Knowledge organisers: why just knowledge?

I have been pondering on knowledge organisers since reading this:

What I like about these knowledge organisers:

  • The clarity and specificity
  • The ability to pre-plan
  • The testability
  • The cultural capital

What I am unsure about:

  • What knowledge is selected as important vs what is left out
  • The rigidity
  • The apparent lack of student agency
  • Why only knowledge?
  • The potential lack of multicultural capital

I discovered that Anthony Radice @AnthonyRadice1 is developing a knowledge organiser approach using Q&As, which he kindly shared early versions of and which appealed as a format to me more than the ‘here are the answers’ lists. So I thought I’d have a go.

When I started writing some draft knowledge organisers based on Anthony’s Q&A approach, I found that I naturally drifted towards the progression that would happen in my class questioning, from factual, through process-based questions, to metacognition questions and those linking to real life outcomes or applications.

In other words, if you can learn knowledge in this way, why can’t you learn processes (note – in discussion with @JamesTheo he described these as ‘procedural knowledge’ which I liked) or metacognitive approaches?

I thought, rather than provide the completed Q&As for pre-learning, why not set the Qs as research HW for the students themselves? We can then check and correct  the answers in DIRT weekly, throw in starter Qs at random every lesson from the Qs already researched and have mid / end of unit tests comprising answers from the research HW across the term. The final week’s HW could even be the students themselves setting their own research Qs based on areas of interest from the unit.

This ‘flipped learning’ then enables more focus in class on perfecting the key processes in reading, writing and oracy, as long as the accuracy of factual knowledge is checked.

I realise there may be disadvantages in moving away from the clarity and simplicity of the knowledge organiser, but this is my first draft of what something along the lines of ‘knowledge, research, process and metacognition’ organiser might look like.. Hmmm. So maybe it isn’t really a knowledge organiser any more?

I would really appreciate constructive feedback, bearing in mind this is all a work in progress as I approach the re-planning of KS3, not anything like a definitive or final answer. Hopefully the transparency of process may be useful for some and I have found twitter feedback to be incredibly valuable so far.

Here’s the link:

I would also like to link to Kris Boulton’s Knowledge Frameworks blog, which has fed in to my thinking:



Work in progress … working out the process. With thanks and credit to Alex Quigley.

I thought I would share thoughts after attending an illuminating session with Alex Quigley yesterday at the English and Media Centre on applying research in the English classroom.  For some unknown, hyperbolic reason, I initially wanted to entitle my post ‘QuigleyMania!’ but as it was a calm, well-mannered and thoughtful occasion throughout, it would have been most unrepresentative of me to do so. However, the ideas discussed did induce some manic planning action for me later in the evening as, like every other school in the land, our department is re-planning with gusto* to stay abreast of* the latest curriculum changes.

*I have an ongoing challenge running with my Head of Faculty to slip the phrases ‘with gusto’ and ‘stay abreast of’ into everyday discourse wherever possible.  

Alex’s introduction was an informative balance of recent research findings, his own experience of ‘what works’ in English and how to approach research (with caution and always looking for studies from the opposing view).  His blog is linked below along with links to the sources he referred to as part of the presentation, and sources I’ve mentioned here when making my own connections: mainly for me to find them easily in one place, but now also for you to explore further.  Be forgiving: this post will be impressionistic as I am recording my initial thoughts on what Alex had to say. I am also asking for help and feedback!  But if I bore you, you can always just skip to the end and click on the links.

My takeaway headlines from the session below are not a Quigley recommended checklist (though he does like a checklist, we gather!) but what I have taken away from the session, which I’m afraid will align to my own cognitive biases, current planning agenda and magpie mindset. It’s My Takeaway (as I have been known to shout of a Friday evening). So with that in mind, I have given a headline and summarised my / our current faculty thinking below in response:

  1. Agreement on a departmental process for how to teach writing and reading – we are in the process of doing this through discussion and building consensus as a faculty, coming to agreement on preferred methods shown to be effective and which can be used as scaffolding (with the intention to ultimately withdraw the scaffolding). Any ‘method’ is combined with other teaching methods eg. modelling, joint construction, not an ‘off the peg’ solution. But for starters, we like PETAL as an ‘early doors’ paragraph structure for structuring analysis (point, evidence, technique, analysis, link). Focuses on ideas before techniques and encourages further analysis through ‘link’ – to alternative interpretation, context, the question, the next point… Be interested to hear what others use, Lindsay Skinner presented at PixL on ‘SCITTLES’,  we have used ‘Iceberg analysis’ before, I saw some ‘rainbow word analysis’ via Mrs C Spalding on twitter.. lots out there. Some will hate any forced paragraph scaffolding at all, finding it limits ideas and creativity, or would baulk at the notion of departmental processes … Open to views!
  1. Movement from teacher dependency through interdependency towards independence – sounds obvious! But at times we bemoan the lack of independence in some of our higher key stage students yet must face up to our own role here.  For me it’s encouraging more of what we already do in our department, eg metacognition strategies as used in our Let’s Think lessons, establishing more secure processes for teaching, modelling, scaffolding, having consistent methods for structured peer assessment, developing independent wider reading schemes and EPQ style research projects, developing oracy. Alex stressed the need for training students thoroughly in self and peer assessment and structuring paired work solidly. He also shared his own class processes and structures for feedback: eg. always peer assess, self assess before handing work in for teacher assessment – encourages independence, shortens marking process, what’s not to like?
  1. Joint construction / live modelling with feedback – demonstrating the writing and editing process, with the class, live on the board or using visualisers, sharing and critiquing work a la Austin’s butterfly, Didau’s ‘making the implicit explicit’ and the National Literacy trust’s Transforming Writing report. I remember feeling the fear about doing this in my PGCE year, my fantastic mentor Nicola encouraging me to start the process and I’ve never looked back. This will be a key element to encourage when mentoring our new trainees: is it ‘THE thing’ ( © Quigley ) P’raps one of the main ones.
  1. Teaching reading strategies explicitly – this is controversial apparently. To me it fits in with the ‘making the implicit explicit’ as mentioned earlier as in sharing how expert readers (us) read. We have previously used a faculty agreed list of strategies such as ‘skim and scan’, ‘predict’, ‘infer’, ‘find evidence’ etc, which could be revived, this is up for discussion… Would be interested in reading those who have research which is anti-reading strategies?
  1. Doing fewer schemes of learning, better – this makes me feel relieved as I am always the one in the faculty who has never finished the scheme of learning before half term! Term lengths, text complexity and level of mastery all determine when we progress to the next scheme. Bodil’s blog on ‘lessons: the wrong unit of time’ also chimed with my instincts on this (alert – my instincts are not research-based!). Despite the temptation to squeeze loads in, we have focused on processes and concepts as well as content and knowledge in our new KS3 planning.
  1. Explicit vocabulary teaching – again a range of research and writing available (Isabel Beck’s Bringing Words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction is interesting) – interested in more. Alex discussed pre-planning vocabulary teaching based on texts to be encountered. The Huntington model is to kick off a knowledge of etymology with a Year 7 ‘History of Language’ unit which is used as the first unit in Year 7.  We currently teach vocabulary on an ‘as it arises from the text basis’ which may be too ad hoc. Help with how to approach this needed… ideas of learning lists of higher Tier words? Sophisticated vocab lists?
  1. Curriculum models. Alex kindly shared his KS3 overview with us which is on his blog below. I found it interesting to compare it with that again kindly shared by Swindon Academy further to their work with David Didau and Martin Robinson (link also below). Big challenges for us all as we face the new closed-book GCSEs with more 19th century fiction and non-fiction. The English dropbox run by @fod3 will be a great resource for #teamEnglish to share long term plans and schemes of work during this time of flux.

Having discussed these and other models in faculty, and taking into account more pragmatic issues like text availability and planning time, along with the school context, our current KS3 work in progress LTP does not take such a pure chronological approach, though I can see the benefits.

For each unit we have discussed / included so far:

  • Key texts
  • the ‘process’ – the reading or writing processes we want students to develop (master) –  this may link to David Didau’s discussion of threshold concepts or be called ‘skills’ although the term ‘skills’ is somewhat pooh-poohed by some… I like Alex’s term: ‘processes’
  • form and genre
  • knowledge – what we want students to take away / forward
  • Wider reading (WR) – building a wider reading list for weekly reading HW on the VLE
  • Let’s Think – we teach fortnightly Let’s Think (Cognitive Acceleration) lessons so selecting which may fit best with the unit
  • Real Life experiences – how to make English connect with the real world

Thinking is still ongoing on planning for SPAG. We prefer teaching literacy / grammar in the context of the texts we read and write rather than teaching discrete literacy lessons but need to plan a departmental way of doing so, specific to the texts we plan to use.  KS3 plans still in progress, need mapping with KS4 and 5 too, I will share soon and would appreciate any feedback.

Those links I mentioned:

No excuses: who is taking responsibility?

From where I’m reading, this week’s twitter discussions seem to have reached the consensus that while there may be ‘no excuses’ for poor behaviour in schools, there may be reasons.

Before proceeding, I will first state my own, hopefully uncontroversial, opinion that appropriate behaviour in schools must exist before learning can take place, that all schools need a clear, strong whole school behaviour policy with firm but fair boundaries in which teachers are supported by SLT, and that a nurturing pastoral system must exist to support the behavioural code.

What principally concerns me, however, is the subtle transference of some of the more negative aspects of Gove’s and now Morgan’s ‘rhetoric of rigour’ and the osmotic absorption of this negativity by some in the teaching profession.  ‘No excuses’ to me implies a negative assumption that you will be lied to by those intending to shirk responsibility. It appeals as a soundbite or slogan, sounding powerful and no-nonsense, but an equally brief slogan of ‘Take responsibility’, for example, implies instead a positive expectation, an implication that students have the desire and capability to step up to expectations of mature behaviour. An English teacher’s pedantry it may be, but for me, every word signals and models our expectations. Positive expectation starts with every phrase, for example ‘Walk, please.’ instead of ‘Don’t run.’ Negative expectation is continually embedded in the language of politicians and the media from the implied to the overt, whether ‘benefit scroungers’, ‘career women’ or ‘migrant cockroaches’.  It is pervasive, insidious and dangerous, and we need to remain alert to its persuasive power.

Negativity is absorbed incrementally, and the past years of Coalition government have subjected teachers to a barrage of negative rhetoric.  I believe Gove’s curriculum reforms, his adherence to Matthew Arnold’s ‘the best which has been thought and said’ and high standards for spelling, punctuation and grammar will probably be judged positively in the long run. However, his real skill was a political one: to use negative rhetoric to shift responsibility onto teachers, schools and students whilst removing by the back door many of the support systems we need to make his dream of equality of achievement for all a reality.  Nicky Morgan’s dawn attack on ‘coasting schools’ this morning again highlights what Tom Sherrington has called the ‘idiotic gun to head rhetoric’ which blames schools for problems which the government has helped to create.

Teachers are mostly driven by a service ethos: it has been noticeable to me since joining the profession (after 12 years working in television production) how many have a religious background.  This sense of individual responsibility teachers have for each and every student they teach, their desire to give back to society and help others, is genuine, heartfelt and powerful. And it has been shamelessly exploited by the political rhetoric of a ‘no excuses’ culture. No child must fail. All children must have equality of opportunity. Which teacher would disagree? Therefore, like Boxer in Animal Farm we continue working ever harder, almost proudly demonstrating our Stakhanovite work ethic in the hopes of achieving the dream. We absorb the message: ‘No excuses’.

But there are reasons. The circumstances into which students are born. Welfare cuts with very real physical, financial and emotional impact. The loss of Sure Start and the EMA, the raising of university tuition fees, the extension of middle class privilege via free schools and grammar schools, have all hit students’ ability to achieve equality, and the ability of schools to help them.

Schools are continually having to assume more and more of the role of parents and/or social services:

  1. Schools as Mini Welfare States –
  2. Promoting British values –
  3. Responsible for Character Education –
  4. Teeth Brushing as well? Hey, why not…?

What about the pupil premium?  A worthy intention, seemingly clearly ring-fenced to help the most disadvantaged, yet again, smoke and mirrors worthy of the Wizard of Oz (well actually he was a bit rubbish at hiding what he was up to, so let’s hope we see through it, as did Dorothy and pals). I’m no policy expert and am not responsible for pupil premium cash at our school, but on the website it appears the government offers:

  • £1,300 for pupils in reception year to year 6
  • £935 for pupils in year 7 to year 11

Schools also receive £1,900 for each pupil who has left local-authority care

So say £1,000 a year so £12,000 over a school lifetime for the most disadvantaged. Leaving aside the fact that the most troubled or challenged students may not necessarily be those with the least money, how can this amount of funding hope to create equality of opportunity? The equivalent of the fees for a half-term at Eton (£11,478). An amount which would be seen as a derisory bonus for any self-respecting banker (if there are any!).

Surely behind The Wizard of Gove et Morgan’s curtain are the true costs of ‘closing the gap’ as it is so neatly put, for these students. What does it really cost?  Obviously, it depends on the individual student, and sometimes the students with the most need will not be on that list, and sometimes they will, but the true cost of professional help, based on individual needs of the child, to redress the balance might come from the list below:

  • Cheapest teacher for a year £22, 023 (but what these students really need is of course the most experienced teachers)
  • Cheapest social worker for a year around £25,000 (but what these students really need is …)
  • Private tuition £25 – 40 per hour
  • Clinical psychologist – £50 – 300 per hour
  • Constant emotional support / Parenting / home life – priceless – or not – some children’s homes charge up to £250,000 per year per child –

Schools are expected to close the gap for these students with this money? And at a time when schools will be facing real cuts of between 7 – 12% according to the Institute for Fiscal studies, a ‘very difficult’ decision for Cameron but, hey, could we still close the gap?  Well, with what, exactly?

And if schools are shown to be unable to close the gap? What then? Why, forced academisation. Who runs those academy chains again? What’s their success rate?  How much do they earn, by the way?  There’s the Harris Foundation, an ‘exempt charity’ – named after Lord Harris (personal fortune estimated at £275 million and Tory donor). Estimated salary of a Harris Foundation director? £243, 027.  Or perhaps E-ACT, stripped of 10 underperforming schools, or the Academy Transformation Trust with 7 RI schools out of 9.   No excuses.

I don’t want to blame individual schools or teachers, simply to remind us to be aware of the negative rhetoric which slams teachers as ‘enemies of promise’ while introducing a programme of free schools, expanding grammar schools and forced academisation, which offers an illusion of freedom and choice whilst in fact deftly shifting the huge responsibility for social inequality onto those same schools and teachers. Teachers whose Herculean efforts are taken for granted, who are presented as shirkers and skivers by politicians and the press. No excuses.

There are many schools working incredibly hard to close the gap and offer equality of opportunity to some of the most disadvantaged children in our society and I wholeheartedly applaud them. By all means use a knowledge-based curriculum and a strong behaviour policy to try and balance the educational books. But beware ‘no excuses’. Because ‘no excuses’ doesn’t apply to everyone. It doesn’t apply to bankers or there would have been people with prison sentences. It doesn’t apply to politicians as they never face the consequences of their term in office 15 years later when the students have gone from early years to A-level – the students, parents and teachers do. My concern about the ‘no excuses’ rhetoric coming from the teaching profession itself is that it suggests we have absorbed the negative political lie that it is entirely our responsibility to solve problems which we are not adequately resourced to solve. There are reasons. Reasons resulting from social inequality, from political choices borne of expediency and protecting vested interests. Reasons which we need to continue to identify and fight for increased investment to address.

There are ‘no excuses’ for us. But while we, and the children we teach, are taking responsibility, the politicians are not even justifying their actions: they really do offer no excuses.

No surprises.