Knowledge Organisers: Part of the answer but no panacea


I am an Aston Villa fan and, for the last few years, it has not been much fun. Since the departure of Martin O’Neill in 2010, the team has undergone a gradual but inexorable decline which, after a few desperate years in the lower reaches of the Premiership, resulted in relegation in 2015. In a strange way, that I am sure only those familiar with this sort of thing will understand, it came as something of a relief.

Since O’Neill’s departure and the appointment of Steve Bruce who is in charge now, we have had six managers. Each brought hope, some more so than other, but all failed to halt the slide. The most fascinating aspect of this whole grim story has been tracking the multitude of different players, of all positions and styles, who have been signed in this strange, chaotic period. I still waste time on Wikipedia looking them up, interested in what happened to them, the more obscure the player, the more strangely satisfying it is seeing where they have ended up. Some hung on at the club for years after I thought they had left; skirting the squad, in the reserves, out on loan or simply sort of missing, officially a member of the team but forgotten and unmentioned, embarrassing reminders of past mistakes.

Many history curriculums, especially in struggling schools, look like Villa’s squad. A desperate, understandable desire for instant improvement too often leads to high turnover of ideas, teachers and subject leaders. Each new person, keen to show that they know what needs to be fixed, feels the pressure to make changes quickly. Often, these changes are made thoughtlessly, with new staff keen to bring in what they know, convinced that this will bring better outcomes, or at least enough breathing space to survive Apprentice style review meetings. Old units are thrown out and new ones brought in, the result is often a Frankenstein’s monster.

Year 7 begins with “What is History?”, then it does not, then it does again. The Romans invade but then bow to the Vikings, before regaining supremacy two years later. The Industrial Revolution takes two lessons one year, a full term the next, before being folded into a homework unit.

Where there is stability it is often not based on what is most historically significant or how it fits into an overall narrative. Instead it is based around what is in the stock cupboard or in the textbook store, or what teachers are familiar with teaching.

The result of all this is incoherence; curriculums that are nothing more than a hotchpotch of topics selected by many different people which add up to precisely nothing. Just like the Aston Villa squad Steve Bruce inherited in 2016.

In the recent past the extent of this problem could be hidden by using the armour of ‘skills’. A belief, for whatever reason, developed that the point of history in schools was to develop transferrable competencies and that these could be formed through learning almost anything. This armour has turned out to be made of tin. Skills, if they exist at all, are nothing without a solid, coherent knowledge base. This has been increasingly understood and has resulted in the ‘knowledge based curriculums’ moving into vogue.

This, of course, is a welcome development. We now know what had been forgotten; to be good at history, children must know a lot. Departments all over the country are slaving away at Knowledge Organisers and are becoming increasingly effective at finding ways to help their students remember many, many facts.

As great as this is, it is no panacea and I think there is a new threat. For all the schools that give a great deal of thought to what should be learned, there are many that are not, and are simply producing lists of random facts based on existing, flawed curriculums. We, as a profession, may be in danger of fetishising the simple memorisation of content as a virtue in itself. The quality of a child’s history education is dependent not only on knowing lots of stuff, but also knowing stuff that connects together to form meaningful schemas. Failing to do this could result in history in schools becoming nothing more than revision for a pub quiz that will never happen.

Now that we understand the fundamental importance of knowledge to history it is important we think harder than ever about what should be taught and learned. We need to take time to plan curriculums that join together and tell important stories. Of course, we will not all agree about what should be covered in such a short space of time (two years in many schools now), but it this is this we should be debating. Not how, but what and why.

Should we fail to develop coherent, powerful curriculums I feel there is a very real risk that the knowledge bubble will burst. Knowing lots and lots of random stuff will not lead to better history or better outcomes. If this is all we teach, then SLTs will dismiss ‘knowledge based curriculums’ as just another failed fad and we will have squandered a glorious opportunity.

Conceptually ‘what’ has beaten ‘how’. We must now turn our attention to just what ‘What’ should be.


12 thoughts on “Knowledge Organisers: Part of the answer but no panacea

  1. Wise words. The danger here is short-termism: you are very right that ‘apprentice-style review meetings’ (especially if conducted by non-specialists) pressurising quick fix solutions are the last thing history departments need if they are to deal with the complex challenges of planning thoroughly for real & secure transformation in student attainment, in the longer term. I’ve written about this in the latest edition of I. Davies (2017) Debates in History Teaching (second edition) – see chapter on knowledge and chapter on change. The chapter on knowledge sets out what a proper emphasis on substantive knowledge entails, and how it can serve rather than detract from a focus on disciplinary knowledge.

    Knowledge organisers are a very small but useful device, which handle about 5% of what focusing on knowledge is all about. If used as management proxy for focus on knowledge, they’ll be a catastrophe. There is no substitute for deep engagement of the department with the accumulated debate, reflection, practical experimentation, theorising and research (ALL of those) of the most articulate & experienced in the history education community. SLT need to check out that history departments are engaging with prior work of subject communities through which careful shared scrutiny & debate of approaches happen. The collected work of Jim Carroll @jcarrollhistory for example (yet another superb article just out in Teaching History) or Rachel Foster for example, really show the kinds of curricular theorising history teachers need to engage in if both substantive and disciplinary knowledge are to be strong enough to handle the complexity of teaching all pupils history well.

    There is no bypassing such critical engagement with the collective public professional knowledge of the community. If we do so, and keep chasing short-term goals, & the whole profession will just keep re-inventing square and round wheels. I worry terribly that initial teacher training is losing is subject-specificity to an alarming degree (having a ‘Standard’ on subject knowledge is a hopeless guarantor – it’s interpreted in wildly different ways). No new history teachers should enter the profession without a deep, wide and critical understanding of how history teachers have wrestled with such issues as choices in disciplinary and substantive knowledge, and their interplay, over the last 40 years. No mentor should be mentoring without that body of knowledge.


  2. History perhaps more than any other curriculum area relies on the specialism/passion of the members of the department/faculty. 1871 to the present day was covered for O level which was splendid especially when we got to a he stuff that I had heard father and uncle Charlie rattle on about all my life.

    We did the Normans in lower school and a project of our choice in third year/Y9.

    There was no progression, constructivinism or skills set and what they did at A level I have no clue and less interest; Tudors I think.

    My point, sorry to labour it with anecdote, is that there are a wealth of vital investigative skills, writing skills and data presentation skills that should be part of a balanced learners portfolio. Why then is the establishment not more prescriptive wrt to content and transparent wrt to the inherent skills that will need to be developed. Once this is clear skills acquisition and development can be dealt with as with any other academic subject.

    Sorry if this seems a little sterile but it will work. We will then have subject specialists whatever Key Stage we are working in and curriculum managers who can manage the human resource effectively (I think that used to be called time tabling). To further the football analogy I shall s passing on your article and my thoughts to Phil Parkinson at the Macron stadium as I’m sure he could do with some inspiration or maybe just a good ‘belly laugh’.


    • chrismwparsons says:

      JVAE59 – I think the lack of prescription from the establishment is precisely because exactly ‘what’ could be taught is far too broad and contentious for experts to agree on a definitive list for the small amount of teaching time available. The point Ben is making is that, when making their own choices, schools need to seek-out and focus on creating the coherent story that will lead to some deep and mature understanding.

      The rest of the stuff you are mentioning regarding the general academic skills that should be developed seems to miss his underlying point that such a 21st C skills pipe-dream is no longer seen as an isolatable goal, and even when such skills are mastered, they lead to pretty shallow engagement with topic areas in the absence of relevant knowledge of the area being dealt with.


      • Thanks for your reply.

        ‘isolatable goal’ is an interesting expression.

        We are in a period where learning theory is being driven by a host of influences. It may seem optimistic but I am convinced that the C21st learners must develop generic learning skills along side the skills and knowledge sets that they are working towards acquiring. These will be vital to enable them to meet the challenges of a working life that will be at least fifty years with a number of career changes during that time, not forgetting that many of them will be employed in jobs not yet heard of in industries yet to be discovered.


      • chrismwparsons says:

        Thank you for responding to me too! Interestingly, your comments are pretty identical to the ones I was making 8 or 9 years ago, when I was fully in thrall to the notion that if we just taught kids higher-order thinking skills and information literacy, then the problems of the world would be sorted.

        What generalisable skills do you have in mind for the people of the future?
        Unfortunately it does indeed now seem that these domain-general skills either emerge as actual knowledge of a domain increases; are learned naturally anyway and either don’t need to be or can’t be taught; or can be taught but only have a shallow reach until people properly know something worth knowing about an area. The preparing of children for jobs which don’t exist yet amounts to little more than the teaching of adaptability – whatever that would look like in practice…

        Here’s a link to something I wrote a couple of years ago about how schools could respond to this challenge…


      • Eight or nine years ago you were probably well ahead of me as I was ‘first footing’ my own learning.

        My stimulus was working in Special Measures schools as first of all a subject mentor and the later as a learning coach (school wide).

        I have recently read an excellent article by US educationalists Taylor/Parsons where they give convincing arguments for including learners in the rationale behind AfL and how they will benefit by their inclusion. I’m sorry I can’t reference the article I need to start to organise useful stuff like this then it can be easily shared. I can E-Mail a summary I wrote if you are interested.

        I will be saving the link you sent me once I have re-read and digested.

        Look forward to further stimulating debate


        Liked by 1 person

      • chrismwparsons says:

        Thank you John – I would be very interested to read your summary – having recently read Dylan Wiliams’ new book, it’s set me thinking with new zest about the central use of afl.

        It’s also interesting that – having responded to you with thoughts I’ve held for a while now, the discussion has set my thoughts rolling once more on the whole ‘knowledge vs skills’ area of debate, and I feel I’m rotating my position a certain number of degrees once more..!


      • The ‘knowledge v skills’ debate will continue to rumble on, what is interesting however is what direction will this be driven by our new LEAs, namely MATs will they all come up with different conclusions. We could finish up with regionalisation similar to the subject specific differences between the original countrywide examination boards.


      • chrismwparsons says:

        Now THAT is a genuinely interesting thought. With the backing away of top-down Government and LEA control, and the gradual evolution of OFSTED towards agnosticism on methods, what kind of diversity and polar opposites will flourish within the MATs?


      • What are the skills that learners currently in full time education and those yet to come need to take with them so that they become lifelong learners.

        After some considerable thought I am possibly going to avoid the issue by saying that learners are going to have the facility to log into learning establishments all the way through their adult life. Whether this be via the internet at local HE colleges or at some form of educational institution for lifelong learning in each large metropolitan community the likes of which don’t exist currently.

        I think they would have to be staffed by forward looking educational innovators and be full spectrum not just basic skills as many adult education initiatives currently are.

        The curriculum: n.b. all of these will cover the full range of skills levels. There will also be the facility to re-visit previous educational experiences.

        Everything that is happening at the moment plus:-


        Emotional well being (EQ)

        Mindfulness – maintenance of good mental health.

        Theoretical aspects of learning.


        Spiritualism – linked with Mindfulness?

        Moral education (contentious !!)

        Intra-personal skills

        Inter-personal skills


        Visual – spatial

        With constant top ups on mathematical/logistical, kinaesthetic and linguistic.

        You can see I am greatly influenced by Gardener.

        These skills could be certificated with something along the lines of the ECDL (European Computer Driving Licence)

        Hope you don’t see this as a cop out but it is something that I feel strongly about.


  3. Pingback: The problem with knowing stuff. (I know lots of stuff, most of it pointless) | Being Brave! a first time headteachers blog.

  4. OFSTED are driven by #trending ideas. There was an advocate of whole class feedback to help solve the workload issue can see that going down well with SLT in a school about to be visited.

    Not ignoring your Q re the skills that need acquiring just thing it needs a considered response.


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