What is a knowledge organiser, and what should it include?

A knowledge organiser is a document, usually no more than two sides of A4, that contains key facts and information that children need to have a basic knowledge and understanding of a topic.

Our knowledge organisers will include:

· the essential facts about the topic, usually laid out in easily digestible chunks

· key vocabulary or technical terms and their meanings

· images such as maps or diagrams

· famous quotations, if relevant.

What a knowledge organiser includes will depend on the subject. For example, a ‘Second World War’ knowledge organiser and a ‘Rivers’ knowledge organiser would both include maps, but the former would also include a timeline, and the latter would need diagrams.

How do we decide what information goes on a knowledge organiser?

We all want children to gain specific knowledge in each curriculum subject that builds up over time. Knowledge organisers play a useful role here, as they focus on one subject or topic and grow in complexity across year groups.

However, it can be hard to know what to include about a topic on two sides of A4 – and what to leave out. This quandary can be a blessing in disguise as it forces us to think about what we actually want children to learn. As Mary Myatt explains in her book, The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence: ‘The real power of knowledge organisers is that they make us think hard about what we are going to teach.

How do we use them in the classroom?

There are countless ways to use knowledge organisers, but here are our top 10 favourite ways to make the most of them in our setting.

1. Give the knowledge organiser to the children before the start of a topic to encourage discussion and prior research.

2. Talk through the knowledge organiser at the beginning of the topic, asking the children what information has sparked their interest, and if they have any questions.

3. Use the knowledge organiser as a regular retrieval tool. Mix up practice using short, low stakes quizzes, games, partner discussion, and so on, rather than constant formal testing. Do the children know more than is included on the knowledge organiser? Ask higher-level ‘why’ questions to stretch the children’s understanding and add detail. This is the ideal scenario, as it means they have deepened their knowledge beyond the baseline outlined on the knowledge organiser and have formed stronger schemata.

4. Use the knowledge organiser to identify knowledge gaps throughout the topic.

5. Display an enlarged copy of the knowledge organiser on a working wall, encouraging children to add information around it during the topic.

6. Use knowledge organisers to strengthen teacher knowledge in a subject area.

7. Glue the knowledge organisers into the children’s topic books for regular reference or cut up the sections to focus the children and deepen their knowledge in a particular area.

8. Make links between knowledge organisers to help children understand how their learning connects. For example, remind the children of a previous year’s knowledge organiser and discuss how their new knowledge links and builds upon it.

9. Use the knowledge organiser as a handy spelling and vocabulary reminder. Keep it visible at all times and expect the children to use the proper vocabulary correctly.

10. Use the knowledge organisers as guided reading texts. This way, you can help children read the information and check they understand it.

What are the benefits?

For us, the main benefit of knowledge organisers is that they give children and teachers the ‘bigger picture’ of a topic or subject area. Some topics can be complicated, so having the essential knowledge, clear diagrams, explanations and key terms on one document can be really helpful.

Research shows that our brains remember things more efficiently when we know the ‘bigger picture’ and can see the way that nuggets of knowledge within that subject area link, forming schemata. Making links, essentially, helps information move into our long-term memory. And, as Ofsted’s Sean Harford recently remarked, knowledge becomes ‘sticky’ – the more you know, the more you learn – which helps children gain deeper understanding over time.

Another key benefit is their use for retrieval practice. Regular retrieval of knowledge helps us remember more effectively (Roediger et al, 2011). Again, it helps us store knowledge in, and recall it from, the long-term memory and frees up space in the working memory to take on new knowledge (Hirsch, Why Knowledge Matters (2016).