I have a bad memory. My mind just doesn’t retain certain (any) bits of information well, and this is particularly true when it comes to numbers. I can memorise one PIN number, but memorising that one PIN number wipes any other previously learned PIN numbers out of my brain. I am so bad at remembering dates that we once celebrated my partner’s birthday a day late. He thought I was joking, so he didn’t say anything but just went along with the ‘joke’. As you can imagine, I was mortified when I discovered my mistake. I’ve never really been a ‘know lots of facts’ kind of person. You definitely wouldn’t bother to pick me for your pub quiz team, and you certainly wouldn’t want me in your line-up if you were going on University Challenge. When I did my finals at university, I had to use a complicated memory system to retain enough facts to pass. And as I walked out of the door, I’m afraid that I did the equivalent of dumping the facts I had memorised in the bin. (I needed to make space for some fresh ones.)
Some people love memorising reams of stuff, and I’m guessing they find it fairly easy. Although maybe they don’t find it easy? Maybe they find it really hard, but they love doing it such a lot, that they are willing to work very hard at it. There are guys who memorise the phone book, or the order of several packs of cards; there are people who can remember Pi to a thousand places or more. One of my own children loves to memorise facts, particularly ones about dinosaurs. He can give you the lowdown on pretty much any dinosaur you care to mention: its size, when it lived, how fast it was, whether it was a carnivore or herbivore. He knows all kinds of interesting stuff, although it’s probably only really useful to you if you plan to become a paleontologist (which luckily enough, he does). As we wander around museums of natural history, he will come out with random facts about the fossils we are seeing, and he gets most upset if he spots any inaccuracies in the displays. His knowledge of dinosaurs is very definitely much, much bigger than mine. In fact, his knowledge is probably much, much bigger than yours (if it’s still okay to suggest that yes, sometimes children do know more than adults).
I’ve been reading about ‘knowledge organisers’ online for a long time now. I think I first saw them being talked about in the context of GCSE English Literature. To be honest, it felt a bit weird to me to be getting kids to memorise the historical context around fictional stories. A story is a story is a story. The main point of a story, especially one that has stood the test of time, is that it doesn’t really date. Whatever the historical context when it was originally written, the essence of a great story is that it holds true regardless. Sure, it can be interesting to know the historical context, but the truth a novel holds is usually about people and their motivations. Ideas that transcend time. The other reason literary knowledge organisers made me feel uneasy is because kids have the habit of over compensating when you encourage them to do something, especially if you test them on it. (Stories rammed with inappropriate fronted adverbials being a case in point.) And so it is that you end up with Macbeth essays that begin “Shakespeare was born in …” and end with a list of figurative devices “He uses personification to … He uses metaphor to …”. Anyway, I’ve kept my thoughts mostly to myself on this subject because (a) I used to give the kids chunks out of York Notes to learn when I taught GCSE English Lit, (b) if other teachers feel this stuff is useful, it’s really no business of mine to comment, and (c) I understand the pressures of a curriculum where success is essentially based on memorisation.
Yesterday, though, I stumbled across two blogs on using knowledge organisers in primary, specifically in Year 2. Jon Brunskill’s blog is here, and Michael Tidd’s blog is here. And I found myself feeling troubled, and needing to respond in order to get my thoughts in line. Yes, I am fully aware that “kids love facts” (as per my dino mad kid) and that some small children love learning lists of things (the dino mad kid started his fact quest by learning the names of different types of farm machinery, at around the age of 2 – I like to think of it as his “pre dinosaur phase”). But not everyone operates in exactly the same way, and facts do not have any intrinsic value, unless you are able to conceptualise them, and to place them in context in your mind. In his blog, Jon says “If children learn everything on this sheet, by heart, I believe that writing an information text about the moon landing will be a piece of cake.” Speaking personally, if you asked me to memorise this list of dates, I would feel so much panic trying to retain one number or date (let alone all of them), I would be unable to organise my thoughts to write a single word. On the other hand, ask me to write about something I have experienced, and you would be hard pressed to stop me. (Although even then, I’d probably add any dates afterwards, having consulted with Google first.)
It strikes me that there has been so much talk about knowledge in recent years (often in the form of memorising decontextualised facts), that we have started to make a fetish of it. We seem to be doing exactly the same thing with knowledge, as I’m told that we once did with skills, i.e. going too far in a single direction, to compensate for a mistake we perceive that we made. I have even been told that you cannot be creative without having tons of knowledge first (eek!), which should probably worry me more than it does, since I make my living being creative, and yet I struggle to memorise anything at all. Facts are appealing as a measuring tool for the classroom, because you can test the children to see if they’ve remembered them, and pat yourself on the back if they have. But a fact learned in isolation is not the same thing as learning that has been understood in context. And a good piece of information writing is much, much more than a list of related facts.
Anyway, there is nothing wrong with learning lists of dates, or countries, or cards, or digits, if that is what floats your boat. There is nothing wrong with small children memorising some facts within the context of subjects such as geography and history, although personally I’d advocate for them memorising stories and poems as a priority instead. (Interestingly, despite my complete blindness for numbers, I can do a perfect rendition of The Owl and The Pussycat – my mum sang it to me every night when I was a child.) But getting kids to memorise a list of tricky or complicated facts is not the same thing as teaching, or even the same thing as learning, for that matter. A small child cannot place a new fact into their mental map of the world, if they don’t have all the ones that go before it. And if a teacher sent my six year old home with a long list of dates to learn (even for my dino-mad-facts-are-easy-to-remember kid), I’m afraid I would put the lovingly crafted knowledge organiser to one side. Then we would snuggle up on our sofa with a big pile of colourful non-fiction books, and read our copy of WOW! Space (again) instead.