Education · Teaching

Introducing Knowledge Organisers

Content is king.

Knowledge is power.

Knowledge has been given a bit of a black eye in progressive education movement in recent years. We hear over and over that we need to focus more on skills and less on knowledge. And not just any skills; we need 21st Century Skills.

They can just look stuff up. They need knowledge processing and evaluating skills. These are 21st Century Skills”.


If you say “Knowledge transmission” is one of your lesson objectives it is frowned upon by the education gurus. Filling empty vessels is not on.

When I ask people the difference between knowledge and skill they eventually come up with “Skill is applied knowledge”.  Or as Greg Ashman says, skill is automatised Knowledge.

You can know how to drive a car but not be able to drive a car because you don’t have the skills.

You can know the rules for using an apostrophe but not then apply this knowledge. So you can have knowledge and not skill, but you can’t have skills without knowledge.

To me, the argument is a time waster.

Knowledge before skill.

Knowledge is the foundation that the skills house is built on.

With that thought in mind, it is vital that we lay a firm knowledge foundation in the topics we teach. This is where knowledge organizers come in.

In an excellent blog on Knowledge Organisers in Primary Schools Jon Brunskill has outlined how he uses Knowledge Organisers.

Joe Kirby gives a secondary example.

Knowledge Organisers are an overview curriculum document that serves three purposes.

  1. As a planning tool for the teacher.
  2. As a resource for the child and parent.
  3. As an assessment tool.

A knowledge organizer is a summary document that tells teachers, students, and parents exactly what students need to know by the end of the unit. Students are expected to commit the knowledge organizer to memory.

Here is the example Jon used.


How much content, in how much detail do we want students to remember?

In Victoria, Australia where I teach, we are increasingly allowing students to bring resource materials into to the final exams. For example in Maths students can bring in a textbook to their final exam. In Physics students can have a double sided A3 page of notes, often referred to as a “cheat sheet”. Students load this up with every equation and definition needed. In effect, they produce a Knowledge Organiser that they can use during the exam.

Why do we ask students to commit the knowledge organiser to memory?

The logical consequence of “open book” exams or letting students have the knowledge organizer with them during the test is the type of questions we ask. There is no point asking students “What is Newton’s Second Law of Motion?” They will just copy that off their Knowledge Organiser that they have with them. That means we must ask more high order questions; questions that students cannot just “look up” on the Knowledge Organiser. Questions that involve analysis and synthesis of information rather than recall. If you look at a Victorian Year 12 Physics exam, it is all from higher levels of Blooms Taxonomy. That is a desirable consequence of greater access to resources in exams.

Learning should be more than who can commit the most facts to memory. It should be about who can solve problems using those facts.

Will education evolve to the point where students will have access to Google in an exam?

That is a real challenge for exam writers. Design questions students can’t Google the answer to.

Jon’s summative assessment piece for this Apollo 11 unit is “to write an information text and great information texts are precise, detailed and accurate.

I agree this is a success criterion for informational texts but who sits and writes an informational text without access to information? It is not a task that is done under test conditions. Why wouldn’t you let the students have the knowledge organizer in front of them when they are producing the information text?

But let me argue against myself here.

The Sea of Tranquillity was on the knowledge organizer for the Unit.

An educated person should know where it is. Yes, Google tells you it is on the moon, but a quality education system should embed that knowledge in all students’ long-term memory. They should have “Sea of Tranquillity” in their long term memory ready to be brought to bare whenever needed.

Why did “The Eagle” touch down in the Sea of Tranquillity ?

Try answering that question with no prior knowledge!

Here is where the real dilemma starts. Which bits of knowledge are essential for students to have in long term memory and which are we happy for Google to provide for them?

I always tell staff to abdicate the responsibility of this important decision. It is not ours to make. Better minds than ours should have done this job for us. The people that write the curriculum we teach should have done this for us.

In some systems they have. I know the KIPP schools have an incredibly detailed curriculum with the essential knowledge clearly spelled out.

In Australia the curriculum is fluffy. It leaves so much up to individual schools to interpret what actually needs to be taught.

Here is a statement from the Science Curriculum.

The transmission of heritable characteristics from one generation to the next involves DNA and genes.

That is what I have to teach our Year 9 and 10 students about genetics. That is as much detail as the curriculum document provides.

How much detail should I go into?

Dominant, Recessive, Phenotype, Genotype, Co-dominance, Nucleotides, Frameshift mutations, DNA Transcription and Translation, The Hardy-Weinberg Equation.

It is up to individual schools to decide how to interpret that statement. A knowledge organizer like the one above would make life far easier for all concerned.

But staff then squawk loudly. “There is too much content. We are just covering content all the time and not doing deep learning”. When I ask them what deep learning is, they can’t tell me.

How much content is too much content is a discussion that will keep teachers in faculty meetings for years.

Do Year 10 students need to know the difference between Co-dominant Inheritance and Incomplete Dominance or whether we need to teach either? That needs to be clearly decided before teaching the unit.

This is where knowledge organizers will be of value.

Here is my version of a knowledge organiser for Year 10 Genetics.


Because our system is heavily into social promotion we often have a massive range of student abilities in a single class. A year 10 class will have students who were unsuccessful in Year 7, 8 and 9 and will also inevitably have very low levels of literacy and numeracy.

Because of this huge range of abilities differentiation is essential. I am suggesting Knowledge organizers be designed with three distinct levels to facilitate some differentiation.

A Must Know column. The content that you would hope any student educated at your school would have in long term memory hopefully “forever”. The “Must Know” is the enduring, widely used content that an “educated human being” would know.

The Should Know column is the Year 10 curriculum. The “at level” content that you would hope most students would be able to grasp.

The Nice to Know column is for students who will continue with Biology in the future.

I can hear the “anti-knowledge” crowd now saying “You can live a happy and successful like without knowing anything about Homozygous or Heterozygous. Why do you need to know that?”

My answer is because you should be an educated human being who understands the world around them.

The Must, Nice and Should columns are optional but knowledge organizers clearly show what has been left in the curriculum.

That is a valuable thing. If, for no other reason, this makes them a worthwhile artifact.

Do students need this much knowledge?

Here is one view:

Don’t make knowledge the enemy of thinking. To apply, explore and predict we need lots of knowledge and this knowledge needs to be remembered. (Daisy Christodoulou)

Knowledge isn’t power until it is applied but you can’t apply what you don’t have.


3 thoughts on “Introducing Knowledge Organisers

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