What is a knowledge-rich curriculum? Principle and Practice.

I have found recent discussions and debates about the concept of a ‘knowledge-rich curriculum’  – or knowledge-led; knowledge-based – fascinating.   Some of this has been explored brilliantly in various blogs.  Here is a selection:

There are also numerous blogs from Michael Fordham (Knowledge and curriculum – Clio et cetera), Clare Sealy (Memory not memories – teaching for long term learning – primarytimerydotcom) or Christine Counsell: the dignity of the thing

Along with plenty of others, I initially struggled to get my ahead around this idea.  As a science teacher I’ve always felt my curriculum was packed with knowledge and, without question, I’ve seen numerous cohorts sit lots of GCSE exams year after year, each requiring significant knowledge.   However, having engaged in the debate, read Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21c and Dan Willingham’s work, I’m increasingly convinced that a knowledge-rich/focused/led/based curriculum is an important concept that we ought to embrace.

Based on my work with lots of schools in varying circumstances over the last few years, I would say that not only is this approach often different to the default practice, it offers a secure route to the rising standards that we’re continually seeking.

What is a knowledge-rich curriculum in principle?

Based on various ideas pulled from the blogs and books cited above, I would suggest there are four components:

Knowledge provides a driving, underpinning philosophy:  The grammar of each subject is given high status; the specifics of what we want students to learn matter and the traditions of subject disciplines are respected.  Skills and understanding are seen as forms of knowledge and it is understood that there are no real generic skills that can be taught outside of specific knowledge domains.  Acquiring powerful knowledge is seen as an end itself; there is a belief that we are all empowered through knowing things and that this cannot be left to chance.  There is also a sense that the creative, ’rounded and grounded’ citizens we all want to develop – with a host of strong character traits –  will emerge through being immersed in a knowledge-rich curriculum.

The knowledge content is specified in detail: Units of work are supported by statements that detail the knowledge to be learned – something that can be written down.  We do not merely want to ‘do the Romans’; we want children to gain some specified knowledge of the Romans as well as a broad overview.  We want children to know specific things about plants and about The Amazon Rainforest, WWII, Romeo and Juliet and Climate Change.  We want children to have more than a general sense of things through vaguely remembered  knowledge encounters; in addition to a range of experiences from which important tacit knowledge is gained, we want them to amass a specific body of declarative and procedural knowledge that is planned.   This runs through every phase of school: units of work are not defined by headings but by details: eg beyond ‘environmental impact of fossil fuels’, the specific impacts are detailed; beyond ‘changes to transport in Victorian Britain’, specific changes are listed.

Knowledge is taught to be remembered, not merely encountered: A good knowledge-rich curriculum embraces learning from cognitive science about memory, forgetting and the power of retrieval practice.  Our curriculum is not simply a set of encounters from which children form ad hoc memories; it is designed to be remembered in detail; to be stored in our students’ long-term memories so that they can later build on it forming ever wider and deeper schema.  This requires approaches to curriculum planning and delivery that build in spaced retrieval practice, formative low-stakes testing and plenty of repeated practice for automaticity and fluency.

Knowledge is sequenced and mapped deliberately and coherently: Beyond the knowledge specified for each unit, a knowledge-rich curriculum is planned vertically and horizontally giving thought to the optimum knowledge sequence for building secure schema – a kinetic model for materials; a timeline for historical events; a sense of the canon in literature; a sense of place; a framework for understanding cultural diversity and human development and evolution.  Attention is also given to known misconceptions and there is an understanding of the instructional tools needed to move students from novice to expert in various subject domains.


What is a knowledge-rich curriculum in practice?

The best way to attack this is through some examples:

Exhibit A: The Romans 

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If you imagine some Year 8s looking back to their time in Year 4, when they ‘did the Romans’, what would we want them to remember?  They might remember their trip to the ruins or the museum, the video of the gladiators and something about togas and what the soldiers looked like.  They might have a general sense that Romans had an empire and that they were around a long time ago.  In a knowledge-rich curriculum they would remember all of this but would also be expected to know the terms empire, emperor, centurion, amphitheatre, aqueduct.  They would know who Julius Caesar was; they would know a set of dates, placing the Romans in time in relation to Jesus and 1066 and be able to identify the location of key Roman sites in the UK and Europe.

All of the teaching could be supported by giving students a knowledge organiser with all the key facts on it from which various quizzes and tests are derived to support their retrieval practice.  This would be part of a long-term plan that ensured students returned to Roman history beyond Year 4; there would be an expectation that their knowledge would be built on, not left behind.

Exhibit B: Parliament Hill Science 

At this Camden school, the science department has developed a superb set of resources to support students with learning.  This is linked to their FACE It approach described in this post: FACE It. A formula for learning.   The idea is that students need to master the recall of basic science facts and concepts on the road to deep understanding and the ability to apply knowledge to problem solving.   They are provided with excellent study guides; more detailed than a knowledge organiser but stripped down from what might be in a text-book. Here’s a sample from the GCSE unit on genetics and selection.

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Significantly, students are shown the quizzes that will be used to test them on their knowledge. They are embedded in the books.  They are seen in advance so that students can learn the form in which knowledge is sometimes expressed.  It guides their learning. Students are asked to learn the material after being taught it and then take the quizzes without any study aids.  The aim is that all students get all the questions right.  That’s the point.  Their theory is that, if students can’t get the simple factual recall questions right, they have no chance of then getting the ‘application to new contexts’ questions right.

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This embedded quizzing teachers lower attaining students to build confidence, gaining important study skills and has paid dividends.  It also helps a team of teachers to focus their energies and to plan collaboratively.  It’s a Godsend for any new or non-specialist teachers too.

Exhibit C:  Trial by Ordeal

If you were teaching the GCSE History theme study on Crime and Punishment, you might show this BBC Bitesize video: https://www.bbc.com/education/clips/zrtk2hv.  It’s a great colourful story full of information, examples, facts, concepts, gory details.  You could watch it and have a wonderful engaging discussion during a lesson.  But…. some days and weeks later, what would students remember?  If you hoped students would recall as much as possible simply through absorbing information or by making their own notes, you’re going to get a wide range of responses – and for certain, the weakest students will have the worst notes and, in all likelihood, the lowest level of recall.  It’s not enough.

In a knowledge-rich approach, we don’t leave this to chance.  We spell it all out. Alongside watching the video and having the discussion, we make the note-making absolutely explicit.  These are the key facts; this what everyone must know; this is what you must all remember.  Not only this, but at least all of this:

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You might choose to train students to produce their own structured notes in a quizzable format or you might just give them the notes and focus on the retrieval practice and application.  But what you won’t do is all students to scrabble around dredging memories for half-remembered titbits of facts in the hope that they have a coherent picture of the idea of trial by ordeal.  You control it; you are precise about it.

Exhibit D:  Sequenced knowledge of Motors. 

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This is my favourite bit of teaching physics – one of them at least.  If I teach this through a  knowledge-rich approach I want to make sure that the knowledge builds securely.  Firstly, say in Year 8, through demos and practicals, I want students to build their tacit knowledge of the key phenomena:  magnetism, magnetic fields, attraction and repulsion, the idea of ‘strength’ of a magnet;  forces; current in circuits – each with direction and magnitude; the idea that phenomena interact. All of this can be highly qualitative – simply focusing on changes of direction and the simple awe and wonder thing that motors work at all in our universe. I will also secure recall and understanding of some key terminology.

Later, as part of a spiral curriculum, avoiding cognitive overload and building on prior knowledge, I need students to understand and use F = BIL and Fleming’s left hand rule.  I need them to know the terms, that magnetic flux density more or less means ‘strength’, has a symbol B and units Teslas.  I need them to learn the equation by heart and practise using it and manipulating it.  All of that needs focus – so that they think about the equation away from the buzzy distraction of a sparking, whizzing motor.  I build the sequence carefully, deliberately with a focus on practice and recall and schema-building.

Is this new? Well, yes I think it is to many teachers and in many schools –  especially once the cogscience combines with the idea of subject grammar.  It’s way beyond some reductive idea of rote learning and regurgitating facts for no purpose.   It’s about ensuring students always have a secure knowledge platform allowing them to reach the next level.  But it’s not too important (is it?) whether we did this before… some of us will; some won’t and that will depend on context, subject, phase…   The point is that we do it now.  It’s actually rather exciting….


Evidence from Research Schools – practical examples.

Mobilising the Evidence

One of the most important roles for Research Schools such as us, is to support teachers and leaders who work in schools and colleges to mobilise the research evidence that is out there, so that it can make a positive difference to the students we teach.  At our INSET day today, five of our fabulous teachers did just this.  They shared how they have taken the evidence we have shared with them over the last couple of years and implemented it in their classrooms.

What evidence?

Over the past couple of years, rather than flitting from one topic to another during INSET days, we have tried to focus on some key themes that we believe, if embedded across the school, will have a significant impact on student learning.  They are:

So today, five of our teachers talked about how they have done this.  Here is a summary of each presentation.

Retrieval Practice – Alex Mohammed (Science)

Like many teachers, Aex has been thinking about how he can support his students with retrieving and recalling knowledge from across the whole specification, in preparation for the new terminal exams.  He also wants to support students with elaborating on their responses, by linking together ideas and thinking more deeply about what the topic they are being taught.  So Alex, has turned to the ideas of retrieval practice and elaborative interrogation.

In order to do this, Alex has thought about the questions he asks students at the start of the lesson.  In the example slide above, you can see that he starts the lesson with a variety of recall questions.  The black questions relate to what they have studied in recent lessons (this is for a Y11 group).  The red questions go back to what they studied in Y10 – Alex calls these ‘link back’ questions.  When choosing his ‘link back’ questions, Alex tries to pick questions that have a common thread.  So for example here, they are all linked to blood and the circulatory system.  This encourages students to understand the links between the topics they study, an important aspect of elaborative interrogation.

As a result of this, Alex has noticed the following:

  • Students appear to have an increased knowledge of the specification.
  • Students are becoming adept at making the links between topics
  • They are also becoming better at self-prompting, leading to more elaboration in their answers.
  • Through having a ‘How Science Works’ push within these ‘link back questions’, students are becoming more familiar with the key core skills within science and other subjects.

Knowledge Organisers & Explicit Vocabulary Instructions – Beth Clarke & Kate Haslett (History)

In history, following Fran’s input at our November INSET day on explicit vocabulary instruction, Beth and Kate set to work on implementing these ideas in history.  They came up with a very clear plan of what they wanted to do:

Explicit vocabulary instruction

  1. Identify and agree tier 2 words, using the academic word list.
  2. Identify and agree tier 3 words.
  3. Discuss ways of implementing STI (see Fran’s post in the link above) and how to share strategies at Subject Planning & development Session (SPDS)

Knowledge Organisers

  1. Review what we already have in place for units of work.
  2. Use guidelines to make decisions about future knowledge organisers for history.
  3. Discuss three ways of using knowledge organisers in lessons and when to share strategies at SPDS.

Their starting point was their existing knowledge organiser (example above).  After much discussion, they decided that this had too much content on one page and wasn’t really in a coherent format.  So they set to work on splitting this up into three topics:

Each topic now has it’s own knowledge organiser, with 10 key people/events for students to focus on.  They also used this to clarify key tier 2 terminology that was used in exam questions.  Here’s an example:

Once they had produced them, the history team then discussed a consistent way of using them.  Students are given them at the start of the topic and are encouraged to use them to produce flashcards and dual coding activities (more on this later).  They are also referred to in lessons and used as a revision tool for quick quizzes at the start of lessons, where students are expected to spell the word correctly and recall the meaning.

To develop the use of the knowledge organisers further, when students produce a piece of extended writing, in response to a question, they highlight the words/names/events they have used from the knowledge organiser.  This reinforces the importance of these words/names/events.

Beth and Kate then went on to describe other ways in which they are developing explicit vocabulary instruction:

Sentence stems

Students have to complete a sentence that has been started for them that uses the new vocabulary.  For example:

1.In Anglo-Saxon England, the burh was …

2.The housecarls in Harold’s army were …

3.The submission of the earls at Berkhamstead was …

Test Sentences

Students are given the new vocabulary in two sentences.  they have to decide which sentence is using the new vocabulary correctly.  For example:

Example 1:

1.One way in which Anglo-Saxons lost their land was through forfeiture.

2. One way in which Anglo-Saxons rebelled against Norman control was through forfeiture.

Example 2:

  1. The housecarls in Harold’s army were untrained men obtained from the land.
  2. The housecarls in Harold’s army were highly trained and professional.

Dual coding

Students are encouraged to use visuals and writing to help them remember key events.

Geographical Literacy – Sam Atkins (Geography)

Sam has been looking to tackle the following challenges in his classroom:

  • The breadth of vocabulary in KS3 students
  • the ability of students to:

–Know and understand the contextual meaning of tier 2 (geographical) words




These are important issues to tackle, as by doing so students will be able to articulate a wider range of responses and therefore produce higher quality responses.  Sam is seeking to eliminate the common response that we often hear from students:

“ I know what I want to say, I just don’t know how to say it”

Like Beth and Kate, Sam has been using test sentences:

This usually includes 10 key words for a particular topic and is used as a homework task.  the same words are then reinforced by using sentence stems:

Sam has also been trialling an approach that brings together a number of metacognitive approaches, when supporting students with interacting with a text:

As you can see from the photograph above, students a given some text about a particular topic (in this case, the North Pole) that they read and stick in the middle of a double page spread.  They then do 4 things with this text:

  • Image – they turn the information in the text into an image, supporting the idea of dual coding.
  • Summarise – they pick out and summarise the key points from the text.
  • Elaborate – in this section, the student elaborates on the points made in the text further e.g. what are the risks to the north pole ecosystem?
  • Question – do they have a question they would like to ask the author, to find out more?

What has Sam noticed since implementing these approaches?

  • Students will continue to misspell words, even when re-writing alongside the model example. Repetition is crucial.
  • Accuracy in identifying the correct test sentence, does not always translate into accuracy when completing sentence stems. Effective practice is crucial.
  • Knowing what summarise/elaborate means, does not always mean knowing how to do it effectively. Modelling is crucial.
  • Students will ask questions about a text, to which the answer is already apparent. Explanation is crucial.
  • Initial attempts at dual coding by students may result in over-elaborate diagrams. Effective feedback is crucial.

Explicit Vocabulary Teaching – Tod Brennan (English)

Tod started his presentation by telling us a story of an actor friend of his who missed out on a number of roles.  When asked during auditions to ‘be bashful’ he would break into ‘Hi Ho’ from snow white and the seven dwarves, or bash the script on the table.  Why?  Because, he simply didn’t know what the word bashful meant.  He was an intelligent individual who had done really well in life, but just hadn’t been exposed to that particular word.  How many of our students don’t understand an exam question (even though they may have the subject knowledge) or might miss out on opportunities like this in the future, simply because of a limited vocabulary?

Tod has been addressing this by explicitly teaching tier 2 vocabulary (see example above).  He has been using direct and clear explanations, using ideas and examples that the students will probably understand.

He then develops this, by testing their understanding of this new vocabulary:

As can be seen from the slide above, Tod uses a number of approaches to support this.  For example, matching the words with the correct meaning, using new vocabulary to complete a sentence and writing a synonym for the new vocabulary.  By using a variety of approaches like this, students become immersed in this new vocabulary.

What has Tod noticed since implementing these new approaches?

  • This is just the start of their journey to using these words naturally.
  • It will be a battle, many students don’t encounter these words regularly and are unlikely to encounter them again.
  • It is therefore important that I revisit these words with them, and that we do it often.
  • A plan for the whole year’s vocabulary would enable this.
  • On a personal level I will use MCQ’s to further discussions about why certain words are wrong, and tease out small differences between synonyms.

The Question of Knowledge


PTE has produced this pamphlet in conjunction with The Association of School and College Leaders. In it, several headteachers from across the country detail their experiences and the challenges they faced when attempting to provide a knowledge-rich curriculum to their students, often with no resources or base to begin from. The pamphlet is free to download from this page.


Parents and Teachers for Excellence.


Knowledge organisers

There has been lots in the ‘twittersphere’ recently about the use of knowledge organisers, how these link to homework, revision and low stakes testing. As a result I have put some examples and guidance below as the approach can reduce teacher workload and improve student outcomes:

Joe Kirby writes about his use of KOs at pragmaticreform.wordpress.com.

James Theobald has created a collection of ready-made KOs at othamarstrombone.wordpress.com.

Shaun Allison writes about his use of KOs at classteaching.wordpress.com.

Knowledge Organisers HOW TO

Knowledge organiser GCSE Weimar Germany

Knowledge organiser GCSE Arab-Israeli

AS Henry VII

KS3 Ancient World knowledge organiser

Thanks to Toby French at Torquay Academy for the above examples – he can be found on Twitter as @MrHistoire and is a great source of information and knowledge!