Bigger Than Yours


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.


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26 Responses to Bigger Than Yours

  1. Michael Tidd says:

    There are some common misconceptions here.
    “Whatever the historical context when it was originally written, the essence of a great story is that it holds true regardless”
    Actually, often without at least some sense of historical context, the essence of a great story is completely lost. I don’t think that that means we need to learn lots of dates (indeed, I said as much in my blog). But I don’t think Dickens conveys his messages as well if you know nothing of Victorian society.

    “a curriculum where success is essentially based on memorisation”
    That curriculum doesn’t exist. English exams still require pupils to write essays about literature; primary writing assessment is largely about grammatical structures, not memorisation. The point of Knowledge Organisers is that people like Jon and I believe that by securing some of the knowledge we can make the other processes easier. I think there are some things worth knowing. For example, while I don’t reckon holding lots of dates is vital, I do think knowing the order and approximate dates of the main periods of British history (Romans, Saxons, etc.) is useful because it helps all other historical learning to fit into that context. It becomes a narrative rather than disparate bits of knowledge to learn: exactly what you’re arguing for.

    “memorising decontextualised facts”
    The very point of the Knowledge Organiser that Jon created is that it *is* the context that the children are learning in. It is all about their Space topic. You might well not like the approach, but to suggest that it is decontextualised isn’t right.

    “a good piece of information writing is much, much more than a list of related facts.”
    Yes, but a piece of information writing without facts isn’t information writing.

    It’s interesting that you have focused on the dates presented in Jon’s organiser – which is mainly the part that I questioned. Presumably you don’t object to children learning vocabulary about their topic? Would it be preferable to you if your child came home with just some key words to find out about, without a definition being provided? But then what of those children who don’t have the home support to find out and read more?

    I think I’ve been clear that I don’t think either of us has perfected a product yet. But I don’t think that that means that the idea is redundant. Rather it is ripe for refinement.

    Liked by 4 people

    • suecowley says:

      Success in GCSE English Lit. will rely a lot on memorisation as it is now a closed book exam. I wouldn’t expect my 6 year old to be sent home with anything to memorise, just with a reading book for me to share. Thanks for your comment.

      p.s. I really don’t like the phrase ‘common misconceptions’. 😉


    • Pat Stone says:

      ‘But I don’t think Dickens conveys his messages as well if you know nothing of Victorian society.’
      I knew nothing of Victorian society when I first read Dickens. But I understood his messages very well because I was poor.
      I probably needed to look up a few vocabulary words, or let them go ‘for now’, but I didn’t need pre-teaching. I just picked the books up and read them. I could say I learned about Victorian society from Dickens.
      Knowledge doesn’t always travel in the direction we might expect.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. jamestheo says:

    You seem to be labouring under a number of misconceptions as to what a knowledge organiser is. They aren’t bits of paper for pupils to take home and memorise. They contain all of the knowledge that needs to be taught and learned over the unit.


    • suecowley says:

      I was referring to Jon’s blog which said they memorise and are tested on them.


      • jamestheo says:

        He didn’t say that though. He said that he will teach the knowledge from the organiser over the unit (the knowledge organiser is mainly there to set out what Jon needs to teach over the unit) and each lesson he will uses quizzes to consolidate what has been learned. Unless one is against pupils learning things in a lesson, I struggle to see why one would have a problem with what Jon has described.


        • suecowley says:

          He said it in a discussion on Twitter, and in the blog he says “swot up at home ready to share their knowledge in lessons. Also I’ll tell them that they have to do this.” One isn’t against anything, one is just stating an opinion based on what Jon wrote.

          These quotes from Michael Tidd’s response too:

          “this brings the organiser perhaps closer to the cramming model of revision than the more successful spaced practice approach”

          “There is a risk that using Knowledge Organisers to aim for short-term recall of detail that is later lost, will develop a cramming ethos”


  3. I think Michael is very clear that he isn’t yet sure of the worth of the knowledge organiser approach, although he does like the idea. Jon seems much surer, but then in the approach to teaching that he describes the knowledge organiser appears to be a bit player anyway. In some ways this debate reminds me of the frameworks of knowledge discussions in Kris Boulton’s blog (e.g. What mental frameworks do kids need to know, and how are they to be constructed? Do we use facts to construct these?

    The wider issues are to do with whether we need to be thinking about primary education like this at all. Do these approaches destroy creativity, or put children off from reading for pleasure? (or is that just being overly dramatic?)


    • suecowley says:

      It’s not the way I personally choose to look at the construction of understanding and I think at primary age a lovely shiny non fiction book is a beautiful thing. Thank you for your comment.


  4. Mel says:

    I’ve enjoyed many of your blogs before now. This one, not so much. Small minded and lacking in understanding which is a shame.


  5. Thanks for this Sue, you offer a different perspective on a topical issue. For what it is worth, I think Knowledge Organisers done well would be a really useful tool – done badly clearly less so. I have found reading all of the blogs on this helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pat Stone says:

    When I started teaching in the early 90s, primary school, there was a trend for mind mapping on flip chart paper what children, the class, knew already about a new topic and keeping it to compare with what they knew at the end. Now we seem uninterested in children as people, we focus only on what we are delivering at them, hardly at all on how they are receiving it. Teacher as narcissist. I’ll not be surprised if I hear that kids have started saying to their teachers, “It’s all me, me, me with you isn’t it!”
    It seems there has been an about turn in our attitudes towards children’s minds from ‘they’ll learn anything and everything as long as we find a way to teach them – how exciting!’, to being miffed and peeved that ‘they don’t know anything – which are the most important items of knowledge to cram in before test time, and I’ll get the blame if they fail, it’s not fair? This is so hard!’. It’s actually easier to see children as empty vessels that we can pour pre-packed items of knowledge into.
    Of course there’s stuff they don’t know – that’s why we have jobs as teachers. And sending the KOs (knock outs? 3 falls or a submission?) home to learn? That’s a bit different to having an interested and excited adult on hand to rave on about a topic and show them what they know. That’s meant to be the teacher’s job. Otherwise we are expecting home to be the teacher and at school we are reduced to giving the kids exam prep.
    I note, Sue, how often you use the word ‘colour’ lately. I’ve seen Tweeters ridicule each other for wanting to present even these knowledge organiser thingies with a bit of colour on, as if using colour is a bad thing, pandering to some notion that if we think kids might like or need a bit of colour in their lives, there’s something wrong with our attitude. Just about everything for kids now is reduced to what can be done with a grey pencil on white paper. I find this offensive. It offends me. I’d be screaming to get at my iPad or computer game in all it’s technicolour glory, as soon as I cleared the school gates at the end of each day too, topping myself up with colour before I set off each morning, if I was 6 now.
    It’s colour, in all it’s connotations, that’s gone missing from school. KOs are not likely to bring it back, I don’t think.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Mark Enser says:

    The memorisation of facts is necessary for Geography at GCSE and A level. They need to go in to the exam with an in depth knowledge of a range of case studies (death toll, magnitude, specific responses to a tectonic hazard for example). They are examined on their knowledge (AO1) and their ability to apply this knowledge (AO2).
    My students find knowledge organisers (or crib sheets as I guess we would have called them up until recently) really useful as it shows them what they are expected to know. We can then spend more time doing the interesting application work with this knowledge.

    I’ve been teaching for a 14 years and have always used what are now called “Knowledge organisers” but now they have a fancy name they seem to get more attention 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • suecowley says:

      Thanks, and yes I don’t think I see much problem with them as crib or revision sheets for older students, it’s more the focus on memorisation much earlier on that concerns me. I’m a bit concerned about them in a creative/arts subject, but that’s a complex point for a separate blog I think. I don’t think I explained it very clearly above as some people seem to have felt I was criticising them rather than the closed book/memorisation literature exam.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Jo Brighouse says:

    Unlike you, Sue, I never struggled to memorise information. I retain postcodes, national insurance numbers, phone numbers, quotes from literature. Apart from being a help when it comes to filling out forms (and sometimes in pub quizzes), I don’t believe this gives me any greater intelligence or creativity. Facts by themselves aren’t worth much unless you join them up and do something with them. Ask me to elaborate on my pub quiz answer and I will simply draw a blank. Obviously we need to teach young children knowledge (and I can’t think of a teacher out there who doesn’t do this), but it’s important not to confuse knowing things with thinking. Knowledge Organisers sound like they might be a useful tool (like a word mat?) but, especially with younger children, I agree that you can’t beat books to spark their interest and get them thinking (especially as at the age of 6 an awful lot of information of all kinds is still new to them, not just what’s written down on a sheet). I really enjoyed reading your blog and I find your writing on teaching young children really useful and encouraging. Thanks, Jo.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Malcolm Gladwell’s long ago (2008) piece in the New Yorker magazine on early and late genius ( is admittedly tangential to the knowledge organiser debate, but does have useful something to say. Each of us is different and develops in our own way. Let each school have its own ethos as well and let parents choose. Some will want knowledge organisers and others won’t. Let’s not force everyone into the same mould- some of us will fit just fine and others of us will be square pegs in round holes.


  10. Helen says:

    I’ve sped read it and after teaching Entry one stories today to ESOL parents, I liked the reminder about facts and dinosaurs. Our primary children and our adult students in their 40’s 50’s and 60’s are on different learning curves from our teenagers retaking GCSE for the umpteenth time. Or are they?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: Knowing stuff is cool. | Pedfed

  12. monkrob says: Can students use the Knowledge organiser during the test or final assessment. I think they should be able to.


  13. Pingback: On valuing knowledge AND engagement | the learning profession

  14. Pingback: ‘Knowledge’ Organisers in History | Goldilocks History

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