There’s been quite a bit written about knowledge organisers of late. Heather Fearn wrote here about the purpose; Michael Tidd and Jon Brunskill have explained their use in primary; Debra Kidd expressed her misgivings here. I want to explain how I use them in history lessons, and how we use them as a school.
Many of us have been using some form of organiser for ages. It makes sense to, right? To have all the key stuff on one sheet, all neat and easily emailable and stickable and readable. My first school used to have ‘The Germany 25’, whilst at my second I made a Cold War chronology which we tested every lesson. But it wasn’t until I read and saw Joe Kirby’s explanation of Michaela’s usage that I really thought about how the humble KO’s organisation might be more than just a reference point. There’s no point me re-explaining their purpose: that’s been done, and done well, before. But here’s what I did, what I do, and what we do.
I introduced a KO to history in October 2015. I was writing a new SoW and wanted to ensure a consistent body of knowledge was delivered by the non-specialists.
The three constants I wanted in every KO were chronology, that format in which historical knowledge essentially appears, key people and key ideas, events and actions. My first attempt, for an origin-of-WWI unit with Y8, had two maps: Europe in 1914 and again in 1918. I quickly recognised what I’d change next time: number each piece of information, embolden, each time, the absolutely vital repeating key words, and reduce the amount of information; no more than ten key people, for example.
At first we only used these in lessons: I’d test, every lesson, a particular strand, at least three times. Their ability to recall key knowledge improved, obviously, but so did the attitude of those less previously enamoured towards the subject. Why? Because suddenly they were getting 10/10.
Susie Nash, a geography teacher who I shared a history class with, took up the challenge and began to write versions for her subject. We continued for all years, all the way up to Y13. In the summer the school recognised the success we were having and so moved to introduce these across the whole school, starting with KS3 in September, and moving to all years by Christmas.
Pretty much every history lesson I teach, bar the odd A-level class, begins with a KO test. I say what to revise, they study for a moment and then have a couple of minutes to recall in the backs of their books: “One-to-ten, key events … Go!” It’s quick, aids their recall for the lesson, and starts every hour positively, simply because they do it all the time. My mantra is this: if you really don’t know then think for 20 seconds; if it doesn’t come to you then look at your own KO, then go back and try again; once you’ve finished you can self mark and do it again.
We’ll sometimes return to this four or five times in a lesson. The record is twelve, by which point Y11 said, “Sir, this is boring now.” I asked why. “Because we know it. We keep getting 100%.”
As the KO is essentially the SoW, everything that we teach will come from it. Therefore, Y9 might not study Hjalmar Schacht’s New Plan until we’re three quarters through the course, but they’ll have heard of it, and that makes learning about it much easier as it saves them from adding something new to their working memory. I can say “And therefore Schacht introduced his ‘New Plan'” and they don’t freak out – they’ve already heard of it, and they know who he was because he’s a key person.
The chronology is the really important bit for me. It doesn’t tell the story, no. Of course not. But it does help with the if it hadn’t been for x … bit of history. That knowledge is there, consistently: they don’t need to strain to remember when the Civil War was, and instead can focus on what it meant – and they can use the KO for that too.
The KO isn’t the be-all, but it isn’t meant to be: it’s the foundation and the map; it isn’t everything in between, of course – that’s the job of the teacher. But it’s so much easier to get to that in-between when the land has already been mapped.
When writing it should become redundant, if the knowledge has been remembered. I want them to use their KOs when putting arguments together to start with, and I want them to be revisiting it as much possible when we’re stepping back, but I also want them to remember, and so that means using it tactically: revise at home, use when planning, but it’s away when we write. The better we get, the less we should need the KO.
I’ve designed knowledge assessments so that 80% is directly from the KO: if you’ve learned it then you’ll get at least 80%. The rest is the everything-else; the not-so-vital but really great, the rephrased and nuanced.
All KS3-4 now have homework where they spend twenty-minutes on a particular subject’s KO. They have homework booklets in which they practise, and these are checked every morning by tutors. I know that on a Friday morning my Y7 tutor group should have been self-quizzing their history, and if I think they’ve not spent that time correctly then they win a lunchtime revision session. The teacher doesn’t have to worry about checking it, and the tutor just has to use common sense.
And even if we’re being fooled, well, it’ll come out in the wash. I tell my Y7s that if they’re not getting at least 80% on their history assessment then they haven’t done their history homework for the term. After all, on top of their homework we’re constantly revisiting this in class and the whole course is built on it.
In history we’ve certainly found that pupils’ knowledge is greater, and they’re clearly aware of what’s coming up next. My Y9s are always preempting me: “Is that why he introduced the Enabling Act in March? Because it was on our KO.”
And what’s really telling, I think, is that Y9 to Y13 all asked for KOs to study from before they became a whole-school technique. Y13 actually ask me when the next one is coming out!
If you’d like some examples then please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.