Want to share knowledge organisers?

One of the many powerful things to come out of the brilliant team at the Michaela Community School in North London is the use of knowledge organisers to specify what core knowledge is to be taught in a scheme of work. If you don’t know what these are, before you go any further you should read MCS Assistant Head Joe Kirby‘s blogpost explaining why and how they use them:

Knowledge Organisers

Brilliant, eh? I recently nicked this idea from the MCS crew and shared one of these for one of the texts on the new English GCSE (Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and it got a lot of interest. In fact, pretty soon a lot of people were sharing their knowledge organisers for other texts on the new GCSE and there was talk of collecting them somewhere.

Knowledge organisers are used across all subjects at MCS, so rather than just collecting them for English, I thought it may be more of a useful resource for all subjects to share them in one place. These can then be downloaded and adapted for your needs if required (for example, someone might choose to add ‘Freudian psychoanalysis’ in the context section for the Jekyll and Hyde knowledge organiser I uploaded).

With all this in mind, and with Joe’s blessing, I’ve set up a shared folder in Google Drive so that anyone can add their own or download an existing one.

I’ve just added a few subjects to begin with – feel free to add a new folder if you are uploading a knowledge organiser for your subject and there isn’t a folder already there.

Thanks to Nick Wells, Brittany Wright and Bryn Davis who have been incredibly quick off the block in adding their knowledge organisers for English texts.

Please get involved – this could be a great resource across all subjects.

NOTE: Please don’t delete or move the folders or documents to somewhere else on your Google Drive – you are working with a a shared folder, so if you delete/move anything, you are moving them for everyone else. Just download any you need. You can then upload them again to your own Drive folders if necessary.

Thanks in advance!

Unfortunately, the knowledge organisers folder is no longer available. I was hoping that this would be an easy and accessible resource but, despite putting PLEASE READ notices everywhere I could, people are still accessing the drive without care and consideration and deleting them for everyone else. Since May 2015, I’ve had to regularly spend time retrieving files but, as a full time teacher, this is hugely time consuming and I can no longer continue to do this. If somebody else would like to set up a similar system and manage it, please do.

The absolute curses of retention and organisation: needlessly yawing mnemonics

I love poetry. Actually the truth is – as I often tell my pupils – I love some poetry. Whenever a pupil says “I hate poetry”, I usually tell them it’s like saying “I hate music” – a sweeping statement that doesn’t really express the truth: The Cure genuinely send shivers down my neck, whereas Nickelback make me do a little bit of sick in my mouth. Likewise, Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’ stirs me, but I never really felt the remotest of interest in Tony Harrison’s ‘v.’

On paper, ‘v.’ should say more to me than ‘Prufrock’. Harrison’s poem is written in and of a time contemporary to my growing up and the class-laden references are entirely familiar to me, whereas Eliot writes of manners and allusions that I have had to work at to understand. In terms of accessibility, the directness of ‘v.’ should trump the ambiguity of ‘Prufrock’, yet for some reason the subtle, arcane and foreign emotions expressed in the latter have a far greater pull for me.

If poetry was written as a formula, I’m sure I’d be more drawn to the formula of ‘v.’ than that of ‘Prufrock’. But poetry isn’t like that. Ultimately, it’s irreducible, perhaps because it is itself a reduction (of language).

As teachers, we often try to reduce complex ideas to formulas. One way that we do this is to create acronyms as mnemonics. It’s entirely well meaning, and I’m sure there are examples of memorable and effective acronyms. But often they are clumsy attempts to reduce the irreducible.

It always surprises me to see the same comments year after year on the AQA examiner’s reports for the poetry exam. They argue that there’s an over-reliance on these acronyms, suggesting that they are holding pupils back. Despite this problem being noted by the exam board every year, here it is highlighted again (and again) in the most recent reports:

Higher Lit Poetry June 14
AQA Report on the Examination – GCSE English Literature, Poetry Across Time, June 2014, Higher paper
AQA Report on the Examination - Poetry Across Time, June 2014, Foundation paper
AQA Report on the Examination – GCSE English Literature, Poetry Across Time, June 2014, Foundation paper

And it isn’t just in poetry that these acronyms hinder pupils. The examiners’ reports for the English Language GCSE also suggest that language analysis seems to suffer because of a reliance on acronyms too.

AQA Report on the Examination - GCSE English, November 2014, Foundation paper
AQA Report on the Examination – GCSE English Language, November 2014, Foundation paper (note the pun at the end – even English examiners can’t help being playful with language)

That is not to say that acronyms can’t be useful. When I did closed book exams during my degree, I’d memorise quotes that might be helpful. And to help do this, I’d initially commit to memory the first letter of each quote. This meant that I might have 12-15 letters to remember, so I would arrange them so that they would produce a pseudoword: a nonsense word that followed spelling patterns of English words, despite it having no meaning. The reason for this is that I could commit it to memory as one, pronounceable word, rather than a series of letters – what we know as chunking.

This was perfectly serviceable for what I needed. The acronyms themselves were usually gibberish because I’d have to be pretty lucky if what I needed to remember could actually spell out real English words. Apropos of this, it means that I’m usually pretty sceptical about the utility of an acronym if it happens to conveniently spell out a word. I’m even more suspicious if that word happens to link to the topic.

Something like this, for instance, fills me with worry.

This mnemonic is suggested for pupils to use in analysing a poem. It’s awfully convenient that it spells out the word POETIC, isn’t it? Okay, let’s look at why it might cause problems…

Purpose – This is clarified by “the meaning of the poem?” Wait, do you want me to think about the purpose or the meaning? Those are different things, and it probably isn’t helpful to conflate them. Now, I can work with ‘meaning’ – that’s what we do when we read poetry: interpret meaning. But I’m not sure it’s always our place to decipher the purpose of a poem. Why did Sylvia Plath write ‘Cut’? We can read biographical information into the poem, but not sure we should be discerning purpose.

Organisation – Okay, this is useful. What we might call ‘structure’ and ‘form’.

Emotive Tone – Again, this might be useful. But I would suggest that this isn’t isolated from Organisation and Techniques. It is important that pupils see how tone is created through these things.

Techniques – Okay. But I would suggest that Language is what we should look for, and if there are specific techniques in that language we might discuss them. Feature-spotting is a common mistake made in analysing poetry.

Individual words – Ah – this is the Language I was talking about. But why is it ‘Individual words’? It goes on to specify ‘words and phrases’, so ‘individual’ is a misnomer.

Contrast – Right… isn’t this to do with language? At best it’s a technique, if we follow this mnemonic? Why does it needs its own category? If only there was some sort of justification… wait – “there will always be a contrast in a well-written poem”. Hmm. That’s a bit of a sweeping value judgement, isn’t it?

Whilst there are arguably some useful directions for pupils in this acronym, they are often clouded by distant synonyms which obfuscate the real meanings – Purpose actually means ‘meaning’, which is a different thing entirely, and  Individual words isn’t just asking for individual words, it’s asking for phrases. And if it isn’t clouding meaning, it’s deviating from the utility of the mnemonic by adding in things that don’t need to be there – Contrast is an unnecessary focus. By needlessly yawing off course like this, we are asking pupils to store redundant information in their memories.

Here’s another example of an acronym that might actually make things harder for pupils. This is for close reading of a text.


Yet again fortune has given us the letters to spell a word linked to the topic! But if you look at the words that CLOSE helps us remember, you’ll notice that they aren’t actually content words – they aren’t the actual things we want pupils to remember. CheckLookObserveStudy and Examine do not only arguably operate as function words in the sentences they are in, they are also almost synonyms of each other (making it even more difficult to discern them from one another). What we would want pupils to remember in each of these sections would be unknown wordsideas and detailsbook and text featuressentence structures and author’s message or theme. How CLOSE helps us remember those is really a leap of faith.

I absolutely understand the intentions behind using these – they are utterly well meaning. We desperately want to break down information for our pupils, and acronyms seem a good way of doing this. However, in breaking it down this way we often make common mistakes.

If we must use mnemonics like this, perhaps it is best to first ask the following question:

  • Am I trying to reduce the irreducible? For example, can this topic really be studied effectively using a formulaic approach? Or better still, should it be studied this way?

And if we then decide to use an acronym as a memory aide, it is important that every word represented in that acronym counts. Avoid deferring to a synonym because its initial fits the acronym more neatly – synonyms carry with them different meanings and so confuse what is needed. And then we should make sure that we don’t add extra information just so that we have letters that neatly spell out a word. This is unnecessarily deviating from the purpose of the acronym. Why would we want someone to remember something they don’t need to?

We need pupils to remember stuff. But perhaps we should be a bit more precise when using acronyms. In the battle to get pupils to remember, we have created these absolute curses of retention and organisation: needlessly yawing mnemonics.

Now if only there was a way I could remember that last statement…

I forget why I’m here: event boundaries in teaching and leading

Mark Dawe, Chief Executive of OCR exam board, said this week that he thought that pupils should be allowed to use Google in examinations.

I’d hope that the responses to this range from “that’s a bad idea” to “that’s a very, very bad idea.”

I was more interested in the motives behind the statement though. One wonders why Dawe would see this as a good thing? Does he think it is good for pupils? Or is it good for his exam board? It’s important to note that, whilst there are a diverse range of roles in the education sector, each role comes with its own drives and that these might change as one moves from one role to another. Dawe has worked in a number of roles in education, and I’m curious as to whether he thought pupils using Google in exams was a good idea when he was a principal of a school, or when he worked for the DfES? We don’t really know, of course, but I would hope not.

Not long after I’d recovered from Dawe’s bombshell, I witnessed a Twitter exchange between David Didau and an executive headteacher on the subject of leadership decision-making. David tweeted the exchange here:

In the ‘discussion’, the executive headteacher readily dismissed David’s polite and fair challenges on the basis that David himself was not a headteacher and couldn’t possibly understand or be in a position to question it: “When you’re not doing it, it’s hard to empathise”.

It’s an interesting view and it comes from an assumption that many of us are prone to make: You haven’t been in my position so any comment you make about it is invalid. Apart from this stance being a little tyrannical (note that I haven’t been an MP but it isn’t questioned that democracy allows me to hold MPs to account) there is also often a further implication when people take that slant, which is: have been in your position so my views are even more informed than yours.

I see these sorts of discussions between teachers and leaders time and again on social media. In such discussions it appears that a leader taking the above stance would hold all the cards: I can challenge your position because I’ve been in it; you can’t challenge mine because you haven’t been in it. In short, leaders can dismiss a teacher’s view because they can empathise with it; the reverse is not true.

But can someone really always empathise with a position they once held? What if once they’d moved away from that position, they forgot how they had thought and felt before?

This could actually be the case.

You know that thing where you walk into a room and realise, as you stare blankly at every surface in front of you, that you’ve forgotten why you went into that room in the first place? Well, this phenomenon is down to something that some psychologists call event boundaries. According to Gabriel Radvansky, a professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame:

“Entering or exiting through a doorway serves as an ‘event boundary’ in the mind, which separates episodes of activity and files them away. Recalling the decision or activity that was made in a different room is difficult because it has been compartmentalised.”

These event boundaries are not only spatial. They can also be created temporally or when circumstances change. So could event boundaries be created when people move into different roles in schools? Might it be plausible that a classroom teacher crosses an event boundary when taking on a leadership role? And in such a case, does the mind compartmentalise the thoughts and feelings of the self as a classroom teacher and lock them away in an obscure corner of the memory?

Obviously, this is just supposition on my part. There are plenty of great leaders in education who clearly empathise with their former classroom teacher self. But are there just as many who find it difficult to remember?

Here’s an example. When one takes on a departmental leadership role, the pressure for exam results really comes to the fore. For the humble class teacher, whilst these are important, the weight of them doesn’t bear down so stiflingly. As such, the classroom teacher can make decisions in a far less utilitarian way: in English, this might mean choosing books to study because (as I wrote about recently) they allow pupils to take part in the ‘conversation of mankind’ (the books are culturally significant), or that they present a purposeful challenge. A utilitarian leader, weighed down by the pressure of exam results and having crossed the event boundary from classroom teacher to their current position, may forget their earlier ideals and choose books based on how easily it will get pupils through the exam.

But if we are slaves to event boundaries, how can we ensure we are consistent to our former selves? (Aside: you might wonder if we always want to be?) Well, as in the case of our executive headteacher, perhaps he needs to consider the challenge that David Didau offered before dismissing it out of hand as he did. Isn’t it vital that leaders contemplate the ideas and views of classroom teachers? For one thing, they might be really useful. But they might actually also be echoing the pre-event boundary views of the leaders themselves, ideas that had been hidden away by memory. Meaningful discussions between teachers and leaders is not only a breach of any boundaries between those teachers and leaders, it could also be a breach of the boundaries of memory.

Yesterday’s OED word of the day was the beautiful citramontane, meaning ‘this side of the mountains’. It’s opposing term is ultramontane: ‘the other side of the mountains’.

The decisions and comments made by people in positions of power – be it heads of exam boards or executive headteachers – might be better informed with some ultramontane thought: cross the mountains and listen to what people are saying. It might be a useful reminder of an idea or ideal we once held dear.