasise that the fundamental purpose of our knowledge organisers is to put our three T&L foci into practice. Accordingly, we have identified the following attributes as expectations and reiterate these regularly through CPD channels such as INSET:
- All knowledge organisers include specific tier 2 and/or tier 3 vocabulary. Teachers will teach this vocabulary explicitly in lessons.
- Knowledge organisers distil and clarify the building blocks for learning in your subject ready to extend in classroom learning.
- Knowledge organisers do not replace other lesson resources. Rather, they make it explicit what students need to know automatically and be able to apply and develop in lessons.
- Knowledge organisers are based on cultural capital. Exam requirements are important for student success, but learning should also go beyond this. Knowledge organisers, therefore, should identify the knowledge a student should remember in ten years’ time about that subject.
- Knowledge organisers are disciplinary, i.e. they are subject specific. A knowledge organiser from history will look very different to a knowledge organiser from textiles. Knowledge organisers can be text-based, visual or a mixture of both formats as best suits the needs of the curriculum it supports.
- Knowledge organisers are designed in a way that makes them mechanisms for retrieval practice, explicit vocabulary instruction and metacognitive learning in lessons and at home.
The Journey Continues
Perhaps the best part of our investment in knowledge organisers so far has been the collaboration it has engendered. Rather than seeing the lack of prior knowledge organisers as a hindrance, we at Durrington are using this opportunity to galvanise a pioneering spirit. There are many questions that are still unanswered, and this means that curriculum time centres around discussing, questioning and debating what we should teach in our subject and why. There is no side-stepping the fact that the creation of knowledge organisers does take a very long time, but we believe that will be time well spent.