Knowledge organisers, retrieval practice and the knowledge-rich curriculum

As teachers swept up in the latest winds of change hitting UK schools and fans of early-era Soccer AM will tell you: knowledge is the bomb. Like many teachers (and Saturday morning telly fans), I wholeheartedly subscribe to the importance of knowledge. Unfortunately, amidst the clamour to become knowledge-rich, some teachers and schools may be missing the point.

Take a look around Edu-twitter and teaching blogs together with an increasing slew of books and articles and it is very clear that teachers and schools and adapting to the ‘knowledge turn’. I have spent a previous blog post looking at exactly how we approach knowledge. The fact that it isn’t exactly clear what we mean by ‘knowledge’ and therefore how we select what to teach and justify why we should teach kind of feeds my motivation for this post. I am worried that, in our efforts to become knowledge-rich, we might be successful at getting learners to remember more, we might not have thought a great deal about what we think it is important for learners to remember.

I am one of those saddos who has thought about the importance of knowledge in education quite a lot. As a case in point, I spent many a happy hour on a sun-lounger during a New Year trip to Lanzarote reading Richard Bustin’s wonderful book Geography Education’s Potential and the Capabilities Approach (which I review here), which offers an intellectually and morally coherent framework for selecting and justifying powerful knowledge to teach to young people. Off the back of this, and whilst developing a curriculum vision for my department, I read Ofsted’s inspection framework, handbook and research overview. I don’t like to be driven by Ofsted, but seeing as they’re one of the key drivers of the knowledge turn, I was interested to see what their view was. Quite frankly, the more I read, the more a little niggle started to grow in my mind.

One teaching strategy which we’re developing at my school, like so many others, is the use of knowledge organisers together with retrieval practice. A quick search on TES resources (other resource depositories of highly-varying quality are available) shows that these are very much in vogue. I would contest however that using knowledge organisers does not automatically make a knowledge-rich curriculum.

As these thoughts were gestating in my head, I read the chapter on knowledge organisers in Mary Myatt’s rather wonderful book on the curriculum. Myatt identifies that ‘the real power of knowledge organisers is that they make us think hard about what we are going to teach’ (p89). As Bustin and others have observed, this hasn’t been a given for many teachers for some time. For a long time and for some teachers for their entire careers, we have been driven by the ‘cult of pedagogy’ (I wish I could remember where I read that – apologies). We have obsessed about how we teach and the what and the why has received disproportionately little time. In order to construct a knowledge organiser (and I agree with Myatt that these really should be done from scratch, or at least carefully adapted from existing versions), teachers have to think about what they want learners to know. This also requires teachers to have really high standards of subject knowledge; something which arguably has also been neglected for too long in initial teacher training and CPD. (One of the wonderful aspects of Mary’s book is the wealth of references you can dip into. Durrington School’s ‘subject planning and development sessions’ which Mary describes sound like an incredibly powerful idea).

Myatt is very clear that knowledge organisers are one element – a sensible pedagogical tool – when trying to implement a knowledge-rich curriculum. As Myatt observes though: ‘the downside to organisers is when they are used as ends in themselves’ (p91). Unless teachers have thought carefully about the curriculum content, which is then articulated in a knowledge organiser, then the curriculum doesn’t automatically become knowledge-rich.

I haven’t done a systematic study, but I do fear that so much of the guidance around knowledge organisers and the associated technique of retrieval practice focuses on the process of making and using these resources, the curriculum thinking is happening separately, if it is happening at all. Whether the motivation is Ofsted’s focus on curriculum ‘intent’, or broader thinking around how we justify the selection  and teaching of knowledge, such as Michael Young’s ‘powerful knowledge’, teachers should be engaging with the what and the why of curriculum.

I would argue – and I think Myatt’s explanation of knowledge organisers shows this – that producing knowledge organisers can be an integral part of the curriculum thinking process. The starting point though needs to be questions like ‘what is it important for young people to know’, ‘why do they need to know this’ and ‘what will this allow them to know, understand or do’. We almost need to start with a blank canvass, using our expertise as subject-specialists to think deeply about what our subjects offer young people.

Without the curriculum thinking behind or alongside them, knowledge organisers are just the ‘cult of pedagogy’ masquerading as curriculum thinking. In fact, unless this thinking has already taken place, then just shoehorning our existing schemes of work onto a knowledge organiser is in my opinion the very antithesis of planning a knowledge-rich curriculum. My only criticism of Myatt’s chapter, which I have unfairly treated in isolation, is that she doesn’t make this point strongly enough. In her closing comments of the chapter, she draws on the same cognitive science which underpins knowledge organisers and retrieval practice. She says ‘knowledge builds on knowledge’ – you know more, then you can learn more and ‘our students become more intelligent when they know more’ (p92). All true. That is the intellectual and moral rationale for teaching knowledge, but unless we think deeply about what that knowledge is, then cognitive science alone doesn’t make a powerful curriculum. Quite frankly – as Mary points out throughout her book – there are no quick fixes to a powerful knowledge curriculum. We only get there by giving professionals the time, headspace and respect to think.

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