Note 1: This post is geared specifically at Australian readers. If you are reading this in the UK, I am assuming that you will have some knowledge of knowledge organisers based on the writing of Joe Kirby, James Theobold, Kris Boulton, Barbara Bleiman, etc. This post, however, will discuss the utility of knowledge organisers at A Level, which may be of interest.
Note 2: This post is intended to accompany a presentation for the upcoming VATE conference prepared by my colleague Emily Fitzpatrick and myself.
Consider the following scenario, that you most probably face every single day: you are working with a capable student who has reached a plateau with their essay writing and has asked you for extra help. What, realistically, should you attempt to address? Their content knowledge, or their written expression? If we flip the scenario, let’s consider what your student is most likely trying to juggle when constructing an essay:
- Linking their ideas to key words from the question
- Applying feedback from a previous essay
- Managing their time
- Avoiding repetition
- Trying to remember small details (correct spelling of a character’s name, remembering possessive apostrophes, etc.)
- Trying to remember how to use new or more sophisticated vocabulary
- Trying to remember a quote from a particular scene
- Trying to remember what literary devices are being used
As writers such as Joe Kirby have commented, a ‘Knowledge Organiser’ is a potentially powerful way for students and teachers to address some of these challenges. I first came across them a couple of years ago when a former colleague mentioned Joe Kirby’s blog post in a department meeting. We trialed their use with our Year 12 VCE English classes (equivalent to A Level in the UK) and were quietly impressed with both their popularity among our students and their effectiveness in helping improve our examination performance. To give you some context, our department had seen a gradual decline in its average study scores for English over several years: from a high of 35 in 2011, falling to 34 by 2013, to 32 by 2015. During this same period, the average ATAR scores and study scores for the school had risen year on year. Six months after we rolled out the use of knowledge organisers at Year 12, our 2016 VCE exam results came in: an average of 35.
So, was the mighty knowledge organiser the silver bullet? No, obviously, but the strong correlation between their introduction and these results (especially given the fact that very few other variables were at play: much the same teachers each year, with much the same cohort ability as per previous NAPLAN scores, etc.) suggested that our use of knowledge organisers helped bring about an improvement in teaching, learning and revision overall. The reasons for this I will speculate on later. First, an overview of what a knowledge organiser is (and more importantly, what it is not) and how we used them.
What is a knowledge organiser?
Below is a snippet from the first page of a Macbeth knowledge organiser that my colleague Emily and I put together:
Although it may appear to be dense with detail, this is because it is intended to be used from Year 10 to VCE level and requires a little more depth of detail than the examples offered via Joe Kirby’s blog. Before I explain the rationale behind its construction, let me explain what this is not:
- It is not Sparknotes, nor the Insight guide, nor Shmoop, nor any other study guide simply copied and pasted onto an A3 sheet.
- It is not your own personal thesis listed onto an A3 sheet
- It is not a recipe for spoonfeeding, for students to regurgitate word for word (this personal view may appear to conflict with the belief that knowledge organisers are primarily for self-quizzing)
What is it, therefore?
In my view, it is core text knowledge that is designed to work as a ‘springboard’ into a more detailed and conceptualised reading of a text. Elements of it can and should be used for quizzing purposes, but my belief is that the knowledge organiser should be used as a tool to improve writing, by enhancing both the depth and precision of a student’s content knowledge. I am still experimenting with a preferred format and sequential layout for a knowledge organiser (especially in terms of how characters relate to each other and embody the central tensions of a text), but for me a knowledge organiser should include both an ‘A side’ (core knowledge) and a ‘B side’ (essay structure):
A side elements:
- the central themes or tensions (where possible expressed as assertions that can be developed and challenged)
- character traits
- conceptual vocabulary – especially abstract nouns that convey ideas
- literary devices that characterise the style of the text
- essential quotes – the ones that help form the most subtle and deep connections with other parts of the text
B side elements:
- essay planning methods
- essay structure outlines
- key verbs and conjunctions to help develop analysis
How do you design one?
Ideally, in collaboration with your colleagues. My preferred process would be as follows:
- hold a discussion meeting with your colleagues, in which you decide upon the aims and outcomes of the unit of study and discuss the essential text knowledge and ideas that should be taught. Keep the following questions in mind: what should every student understand about the text to be able to do their justice on any essay topic, and what would help your strongest students branch out into the subtext of the text? Debate and agree upon what should be included on the knowledge organiser.
- Nominate one or two people to take these notes and write up the first draft of the knowledge organiser.
- Hold a final meeting in which you collectively edit and amend the draft, before one colleague refines the final edit.
It is the discussion and collaboration within this process that is key. Having every voice included as part of the process improves both the level of collective investment and the quality of the final edit. Crucially, it allows you to learn from each other. This year I have taught Measure for Measure for the first time. The best training I have received all year is listening to an experienced colleague of mine explain how he had taught the text previously and what subtle details were truly essential to understand the subtext of the play. This was only possible because we had scheduled a special planning meeting devoted to pooling our collective wisdom.
It does take time to create a knowledge organiser, but consider the following equation:
- teaching lifespan of a VCE English text = 4 years
- number of students in our cohort = 125 approx.
- number of students who will benefit from this over time = 500
So, how might you use one to improve writing?
This is the essential question to consider. It is no use spending the time creating a knowledge organiser if all students do is file it away in their folders. Yet more importantly, a knowledge organiser is most effective when students and teachers view it as a springboard into the text. Over the last couple of years I have used the following strategies in conjunction with a knowledge organiser:
- Students write definitions on the sheet for vocabulary / terminology as you teach them. Use these keywords to build semantic maps, extending the conceptual vocabulary further. Model this with example words, e.g. power / hubris
- Set frequent recall quizzes on terminology / quotes / spellings, etc.
- Character mapping – use the character traits to flesh out character maps as you study the text. Build more detailed influences and connections maps as you do this
- Indexing the text – as you read, index key pages which focus on one of the central dilemmas listed on the knowledge organiser
- (After the first read-through) Colour-code the key quotes according to which dilemma(s) and tensions they reflect
- (After first read-through) Use QR links on the sheet to help build mind-maps on the central tensions. Add links to critical readings of the text
- Guided writing: 2+2 principle – set a paragraph topic and students must use 2 quotes from the KO + 2 additional quotes
- Flash card creation – to memorise quotes, students write 2 quotes on one side of the card + central dilemmas explored on the reverse. Minimum 20 quotes from the KO, with 20 additional quotes (creating at least 20 cards, with 40 quotes in total)
- Developing interpretations: take assertions from the central tensions and ask students to mind-map or write a paragraph exploring it in detail using quotes from the knowledge organiser or their cue cards
- Essay planning: students use the reverse side of the sheet every time they plan and write a practice essay.
Does it work?
In my view, yes, but for more complex correlative reasons than may first appear. I agree largely with the opinion of Barbara Bleiman that the more you consider this as a starting point for exploring the agenda of the writer, the more useful knowledge organisers become. Last year our English department saw a sharp upturn in exam results upon introducing knowledge organisers, but it is worth unpicking the complex reasons that might explain this:
- Creating them fostered close and consistent collaboration between the English team which led to improved subject knowledge and collective teacher efficacy
- Through creating them, we helped standardise a consistent approach to the way we taught writing
- Student content knowledge improved significantly, both in terms of their recall of key details and terms of how they were able to work outwards from the knowledge organiser into a consideration of the wider agenda of the writer
- It rather unexpectedly fostered stronger student cooperation than before – students were able to work with peers in other English classes by using the knowledge organiser as a starting point for their own discussions and debates within their study groups. This level of truly collaborative learning was, for me, the most exciting development of the year. Our students were no longer tied to their individual teachers, but were able to form their own revision groups – think of it as a ‘knowledge squared’ approach.
At VATE, Emily and I will help guide you through how to create one and how you might use them effectively in more detail. If you are coming along, we would be delighted to see you there.
Here are a couple of resources you may find useful: