My thoughts

I must confess, I have spent most of my teaching career in Sixth Form Colleges and FE. Consequently, we often pick up on pedagogic trends a little later than our Secondary and Primary colleagues. I came across the concept of ‘knowledge organiser’ (KO) a couple of years ago. I was always a little curious about what they were. So I have done a little research and downloaded some examples. I am still sceptical as to whether they work for A level History. For me, the jury is still out on GCSE too. Here are 5 reasons I am most troubled by them.

1. There is no evidence.

I have been unable to find any evidence to support the fact that KOs work. If anyone finds a study, then please let me see it! From what I have found, the justification for using KOs is underpinned by pedagogic research intended to explore other educational questions. Students will succeed if they have a factual base and they can retrieve and use that in their answers (Bransford et al., 2000). Storing content in long term memory reduces student cognitive load for more complex tasks such as writing a History essay (Paas et al., 2004). Self-testing and distributed practice are the most effective revision tools in helping students store material in their long term memory (Dunlosky et al,. 2013). It is claimed that KOs could be used to help with all of these aspects. How? What works? What doesn’t? We don’t know.

These are simply claims. I might be cynical, but I am sure that there were an equal number of claims about ‘learning styles’ and ‘Brain Gym’. Our students deserve better.

2. There is no guidance on what content should be included.

The claim that by writing KOs, teachers will become much more focused in their planning in certainly one that could hold some merit. I do try to think about the minimum amount of content knowledge the kids need to know. This usually happens once I have taught the specification for 3 years. Even then, I am never certain. But do we need the KO for that? Wouldn’t ‘back planning’ or any of these alternatives work just as well?

Further, even if the process of creating a KO does work, many of the KOs in circulation are downloaded and shared without editing. I know Russell Tarr got some stick for his comment on twitter about teachers asking for resources – ‘before I reinvent the wheel…’. I disagree with Russell. It is not about lazy teachers, they are overworked and under scrutiny. But he does have a point about blindly using resources of others. Some(I have done it myself). get lured in by how the resource looks rather than who it was written by and what has informed it.

Some that do create their own KOs, are doing no more than simply producing a list of facts for pub style quizzes. There is not much thought (time) given to why they need those facts, how they fit together or how they can be used in an exam question. Some teachers are not linking KOs to their curriculum planning. But it looks good and their KO is colourful. Is it not better to stop this now? Should we not conduct some research and get proper guidance for teachers?

3. There is no informed guidance on how to use them.

The absence of evidence based studies also means that there is no clear guidance on how to use KOs effectively in class or at home. Frequently, we are told they can be used for ‘self-testing’ leaving it to the teacher to either do further research on types and frequency of self-testing or just create a few questions based upon the KOs when they have a spare 10 minutes before registration. I have read some school guides that informs their students that they could even create ‘Key word Mnemonics’ using KOs for example which has ‘low’ impact according to Dunlovsky’s hierarchy.

Indeed, why do we need the KO at all for self-testing and distributed practice? What’s wrong with the official revision guide? Or the students creating their own KO? Or the class creating our own end of unit questions? Why are there not resources ready to be rolled out to the schools already? It is also not fair that consultants across the country are creating and perpetuating teaching ‘trends’ without a solid research base and clear guidance on how they should be implemented. We are easy fodder for them.

4. Most KOs do not develop higher order skills.

I am deeply worried as an examiner about the number of essays I read which simply lists and describes evidence. I would not yet say (without the evidence!) that there is a correlation between the mushrooming of KOs and the standards of essays I read, but I don’t think KOs help students with higher order thinking and being able to apply the content appropriately in the exam. Knowing the timeline of Elizabeth I’s religious settlement or a list of developments across post war Eastern Europe does not prepare them for an analysis on continuity and change, similarity and difference, cause and consequence or significance question for example.

I frequently read essays where paragraphs begin ‘In 1956…’ or ‘Another factor’. Clear description and no judgment. For the A level AQA breadth paper for example, a better use of the students’ revision time would be to block off periods of 25-30 years and consider what has changed or remained the same across that period in relation to different factors. I worry that many students will stop short of any other types of revision that will help them develop such thinking skills and cling on to the sheets that I have given them.

5. They are often not geared to answering a question.

I have come across many KOs that simply list everything that happened when a government or a king for example, was in power. I am no fool, trying to guess questions on an A level exam paper is a high stakes gamble. However, all my lesson materials and revision resources are geared towards helping the students answer potential questions. Why did that government win or lose that election? How successful was that king in his foreign policy? So often the KOs don’t do this. They can’t. Surely, it leads students to believe that all their knowledge about a specific government can be listed on a page. It can’t. There are so many varieties of questions which requires different range knowledge.

Do you completely disagree? Do you have some studies at hand to share? Please let me know!