Many schools have developed knowledge organisers, knowledge mats, or something similar, even before the first lockdown. These carefully identified the key vocabulary for each unit of work, listing the ten or twelve ‘Roman’ or ‘Brazilian’ words and phrases, alongside the key learning. These have proved to be very useful. They can help children remember the vocabulary and knowledge; provide parents with something useful to stick on the fridge door; and can help ensure consistency across classes by focusing teachers on the key learning. Old habits can die hard and there are still a few remnants of teachers around the country ‘doing’ a topic rather than ‘teaching’ about a topic. The subsequent lack of rigour can be superficially hidden by the enthusiasm for activities, but the children do not develop their long-term memory or schema. They remember the activity, but not the knowledge.
Ofsted published ‘Intention and substance: further findings on primary school science from phase 3 of Ofsted’s curriculum research’ in February 2019. (Reference no: 190002). This made the point that some teachers “focused more on activity-led learning, chiefly to meet the national curriculum aims of working scientifically.” The belief was that this would make learning more engaging and motivating for pupils. However, teachers’ subject knowledge and their depth of planning were not strong enough to sequence the knowledge and skills that pupils needed to learn before carrying out practical experiments. Too frequently, the activities carried out were not deepening pupils’ understanding of the scientific concept, because teachers had not covered the baseline substantive knowledge required sufficiently beforehand.
I could make a similar case for occasional lessons and sequences of lessons in history, geography, art etc. However, in most classes, when I could get into schools (pre-Covid), there was far greater rigour in the teaching of these subjects and the precise identification of key knowledge and vocabulary was a key feature of this effective practice.
The downside of ‘traditional’ knowledge organisers (have they been around long enough for me to call them traditional?!) is that they identify discrete unit-specific vocabulary and knowledge. This is useful for that unit as mentioned above. However, it does not always help children make links to prior learning, develop schema, and aid long-term memory.
To overcome this issue, some schools have gone beyond this model and have developed ‘spiral’ knowledge and vocabulary through the age range of the school. For example, one primary school uses ‘leadership’ as a key thread in history. Children learn about the Queen’s silver jubilee to the present day in KS1. Vocabulary includes monarch, reign, king, and queen. In lower KS2 they study an aspect of WWII as a local history unit. Vocabulary includes the same four words, but obviously in a different context and with additional WWII vocabulary added. In upper KS2 when they study the Egyptians the focus is again on leadership, with some of the same vocabulary introduced in KS1 and lower KS2, but again in another context and now alongside Pharaoh, pyramid etc. This enables the school to teach the historical concepts of ‘similarity and difference’ and ‘continuity and change’ highly effectively.
Teachers can draw children’s attention to the familiar vocabulary and challenge them to use it and learn about it in another context, explicitly linking to prior knowledge. With all the focus now on long-term memory development and making links to prior learning, it may be worth tweaking the vocabulary lists in existing knowledge organisers once we finally get back to a ‘normal’ curriculum…!
If you already have this in place for geography and history (the classic primary school curriculum ‘drivers’), what about PE, art and design, DT, and PSHE? It could be useful to consider this going forward, and it links with the focus on concepts in recent Ofsted remote inspections. But more about that next time…