This post follows the huge interest in my last, How to use a knowledge organiser. It is deliberately generic, and so I will write a further post on how I began to create KOs for history.

At Torquay Academy we’re now looking at how to improve our KOs after introducing them school-wide in September. The advice below is what I have suggested to our staff.

Making a knowledge organiser

The KO is like a scheme of work, but simpler and more effective. It doesn’t need ‘Do Nows’ and chunked activities; it doesn’t need to be differentiated; it doesn’t need lots of detail. It is a whole course and a two-minute quiz, a revision timetable and a cover lesson.

It is not a bolt-on. The only thing that should come before it is what we want children to learn. It should underpin every single thing we do in every single lesson at every single moment. If we’re teaching a lesson and nothing on the KO appears then one of two mistakes has happened: either we’ve not planned a coherent curriculum, or we’ve just made the KO because we have to, in which case the whole thing is pointless.

A KO is the curriculum map, driven by the requirements of the assessment, but that itself rests on what we want students to learn.

Why a knowledge organiser?

The fundamental point of a KO is to reduce cognitive load.

Our long-term memory is virtually infinite, and we can expand this over time through repetition and experience. Our short-term memory is extremely finite: most of us can work with between 3-9 new pieces of information at any one time. This is affected by our environment. Remember learning to drive? We’d finally worked out the gears, only to be told to indicate at a junction in the dark, in the rain: we panic and stall. This is cognitive load.

The goal of the KO is to expand students’ long-term memory so they are better able to deal with new information, whether in terms of acquisition or procedure.

We also know that the more we test (low-stakes!) and practise retrieval the greater our long-term memory. And the more we test that which we’ve nearly forgotten the more likely we are to remember it in the future.

What is the question?

What do we want children to learn? Only once we are totally clear on this (which is essentially the assessment) can we decide on the precise knowledge. In history KS3 moves from the power of ideas in Y7 to the power of people in Y8, and every cycle has an enquiry question which feeds into this. Thus the knowledge organiser is tied precisely to the question.

What is the knowledge?

This sounds obvious, but too often it isn’t thought through. Historians, for example, use dates which appear in chronological order. The dates, tied to events, on their own have value, but they have more value when placed together: this is causation, long and sort-term. Together these tell the story of history, and this varies according to the events we choose to include. We might feel as though what we’ve chosen is collectively sufficient, but we do need to be wary of becoming teleological.

The question I keep in my head is whether, as a historian, the knowledge I choose can be tied through stories, sometimes across thousands of years. We need to all ensure that the knowledge we choose makes sense together, and is not thrown together incoherently. Coherence allows our students to make sense of the world.

Whatever format is relevant to your subject, this knowledge has to appear in every lesson and be essential threshold material to be successful: if it doesn’t then the curriculum is not coherent. For example, each history cycle is based around twenty dates, ten key people and ten key words. Whilst I might mention something in a lesson which is not on the KO, only that which is on the KO is assessed in a knowledge assessment. Nothing else.

This means that generic ‘skills’ such as ‘analyse’ and ‘evaluate’ must not appear on the KO. Why? Because these are neither domain specific nor forms of knowledge in themselves: they are generic, catch-all proxies which are entirely dependent on both the knowledge and its procedural format.

Instead, focus on what students need to know, not what they need to do: the doing comes after the knowing, not before. And since knowledge breeds knowledge, the more they know the more they can do, since knowledge becomes procedural with repeated practice and exposure.

What is the format?

The key is to not have too much. In history we have the same format throughout KS3. This changes at KS4 and KS5 because of the various exam specifications – again, the overarching assessment drives the curriculum needs.

Whilst your subject will have its own requirements there are some key things to remember:

  • Number each item in each category.
  • Embolden the absolute key words repeatedly (and do the same whenever you produce a resource – be consistent).
  • Do not write too much – if you have to write more than one sentence, consider your phrasing. This will make your own explanations clearer.
  • Don’t have too many categories – three or four are probably sufficient.
  • If including images ensure these repeat throughout actual lessons.
  • Spellcheck!
  • No questions, generic skills or ‘thoughts to consider’. If it isn’t essential it shouldn’t be there.

Again, if you would like some examples please do email me at