What are Knowledge Organisers and why are they so popular in schools?

What are knowledge organisers?

Originally used in secondary schools, knowledge organisers are now becoming more popular in primaries as well. They isolate the key facts from a unit of work or a curriculum subject with the intention of being memorised. They are written by the teacher and/or school and are usually one or two sides of A4 paper. 

They can be used across the entire school and adapted to each year group. The organisers should show progression throughout the year groups and include essential information such as key vocabulary, technical terms, images, dates and so on. The information should be organised in a way that testing and self-testing is easy enough for the children to do by themselves, age permitting.

The objective is to support the curriculum, but not replace it, and the curriculum needs to be well-planned and clear for the teacher in question to be able to write the organiser. They can be a challenge to write as they require the author to extract the most important information in a topic and keep it succinct. This, however, can be a very helpful process to clarify in the mind of the teacher exactly what will be taught.

They also help parents to clearly see and understand what children are learning in schools and are ideal to then use in home learning as well. This can be done by getting a family member to test the children and for the children to read through the organisers by themselves as revision. The children can also practise retrieval by writing down as much as they can remember on paper or saying it out loud. 

What should they include?

Knowledge organisers can be adapted to fit any topic and at any level, so it really is up to the teaching professionals to decide which information is key to understanding a topic. Most organisers tend to include the following:

  • Key vocabulary
  • Important dates
  • People and events
  • Diagrams
  • Timelines
  • Quotes

How do knowledge organisers work in schools? 

There is no right or wrong way to use the organisers, but children do need plenty of time to read and re-read them to learn the information. There are many ways to do this – quizzes, self-testing and setting homework. It is important that the KO is first read together in the classroom, and that the teacher talks the children through it and explains the information and key vocabulary. The acquisition of knowledge is an ongoing process, and the organisers will be stored to re-read at the end of the year and in future years to come. The knowledge organiser is then kept with the child at school and home for regular reading and re-reading, this is where including them in school planners makes life very easy. 

How do knowledge organisers help children learn?

Drawing on the pedagogical theory of cognitive development by Vygotsky, knowledge organisers help teachers to create ‘scaffolding’ to structure or arrange a task so that students can work on it successfully and then develop further knowledge. They explain the most important information first so that the student has a clear overall picture of what is being taught as their learning progresses. They give the children a head start, a framework to learn within. 

Chris Quigley recommends that the information is organised into categories to help the children develop schemata as they progress through the years at school. Schema theory states that knowledge is organised into groups, therefore categorising the information included in the KO will help the students make sense of what they are reading and relate it to previous knowledge. They must be organised this way through every year for this method of learning to be effective. 

How memory works in the learning process

It is important to use retrieval practice for the knowledge organiser to be effective. This is when the student reads and rereads the information, and then tries to recall it without looking at the organiser. This is often harder than the student may have anticipated but it helps the brain to store the information in the long-term memory. Ross Morrison McGill argues that the actual process of retrieval itself promotes learning. He argues that it is essential for teachers to not assume that learning has happened, as students may think that they have remembered more than they actually have, and that this needs to be checked regularly through testing and quizzes. 

The pupil, teacher, and parents then share the responsibility to test that this learning has occurred. Obviously, the younger the child, the more this role will fall with the teacher. If children can store the knowledge in the long-term memory, the working memory is not overwhelmed with new information and is able to learn more and deepen knowledge on the topic in question. 

How do they fit with the curriculum?

The new OFSTED inspection framework is more heavily focused on the curriculum, which has resulted in some schools favouring a more knowledge-based approach to teaching. This has caused concern among some professionals, who fear that an over-emphasis on knowledge will mean that children within the classroom miss the opportunity to learn in a variety of ways and within different contexts. Others see it as an opportunity to deepen the knowledge that children have throughout the school so that they can apply this to further learning.

If we look at the well-known model of learning presented by Bloom’s Taxonomy, we can see that knowledge is only the first stage in the hierarchical structure of learning. Once essential knowledge has been acquired, then the learner is able to move onto the next stage to develop a working understanding of the topic and to master skill through comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. 

Although it is obvious from the name that their primary function is to encourage the acquisition of knowledge; what is important about the organisers is that they require both the teacher and the student to isolate the key facts and information. After this they can delve in and deepen their learning in ways other than memorising facts. To put it another way – what knowledge organisers do so uniquely, is to set this key information aside as something that is learned and memorised throughout a topic, so that they can delve deeper and use the working memory which is now not bombarded with trying to understand key facts.

How knowledge organisers help to teach vocabulary and spelling

Knowledge organisers offer a wide range of learning opportunities for future lessons, homework, and self and peer testing. Vocabulary is essential in the organiser, as it sets out the language that will be used in lessons. Teaching the vocabulary will mainly focus on tier 2 and 3 words, those being words that may not appear in everyday conversations around the school and are specific to the topic being taught. 

Teachers must elaborate on the definitions of words otherwise children won’t understand them or be able to use them in context – something that is vital in the learning process. It allows lessons on spelling, context, synonyms and understanding how to use a new word in a sentence. It gives opportunities for games involving word meanings, questions and answers and multiple-choice questions. It allows these words to be revisited because the knowledge organiser will be read many times and learned by heart, as well as using the vocabulary in the context of teaching the actual subject.

A teacher’s perspective

Personally, I find that when using the organisers, both students and staff stay more focused on what is being learned. Confusion is minimised and they give many opportunities for homework, fun class quizzes and ideas for working walls within the classroom. I asked other teachers how they found using the knowledge organisers. Laura Warren, a Year 2 teacher based in Lincolnshire commented “KOs are used as a base that is expanded on as the unit grows. Children could have questions about it, and these could be investigated.” Knowledge organisers are only a base for the start of a topic and offer only opportunities to grow from this point. 

How can knowledge organisers be used in school planners?

Knowledge organisers lend themselves perfectly to customised school planners. The fact that they are printed and not online means that they can be easily taken home and there is no disadvantage for pupils without access to a computer. It is convenient for children to read and memorise key facts when they might have a spare moment as the planners are always to hand. The concept is also very flexible – primary schools can include knowledge organiser pages in their custom planners or create a whole bespoke knowledge organiser document for their school or year group. We can include or adapt any existing content you want to use. You’ll be assigned a dedicated account manager who will be happy to answer any questions and guide you through the entire process. Request your free sample and information pack to view our range of knowledge organiser pages to include in your planners.