Curating knowledge/organising knowledge

Jon Brunskill has started off an interesting exchange on twitter after posting two blogs about knowledge organisers in primary schools including one about the Apollo 11 Mission to the Moon. Some commentators don’t like the idea much on the grounds that it is a disembodied list of facts and therefore dull and uninteresting. To which Jon (and I) reply that of course it would be were that the only thing  that was presented in the lesson. However, bringing knowledge to life in a lively way is the job of the teacher; a job made much easier by having spent time deciding which knowledge to include and which to discard. Among the myriad of concepts, definitions, dates, events, descriptions , quotations, hypotheses, opinions and arguments that we could potentially include, what exactly is it that is  so crucial to the topic that it warrants inclusion on the KO?   What knowledge should we curate? ( Those of us of a left-wing bent could decide to call our knowledge organisers knowledge curators to make it  clear that despite having gone all ‘knowledgey’ and seemingly in the same camp as Lord Nash, Civitas and Michael Gove, our socialist credentials remain intact and we acknowledge that the selection of knowledge is a political act.  We could do, but people would laugh at us. Even more.)

The national curriculum, punctiliously specific in English and maths, relaxes into vague suggestions for the wider curriculum, particularly in history.  I’d rather that than the breathless charge through British history that was in Mr Gove’s draft national curriculum (p165 and following) which appeared to assume curriculum time was infinitely expandable.  However, the lack of explicit direction leaves non specialist primary teachers with the task of choosing what to include and what to leave out within topic headings such as ‘the Roman Empire and its impact on Britain’ followed by 5 non statutory suggestions. Does that mean we should try and pick one of the five? Do all five?  If we did something completely different, would that matter? Given that curriculum time for foundation subjects is all too finite, what should make the final cut?

Other commentators like the concept of knowledge organisers  but want to refine the idea, something that Jon welcomes; ‘the friction from the resistance is ultimately…what will polish the diamond.’  Do let’s have more constructive twitter/blog exchanges like this that help us all reflect and improve what we do. It is particularly useful to have contributions from secondary specialists explaining what areas of knowledge it is most useful for children to have acquired during their primary years.

As St Matthias, we too have been using KO’s since September, so I thought I’d post some of ours in to help discussion along.  I didn’t write these; the class teachers did.  I’m really pleased with how they’ve taken to the idea, but there’s a lot more to this KO business than it seems and they will all need polishing and refining further. I’ve included three, a history focused one from year 2 on the Fire of London, another history focused one from year 3 on Ancient Egypt and a geography focused one that uses the stories of  Ernest Shackleton and Matthew Henson as a context for learning about continents and countries. All three units cross over with literacy, but unlike Jon’s, the KO’s were not written in order that the children could  write a non fiction piece of writing at the end. Instead the children write shorter pieces of writing throughout the unit. However, I like Jon’s idea, so maybe that is something we will develop.

As a result, ours are a bit different from Jon’s.  For example, they contain pictures as well as text. This is deliberate. Partly because a diagram can  sometimes express information more succinctly and lucidly than text can; Jon’s KO would in my opinion be improved by a diagram of the lunar module and command module and a diagram showing the path the mission took, along these lines and partly because images of the major players bring the text to life.  For example, it reminds us that Matthew Henson was African American. Maybe I’m not sufficiently hardcore; the pictures do make the KO’s look more inviting, more primary. Compare for example with the excellent, but stern looking example in Robert Peal’s blog.   But each picture takes up space that could contain more text; so each picture needs to be justifiable beyond being pretty. For example in the Year 2 one below, I think the map and the picture of Pepyes have a stronger claim to space than the other two pictures. However I am happy with the text; it doesn’t seem to me that anything important has been omitted so they can stay.  The geography one on polar explorers obviously needs its maps as learning where things are on the globe forms the key knowledge pupils are meant to learn in this unit.  The year 3 one originally had an annotated a map of the Nile which I replaced with more text; partly because I  was worried about being sued for copyright by Dorling Kindersley and partly because I though thought there was not enough emphasis on historical causation or chronology.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter.  If our KO’s are not to become just lists of  highly specific fun facts – hey canopic jars or pemmican  anyone – then they must have some transferability. Hush my mouth, I’ve said a bad word!  What I mean is that in a history KO we must make sure that at least some of the facts we teach them knit the different topics they will study together by developing chronological understanding, and understanding causality and consequence.  Of course these are not free standing ‘skills’ that make sense without the facts, but especially for us primary non specialists, it would be easy to omit those all important aspects out of ignorance. Which is why on the Ancient Egypt KO below, I made sure it included as facts to be learnt, awareness that Ancient Egypt occurred contemporaneously with the late Stone Age, Bronze and Iron Ages; while we were grubbing about in the mud, a far advanced civilisation was flourishing elsewhere.

Chronology is notoriously badly understood by primary children. I’ve come across year 3 children who think the tallest teacher is the oldest, despite  having youthful tall teachers and short grey haired ones. The idea that ‘the past’ is not just one ‘place’ but many, all related to each other and some occurring simultaneously seems to be very difficult for some children to grasp. Certainly we must use number lines and teach dates and remember that chronological awareness encompasses duration and interval as well as sequence. For this reason, I think that Jon’s KO should have the fact that JFK was president and that this happened when Queen Elizabeth II was queen. Maybe all history KO’s  used in the UK; elsewhere the chronological anchor fact will need to reference whoever is significant in that locale).  For that matter, our polar explorers one should reference Edward VII for Matthew Henson and George V for Shackleton. I don’t think learning dates by themselves is sufficient. The dates need fleshing out with explicit links stressed. Who was on the throne?  What else was going on in the world?

We’ve also tweaked our KO’s so that they include explanations as to why things happened.  Ancient Egypt flourished because the land was fertile and the deserts provided protection from invaders.  The land was fertile because the Nile flooded.  London burned because wood is flammable,  dry wood even more so and the houses close together. Buckets were leather because plastic had not been invented.  Shackleton could not radio for help because long-range radio didn’t exist.  Pemmican was good to eat because in extreme cold you need high energy foods. Causality cannot be taught in a vacuum aside from knowledge; it is a concept that becomes denser the more times children encounter different scenarios needing different…or not so different…explanations.  Having studied the Fire of London (houses close together: fire spread easily), Ancient Egypt (River Nile floods yearly: soil very fertile) and Shackleton (Antarctic too cold for plants: very little lives there) the transferable concept that the physical environment influences the prosperity or otherwise of those who live there gains traction.

I’m looking again at Jon’s KO on the Apollo 11 mission. He explains the term ‘quarantine’ and ‘space race’.  ‘Space race’ will, we hope, be a small step, as it were in our student eventually grasping that explorations of  distant unknown regions are very costly and therefore funded by very rich patrons and function as, among other things, a status symbol. I’m sure there was discussion in class about why there had to be separate lunar and command modules, rather than one module that landed on the moon and then returned to earth. However, given the complexity of that explanation and the age of the pupils (6 going on 7), I can see why Jon hasn’t tried to condense that into a sentence!

As I mentioned above, Jon wrote his KO in order for his class to have some rich facts so that they could then, in literacy, write an information text. It was not written as a history topic per se, even though Neil Armstrong is included in the KS1 history National Curriculum as an example of a significant individual whom one might use to compare with Christopher Columbus. Having learnt about Armstrong in literacy, I would urge Jon to then do that comparison, thus exploiting the obvious points  – and reasons for – the similarities and the differences between the two explorers.

By saying there should be some transferability  of ideas between different topics, I’m not saying that’s the only function of the unit. Knowledge is neither the master not the slave of  transferability, but rather its bedrock. Maybe transferability is the wrong word. We teach what at first seem like isolated islands of ‘knowledge’,then bit by bit we realise these islands are joined in ways we couldn’t at first realise. The more we know, the more we are able to predict, infer, make links. When deciding which knowledge to teach, we make choices based on what specific facts educated children should know, regardless of wider, more general links and what might be more useful. For example, in an earlier blog I contrasted learning about the history of chocolate and the history of the Romans and made the point that learning about the Romans in year 3 helps you understand more about British and European history in general and about how Christianity became a global religion. As I said, knowledge may be power but not all knowledge is equally powerful.

The other ‘transferable’ element within our KO’s is vocabulary. Most of the vocabulary within our KO’s is  necessarily very context-specific. However a few words are more generalizable and are ‘high yield’ words children will encounter and need to understand again and again, across many different domains of knowledge. Looking at the KO’s above  (and Jon’s)  I find the words flammable, eyewitness, expedition, navigate, crop, fertile, trade, afterlife, archaeology, crew, quarantine, module all of which are necessary for understanding many other areas of the curriculum. Again, Jon wrote his for a different reason and maybe did a separate one when the class studied the solar system but I wonder whether ‘expedition’ ‘voyage’  ‘orbit’ , ‘atmosphere’ and  ‘launch and ‘gravity’ ( both briefly mentioned) should explicitly feature in the vocabulary column.

So within our KO’s, alongside the specific dates, names, places and other vocabulary specific to the topic in hand,  we must also  include those high dividend words that will reoccur across the curriculum, rather like Isabel Beck’s tier two words that I wrote about here. (You will see the St Matthias year 2 one also includes the tier one words oven and bakery and might wonder why such basic words are included. A large proportion of our children speak English as an additional language and it is exactly these words that are primarily used in a domestic sphere that they might not ever hear in English unless we explicitly tell them – for example I remember a very eloquent year 6 child referring to a cup and plate, because she had never heard the word saucer because the world of the kitchen was a world where she only spoke Bengali.)

The more I write, the more complicated it seems.  I started out just wanting key facts, then facts including dates and quotations, then some chronological anchor facts (if its history), possibly a diagram or two, definitely a map if it is geography, some explicit causality and now tier two type vocabulary. Am I asking it to bear too much? Have a departed from the basic concept?  I look at Robert Peal’s KS3 KO (link above) and his is just a long list of facts (including some specific vocabulary eg fealty) in question and answer form, and then a brief key dates summary at the bottom. I presume that because the pupils learn all this knowledge and have it at their finger tips, he can then spend more lesson time talking about causes, making links across time periods and describing similarities and differences. Maybe this side of things needs to be more explicit in primary KO’s because a) the children are younger and know and understand less and have less well developed vocabularies  and b) the teachers are generalists who might otherwise forget to talk about these aspects.  Quality text bools are in short supply and even if they existed we couldn’t afford them.

Here are three knowledge organisers from years 2,3 and 4. I welcome comments.

fire of London ko.PNGgeog-ko-uk-europe






Curating knowledge/organising knowledge

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