Sunday, 20 September 2020

The ‘Knowledge’ – changing knowledge organisers

There seems to be two camps in relation to knowledge. On one side we have the garlic holding and wooden stake clutching brigade who want to penetrate the heart of any knowledge beast. Then, we have the knowledge fetishists on the other side. They’ll find that the is some hidden meaning behind Dickens’ perchance for having three spoons of sugar in his tea with how a character frowned in the third chapter of David Copperfield. Most of us have a healthy relationship with the imparting of knowledge to students. A healthy relationship of imparting knowledge whether it be planned and unplanned in a lesson.

Take one of my lessons this week. The class and I were looking at Romeo and Juliet Act 1 Scene 3. A scene that introduces the Nurse, Juliet and her mother. Part of the discussion led to the concept of a wet nurse. When the boys in the class looked a bit confused, I discussed with them some the origin of wet nurses, breastfeeding, colostrum, weaning, teething, baby formula and many things associated with wet nurses. These things helped with the understanding of the closeness between the Nurse and Juliet. A physical connection. A connection that’s made sadder by the fact that the Nurse lost her own husband and daughter. This combination of knowledge helped students to understand the relationship between the Nurse and Juliet and highlight the distance between the mother and daughter. Added to this we explored how the act of breastfeeding as a shorthand for  a strong maternal bond is inverted in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’: Lady Macbeth would happily pluck the child from her breast and dash it’s brains out.  

The garlic wielding brigade would have you think I had drilled this knowledge into the little cherub’s brains and then tested them week after week on this knowledge. I did not. But, this the thing about knowledge it doesn’t always fit structures and plans. There was a genuine misunderstanding about breastfeeding and so I addressed it. Had the students shown a genuine understanding I probably wouldn’t have imparted this knowledge or discussed how formula for premature babies is the work of devil, especially for changing nappies.

Knowledge is wibbly wobbly stuff. Pinning it down is hard and we are prone to mistakes. And, I will hold my hand up, but I have changed my complete view of knowledge organisers. I think as a tool they are useful, but we need to look at the content more rigorously. They need to be constantly reviewed and changed. Here’s what we have changed:


[1] Promotion of knowledge which can be only used in one narrow and limited context

Like most people, we created knowledge organisers for set texts. They included names of the characters, plot events and lots of spurious knowledge about the plot of the text. There was often knowledge with very little usefulness in the big picture of things. The sheet would have knowledge about a character which we were asking students to commit to memory. That knowledge has a limited use in the grand scheme unless. Knowing who Napoleon in ‘Animal Farm’ will have no real value when looking at ‘Romeo and Juliet’ years down the road.

That’s not to say there’s no value in building connections between texts. There is a lot of value in that, but I am saying that some knowledge doesn’t need structuring or support in lessons. If students don’t know the key names of characters or the plot of the story after teaching it, you are doing something wrong. The sheet of paper is papering over the cracks and not fixing the problem.

We stopped knowledge organisers featuring plot and character points. These are things that should be dealt with in the day to day to teaching.


[2] Reductive content

We use knowledge organisers for poems. Yep. We reduced and summarised the knowledge associated with a poem to one side of A4 paper. Collectively, teachers did that again and again for whole novels, play and poems. We overly simplified something in the interest of ease.

Poems are rich things and to summarise a poem and reduce it to a page neglects interpretations,  nuance and layers of meaning. There’s an over simplification of complexity. There has to be otherwise how do you fit everything on a page.  We did this again and again. We reduced the context to Shakespeare plays to five bullet points.

When you reduce texts like this, you limit the interconnectivity between texts. You show students that you can ‘do’ a poem. You can handle it easily and quickly. And, poetry isn’t like that.


[3] No connectivity between topics and areas

The knowledge organisers functioned largely on their own. Independent. They had no level of connection with one another. They only linked in the format and layout. Knowledge was, therefore, nebulous and largely unconnected. Staff had to force connections between topic areas.


[4] Neglecting concepts that underpin elements of literature

With the emphasis on knowledge of plot, context or themes, this left big ideas which underpin texts. Ideas like realism or blank verse we’re displaced because of the weighting on plot, context and themes. These ideas need heavy weighting and plot, context and themes need less weight in lessons. They are important but if a student can talk about blank verse in a play, then they can do that again. Knowing that there is a connection between James I and Guy Fawkes has limited longevity.

So, our school and Trust have employed the term ‘sticky knowledge’ to describe the knowledge we are working on. The emphasis on ensuring knowledge stays. However, we have focused more on long-term usage rather than short-term goals. There’s a through line with the knowledge used and explored. 

[1] We have knowledge that connects across the years. The knowledge learnt in Year 7 will be needed when studying a topic in Year 8. The start of the topic in Year 8 will involve a check on what was learnt in Year 7. What has stuck? What needs going over?

[2] Knowledge relates to ideas underpinning literature rather than text specific. That knowledge is important for giving students the tools to approach many texts rather than the single one.

[3] We test at three points during a topic. We test students at the start to see what their prior knowledge is. Then, we repeat that same test in the middle of the term so students can see that they have learnt something. Then, we test at the end, but give students a different set of questions.

[4]Staff monitor what knowledge is sticking and what knowledge is not sticking. This will form the planning for later that year or for the next academic year. We’d identify what are the problem areas and look at problem solving issues.

[5] Knowledge isn’t isolated to these sheets. There’s other things we do and these sheets are not the sum of all knowledge but they are a key part.


I’ve attached to show you how our knowledge organisers look now. They are following our Trusts preferred style, but they give you the sense of where we are going.

Year 7 

Year 8
Year 9

Of course, we are experimenting and exploring how to use the new sheets, but I feel that we have improved on the previous versions of knowledge organisers. Time will tell. Knowledge is wibbly wobbly so we will change and refine them again at some stage.

I am lucky to have read two excellent books over the summer related to knowledge. Be gone with your garlic and wooden stakes. David Didau's book explores the knowledge students need in English. Amy Staniforth's and Stuart Pryke's book explores the important knowledge needed for Macbeth. 

There is a balance to be had between knowledge and creativity. Most of us have that balance right. We shouldn't allow people to demonise 'knowledge' or 'creativity' which I feel some are. Newsflash - you can have both. You can impart knowledge and be creative in the same lesson. 

Garlic wielders on the left of me. Knowledge fetishists on the right of me. Here, I am stuck in the middle with you. 

Thanks for reading, 






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