Organising Historical Knowledge

I had planned to spend this weekend writing about teaching the Renaissance, but a wellspring of excellent blogs about Knowledge Organisers has tempted me to change tack.

Last week, I blogged about how teachers who support knowledge-based teaching are spending less time criticising methods they disapprove of, and more time promoting alternatives. Knowledge Organisers are a great example of this constructive turn. Joe Kirby first blogged about Knowledge Organisers in March 2015, and education-bloggers have gone wild for them. Just this past week, Summer Turner has written a great blog about teaching ‘facts not fads‘, and Jon Brunskill has started a series of posts about using Knowledge Organiser at Primary level.

When I began writing a knowledge-based Key Stage 3 history textbook for Collins last year, the publisher and I agreed that each unit should end with a Knowledge Organiser, outlining ~25 keywords, ~10 key dates, and ~8 key people. Here is an example from the unit on Norman England.



However, as I read more about Knowledge Organisers, I realised these double page spreads slightly miss the point. They remain an invaluable classroom resource, allowing pupils to remind themselves of key information independently when planning and writing their own work. But the knowledge is insufficiently organised. Many of the definitions are in the style of a glossary, and not specific to the unit in question. And a lot of important information has been left out, as it did not fall neatly into the categories of words, dates or people.

So, in September I set about designing new Knowledge Organisers. My understanding has always been that Knowledge Organisers are the base from which quizzes can be designed. However, in the spirit of not duplicating work, I decided that my quizzing questions and Knowledge Organiser should become one and the same.

For each unit of work, I have drafted 50 quizzing questions –10 per chapter. I have then organised these quizzing questions into an A4 Knowledge Organiser, along with key dates from the course. This has amounted to 18 Knowledge organisers across Key Stage 3, consisting of 900 separate quizzing questions – I will be posting them all on this page soon.

As has been written about at length, the exercise of creating a Knowledge Organiser was an extremely helpful mental exercise, which has paid great dividends in refining the clarity of my teaching. Facts have been included according to the following criteria:

  1. Important for the end of unit assessment.
  2. Important for building long-term historical knowledge (as Michael Fordham has blogged about here)
  3. Taken from the set reading we have completed.


Using the Knowledge Organiser

Knowledge Organisers now provide a backbone to our teaching across Key Stage 3 history at West London Free School. Joe Kirby has written before about ‘renewable resources’ – a concept I love – and these quizzing questions are a perfect example. They simplify our lesson planning, cut down on workload, and provide consistent retrieval practice for pupils. How do we use and reuse them?

  1. fullsizerenderPupils are given Knowledge Organisers at the start of the unit. One benefit of formatting the Knowledge Organiser onto a page of A4 is that it can be tucked into the plastic cover on the back of pupils’ exercise books for immediate access when self-quizzing (and ensuring no lost worksheets – the bane of homework setting!).
  2. According to our Key Stage 3 lesson cycle, every other history lesson starts with a quiz taken from the Knowledge Organiser. This may either be a low stakes recap quiz, or a high stakes test for which the pupils revise, and we take in the marks. Almost always, pupils’ marks increase thanks to self-quizzing homework – gratifying for the pupil and teacher alike.quiz-1quiz-2
  3. We return to the same quizzing questions at relevant points throughout the year. For example, the 10 questions here on the feudal system will reappear towards the end of Year 7 when we come to teach the Peasants’ Revolt, re-activating pupils’ prior knowledge about the structure of medieval society.

Aside from simplifying my planning, the enormous benefit of this is that pupils constantly revisit the same questions and answers, through verbal recapping, quizzes, self-quizzing homework, and tests. Facts such as ‘The Harrying of the North’ took place in 1069, following an Anglo-Saxon rebellion in Durham, become automatic.

The benefit for this was abundantly clear when I marked my Year 7’s essays at the end of the unit. We set pupils the essay ‘How did William the Conqueror establish Norman control over England?’, and spent a lesson planning an essay with three chapters looking at the role played by violence, leadership and luck, followed by a conclusion deciding which factor was most important.

The essay was written during a 55-minute lesson. Almost all pupils were able to thread their paragraphs with specific, detailed information from the Knowledge Organisers. Below is a paragraph from a top-ranking piece of work, with detail from the Knowledge Organiser highlighted in yellow:


And also two paragraphs from a middle-ranking piece of work:


I have often wondered why critics of knowledge-based teaching insist that facts committed to memory are axiomatically ‘disconnected’ or ‘meaningless’. Facts obviously can be these things. But when facts are extracted from key reading completed throughout the term, and applied to a piece of analytical history writing at the end of the term, they are steeped in meaning.

Historical meaning comes from webs of understanding, and these webs are created by linking together a knowledge of people, places, dates, events and concepts. I have encountered no better means of codifying that knowledge than in a Knowledge Organiser.


11 thoughts on “Organising Historical Knowledge

  1. I love these – can I just ask how you use for the self-quizzing? So they are on the back of exercise books and you set the quiz in the lesson – do you tell pupils which topic to revise, do they have to put their books away? Otherwise I assume they could just use the answers from the back of their book!


    1. In my class, pupils answer the quizzes in the back of their books. As the quizzing sheet is on the outside cover, it means they are not able to cheat. I keep an eagle eye out! But others in their department do use separate piece of paper. Horses for courses I guess. And yes, I tell them which questions to revise. They know precisely what questions are coming up, so there is no excuse to get anything but a very high mark.


    1. I have experimented with both allowing pupils to have their knowledge organiser in assessments(generally 5 paragraph essays written in 50 minutes), and not allowing it. Interestingly, it seems to make very little difference. It would appear that having the information in front of you is not enough to allow you to use that information as part of a cogent, thougthful paragraph. The information really needs to be encoded in pupils’ long-term memory. For this reason, I don’t think pupils should be allowed to use the knowledge organiser during a test, as it sends the message that memorisation isn’t important – when it actually has a significant impact on the fluency and complexity of pupil thought. Many moons ago, my English Literature teacher told us that although our English Literature A-levels were open book, we should not use the book in the exam, and should instead memorize quotations. In terms of the sophistication of the essays we were able to write with that information at our fingertips, it was excellent advice!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. We are a research sample of two.
    I too have found that it actually makes little difference if the students are able to use the knowledge organiser in assessments or not. I’d like a larger sample that two before I’m convinced.
    It does make a difference in the type of questions I set. If I know all students have the knowledge in front of them, I ask them questions that require better understanding, analysis, linking, application of the knowledge. I don’t ask recall questions.

    I don’t agree that the information really needs to be encoded in pupils’ long-term memory. Students who can “remember” the information but not “understand” the significance of the information or how it relates to a wider schema are no better off with the knowledge organiser in front of them or not.

    The advantage I see is that it allows pupils to focus more on the bigger picture and less on the fine details. The fine detail is on the knowledge organiser, and as long as the child is familiar with it, they will be able to use it to fill in the gaps if their memory is less than photographic.
    We are assessing and teaching for understanding not recall.

    I do agree that pupils with the best understanding won’t use the knowledge organiser. We call them cheat sheets. We allow pupils to produce their own cheat sheets to use in tests.

    Here is a typical conversation after a test:
    Student A who produced an amazingly detailed cheat sheet.
    Did you use your cheat sheet during the test? No, I didn’t need to.

    Student B who was too lazy and didn’t do a cheat sheet.
    Would you have done better with a cheat sheet? Yes. I probably should have done one.


  3. Really like this entry.

    I first came across knowledge organisers written as question/answer from Anthony Radice. He’d written a whole series for literature in his school that he shared with me. We’ve recently added the question/answer format to our organisers.

    Also, in Heather Fearn’s blogpost ( she suggested that the weakest learners struggle to work out which part of the knowledge organiser to focus on. She also suggested that weak learners were poor at working out what would come up in a test or the format in which it would be asked. The Question/Answer format deals with these issues more effectively that just writing statements (I think).

    I found the knowledge organiser’s first purpose was for our teachers to actually get the knowledge defined and organised. When we first started organising knowledge we found (and still find) that quite a lot of the knowledge we held was wrong and/or badly organised. We had to go and do some studying. We had to ask others if what we’d written was what was actually required/true in the subject. To be honest, we’re still working on it.

    Once we have the right stuff written down then we adapt it slightly so that pupils have parts of it for their homework. Then they are quizzed on it once a week. We are still working on this too.

    More thoughts a bit later.


    1. Glad you are also keen on the Question/Answer format. I’m not sure if this means the document is still a knowledge organiser, but it seems to work very well in our history classes. From marking pupils’ written work, it is interesting that they often using the wording form the question on the Knowledge Organiser, e.g. ‘according to legend Hereward the Wake’s sword was called Brainbiter’. Brainbiter is the answer that the pupils have memorised for the quiz, but they also end up memorising the wording of the question as well!


      1. If you don’t mind me asking, could you explain what your assessment plan looks like? From what I understand, you get students to write two types of essays: one guided by specific adjectives which is not assessed and another as an assessment without any props. Do you get them to write these two types of essays on the same topic.

        Thanks for your great blog – I’ve been applying many of your ideas in my own practice.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s