Like many others, I got quite excited about the idea of organising the knowledge students needed to learn on a single page when I first encountered it on Joe Krby’s blog. As Joe said, a knowledge organiser (KO) can “specify subject knowledge in meticulous detail,” provide “clarity for teachers” and provide a mechanism for “boosting students’ memory”. Used well, they can be part of a coherent five year revision strategy. I had a go at making some examples of KOs for English and started recommending the approach to schools I worked with.
Then a thousand flowers bloomed; KOs popped up everywhere. With incredibly rapidity they went from grass roots enthusiasm to top down policy mandate. School began insisting every subject design KOs for every topic. With teachers not really understanding the purpose behind what they were doing, inevitably, many of these KOs were poorly conceived, badly implemented and incorrectly used. But does this mean that the attempt to organise and summarise the knowledge to be learned is a mistake? Certainly some seem to think so.
Here’s a representative Twitter thread from Sam Hall:
It’s time to move on from the knowledge organiser.
They were once all the rage.
But they’ve proven to be flawed…
Practically and theoretically…
— Sam Hall (@s_hall_teach) September 19, 2020
Has the KO been “proven to be flawed”? Let’s examine some of Sam’s arguments.
As sam himself says, “The principles of a good knowledge organiser make sense.” Putting everything you think students need to know about a topic on a single page is a useful endeavour, even if it will necessarily lead to simplification, crowding and compromise. But, as outlined above, “the further away from the source we’ve got, the poorer the intervention has become.” This is an accusation that probably be levelled at every idea in education. And it’s often true. But, not always. As the KO has ventured into the educational mainstream there are places where experimentation and thoughtful iteration has refined the concept result in ever better attempts to present information in ways that are useful to both teachers and students. For instance, Jules Daulby’s attempts to make the KO more ‘inclusive’ have result in useful refinements:
Doing a thread on inclusive #KnowledgeOrganisers and then I’m going to design some so if you’d like one I’ll give it a go
Top tips 1/11
Tip 1 – visual visual visual
Dual coding good but also keep consistency – symbols e.g. Royalty 👑 keep the same symbol, don’t switch
— Jules Daulby (@JulesDaulby) October 13, 2018
So, although it’s true that there are lots of bad examples out there, there are many thoughtful approaches too.
Another problem Sam identifies is that even if you have created a ‘good’ KO, “most schools don’t have self-quizzing cultures built in. Students don’t use them effectively and just copy words across blindly without self-quizzing.” Worse than that, the KO’s jare just stuck into students’ books (or reside at the bottom of their bags) and are never looked at again. This is a waste of time, but it certainly doesn’t mean that KOs are a bad idea. All it means is that – like everything else – inventions work best when resources, practice and purpose are aligned.
Next we come to the meat of Sam’s objections. He says there are “theoretical problems” with KOs, the first of which is that “lists aren’t a good way of presenting information”. Really? Lists aren’t useful? Why then are they so popular? Why do people use lists if they don’t find them useful? This seems like an extraordinary claim which, to be convincing, will require extraordinary evidence to support it. So, what is this evidence?
Sam cites Oliver Caviglioli as saying, “memory is spatial. We treat ideas like objects. The association between pieces of knowledge and their relationship is as important as the knowledge itself.”
I’m not at all sure this is true, or, if it were true, that we could actually it to be so. Why do we think ideas like objects? Because we think in analogies. An abstraction – like an idea – has no physical analogue, so, in order to think about the concept of a concept we have to pretend it has physical properties which we can ‘grasp’ or ‘get to grips with’. This way of thinking about ideas is but a metaphor.
“Memory,” Sam says emphatically, “is not a linear list!”
There are two problems here. The first is the assumption that there’s is something unsatisfactory about linearity. Our experience of time is linear but this doesn’t prevent our minds ranging back and forth in memory. The constraints of the pysical world have little to do with the interior possibilities of the mind. To suppose otherwise is hopelessly limited.
The second issue is, no one knows what memory “is”. Memory is an inferred abstraction; we know we must have a memory because we can think about something, stop thinking about it, and then think about it again later. We recognise that ideas have to ‘go’ somewhere when we’re not thinking about them. But, as our working memory is the site of consciousness, we never get the opportunity to introspect our own long-term memories.
I agree that the memory is almost certainly not a linear list but linearity is one of our primary means of ‘making sense’ of the complexity we encounter. Our models of memory are just that: models. As the mathematician George Box famously declared, “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.” Plato’s model of memory derived from bird cage:
Now consider whether knowledge is a thing you can possess in that way without having it about you, like a man who has caught some wild birds – pigeons or whatnot – and keeps them in an aviary he has made for them at home. In a sense, of course, we might say he has them all the time in as much as he possesses them, mightn’t we? … But in another sense he has none of them, though he has control of them, now that he has made them captive in an enclosure of his own; he can take and have hold of them whenever he likes by catching any bird he choses, and let them go again; and it is open to him to do that as often as he pleases … [S]o now let us suppose that every mind contains a kind of aviary stocked with birds of every sort, some in flocks apart from the rest, some in small groups, and some solitary, flying in any direction among them all…
It’s a good model. It certainly fit observations in the ancient world. Models of memory have tended to echo technological progress with machines, then computers taking over our conception of what memory ‘is’. The model psychologists have converged in on over the last 50 years or so is Badderely and Hitch’s familiar Working Memory Model.
When we think about constructing meaning, we often mean constructing schema. This term, which relates to how the mind stores information in the long-term memory. is used in both cognitive science and psychology. Perhaps most famously, Jean Piaget looked at how cognitive function categorised and organised information in internal structures. This was then developed further by Frederick Bartlett, who made links to the schema and memory in psychology, which he stated involved ‘an active organization of past reactions or experiences’. This was later developed by R.C. Anderson, who linked ideas of schema to educational psychology, especially in regards to reading, arguing that ‘every act of comprehension involves one’s knowledge of the world as well’. This is a statement which has significant implications for how we ensure learners have the required prior knowledge in order to access new information. (p.14)
I’ve written about how we can usefully think about and explain schema here. Now, these models are useful but they are wrong. The processes of memory are abstract and opaque; we require metaphors to think about them but they cannot be amply contained by these metaphors.
Saying memory is not a list is true, but trivially true. Neither is memory any other object. Lists are tremendously useful ways to simplify and order complexity; we use them precisely because they’re so useful. It may be that there are other, better ways to organise ideas, but I’m fairly confident that these alternatives are most useful in specific circumstances. Graphic organisers need to be cut to our cloth. Concept maps, for instance, can be useful ways to show spatial relationships but, depending on the subject we want to learn, attempts to fimpose spatial relationships are arbitrary and misleading. As the Ensers say, “One potential drawback of using mapping is that the learner may have to focus too much on the strategy of organising information and not enough on the information being learnt.” (p.37)
While I can see the utility in most of the organisational methods above, many people (myself included) struggle with the trend for laying out fairly straightforward information in increasingly convoluted ways. Imagine reading a book where the writers presents all the text in these ways instead of using sentences and paragraphs? Speaking personally, I’d prefer text over a diagram in most instances.
As an English specialist, most of these organisational tools would be unhelpful ways of presenting information. I find timelines useful for presenting some information and (despite the space limitations) have also found Venn diagrams useful. Sequences and cycles may also find their place. But lists are hard to beat for much of the information students need to learn in English.
There are problems with knowledge organisers
In my forthcoming book, Making Meaning in English I say this:
Lists of ‘essential’ context have been recently popularised as ‘knowledge organisers’. The idea is that everything that students ought to memorise about a text should be set out on a single sheet of A4 paper. There’s nothing wrong with the desire to organise the contextual knowledge you wish students to learn about a given text but my criticism of very many of the knowledge organisers I’ve encountered are that they suffer from being crammed with stuff that is unlikely to be particularly helpful. Take a look at this example of a knowledge organiser for Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:
Are all those stylistic features necessary? Do we really want to teach students about Jeremy Bentham and Malthusian economics? Will their interpretation and understanding be enhanced by knowing about ‘Sabbatarianism’? And I’m fairly sure there’s no need to go into the sublime when considering A Christmas Carol. It might be worth teaching students about ‘pursued protagonists’ or the grotesque, but it would be more helpful to focus on how these ideas relate to this particular text. I’m sceptical of the expectation that students’ ability to think and write about the novel will be improved by memorising details of the various pieces of legislation passed in 1830s, and I’m positive that little good will come from students learning by heart that in September 1843 Dickens visited a Ragged School. The plot summary and the list of dramatis personae may or may not prove useful, but what’s the point of memorising a list of themes? And that brings us to what is often supposed to be the point of a knowledge organiser: to provide a list of those essential elements of study which a student should memorise. What here is actually essential?
Arguably, these ideas might be the most essential:
There may well be more contextual information which ends up leaking naturally into lessons but this is probably plenty for students to memorise. As you can see, each of the items above has been made relevant to the text, but students will still require explicit modelling for what the inclusion of context should look like in practice. For example:
Dickens’ interest in social reform and the plight of the poor is reflected in the allegory of Scrooge’s transformation. At the start of the novel he is the personification of greed and selfishness, but through its non-chronological structure the novel shows us both Scrooge’s sad childhood and the mistakes he made as a young man as well as offering a dystopian view of the future where he is made to face the consequences of his neglect of social responsibility.
There’s lots of contextual knowledge compressed into this brief paragraph but it’s included for its significance and in service to an interpretation of the text. By giving careful thought to the precise extent of contextual baggage we want students to carry around as well clearly modelling how to pack it into the neatest and smallest of spaces we will avoid some of the worst excess of teaching context poorly.
In summary, a knowledge organiser is a tool. Just as guns don’t kill people, neither are knowledge organisers flawed. If you don’t like them or don’t find them useful in your subject, don’t use them. If you’ve been given a poorly designed knowledge organiser, make it better. A tool is only as useful as the use it’s put to and KOs are put to great uses in many classrooms and schools.
 I’m allowed to be critical as I’m responsible for its existence.