Recent writing on knowledge organisers has got me thinking. I find their name somewhat perplexing, and the discussions on their use too simplistic.
The first thing that strikes me is that we need to be flexible with their use. I also believe that teachers are, and that critics like Sue Cowley, fail to understand their nuances. These are not given to students as before teaching, and students asked to memorise them out of context. My standard practice is, however, to give them to students before teaching commences. The process of constructing the documents is valuable, in pinning down precisely what I want all students to know, as recommended by Joe Kirby. Students are asked to learn them before the teaching but this is not to strip the teaching of its wonder. Quite the contrary. When students spend less time remembering who a historical figure is, they are able to free up their working memory to consider why they are of significance. Once they know the order of events, they can consider more deeply within the lesson why they took place in the order that they did and the connections between them.
Perhaps this demonstrates the point that these documents need to be part of a broader package of teaching. Sometimes they would be more valuable given after a sequence of lessons, and that is where the professional judgement of the teacher comes in. They cannot become ‘cramming documents’ because this will not aid long-term memory. As part of a broader package of teaching, students are able to make sense of the terms, and individuals and their importance, and this will also aid long-term memory. I fear that this dimension has been missed. I can find little, to nothing, for example on what a typical Michaela history lesson looks like. Hopefully the teaching itself contextualises the information, and this discussion of the information will also support students’ memory.
You may also have noticed that I have referred to them as “these documents” and that is for a good reason. In the context of history, it would not be fair to call them ‘knowledge organisers’. Historical knowledge is not a series of facts, or a well organised set of dates (this, would, of course be a simple chronicle), and the information needs to be brought to life by the second-order concepts. The ‘teasing up’ of knowledge over time is a murky business, a challenging balance between ‘facts’ and conceptual frameworks and discussions about knowledge organisers need to remember this. We might also consider re-naming them. Or giving some dimension to them, in history, where they might also support students’ conceptual understanding too.