Our Knowledge Organiser purpose
For students to succeed in a particular area, they must have a foundation of factual knowledge, understand those facts in the context of a conceptual framework and organise knowledge in order to facilitate retrieval and application (Bransford et al., 2000). We see knowledge organisers as a way to enable this, in a much more systematic way than traditional revision guides and textbooks.
There are many arguments made for the necessity of the memorisation of important knowledge. Our working memory capacity is limited, so by storing more in our long-term memory, we can free up working memory capacity (Paas et al., 2004). With careful design and use of knowledge organisers, we can construct schemas, complex architectures of knowledge stored in long-term memory, with a view to automating their use (Paas et al., 2004). For a relatively complex task such as writing an English literature essay, for example, we can reduce the extraneous cognitive load by allowing students to access knowledge and quotations from their long-term memory.
It should be noted that knowledge organisers have a purpose outside the more obvious benefits for students. The construction and regular use of knowledge organisers can also develop teachers’ subject knowledge. The process of creating knowledge organisers in a specific subject then leads to a consideration of pedagogical content knowledge, the integration of subject expertise and an understanding of how that subject should be taught (Ball et al., 2008). A knowledge organiser can be a valuable starting point for effective curriculum design and a useful primer for those new to the topic
Our Knowledge Organiser content
When making decisions about what must be included, we consider that not everything can be included on an A4 piece of paper. So we balance the need to use concise space-saving definitions while still including meaning enough for it to be useful. The finite space also leads to choices about which knowledge we deem most important and which we exclude. Powerful knowledge, as defined by Young (Yong, 2013), is specialised rather than general knowledge, and is differentiated from the experiences of students. Finally, we decide which knowledge is most useful for the understanding of the domain and which is important for the sample of the domain – the assessment.
Our Knowledge Organiser pedagogy
The use of knowledge organisers needs to be integrated into teachers’ practice and students’ habits. This includes using the following strategies regularly and routinely.
Regular retrieval practice is important, because active retrieval aids later retention (Roediger et al., 2011). This can take various forms, e.g. low-stakes quizzes during lessons, or writing down the dates for key events in a timeline from the KO. It could be free recall, where students write down everything that they can remember on the topic, before checking the KO, or perhaps filling in a blank (or partially blank) knowledge organiser. Testing will also identify gaps in knowledge, lead to more learning on the next study session and produce better organisation of knowledge (Roediger et al., 2011).
We ensure that the material included in knowledge organisers is elaborated upon, by relating it to additional knowledge associated with it, often in the form of ‘why’ questions. There is an element of retrieval practice contained in this strategy, known as elaborative interrogation, but it works by ensuring that there is some sort of active understanding and meaningful consideration of what is being learnt (Willingham, 2014). Building complex schemas requires knowledge to be connected, so that this can be used when learning X by asking, ‘How does concept X relate to concept Y?’
Finally, we ask students to organise the knowledge into something different in order to help recall and further understanding. Reif (Reif, 2008) lists some forms of knowledge organisation: nearly random organisation; lists; network (associative network, concept map); hierarchy. The strategy of elaborative interrogation can be used to help build these particular organisational structures, but students should be asked regularly to organise the knowledge contained on the KO into different organisational structures. For example, a list of key historical figures from the Second World War could be organised hierarchically in terms of power/status, could be built into a concept map or could be re-ordered into another list.
We fully appreciate knowledge organisers are not a silver bullet, but they can form a central part of any knowledge-based curriculum when used in this systematic, evidence-informed way.