Knowledge Organisation

There was all kinds of fuss and frustration expressed by individuals earlier in the year, when several teachers started extolling the virtues of Knowledge Organisers.

A quick Google for this will reveal several examples of these on Google Images.

Most of the criticism was asinine, in some cases seeming to go out of its way to be obtuse.  For example, one criticism I can recall was ‘But pupils need to learn more than this!’ at a time that precisely no-one had claimed otherwise, and most had expressed how they were using knowledge organisers as a tool to develop schema forming (e.g. through self-quizzing key factual knowledge outside of lesson time, so the teacher could focus on fleshing out further knowledge, relationships, interpretations etc. during lessons.)

This is unfortunate, because it is possible to levy real criticism at knowledge organisers.

Another way of putting it would be to question whether knowledge organisers are just the first step in a greater journey of expanding our understanding of knowledge organisation, more broadly.

Organising Structures

Frederick Reif defines three kinds of knowledge organisation:

  1. Associative network
  2. List
  3. Hierarchy

The first is how our mind works.  Concepts are associated with other concepts through some relationship.


Lists are exactly what they sound like.  A list has a heading, and then its sub-points simply continue in length.  If more than one list is presented, the assumption is that there is no real relationship between them:


A hierarchy can be thought of as a series of lists connected by grouping or categorisation.  E.g. Susan is one example of ‘human beings,’ which are collectively one example of ‘mammals,’ which are collectively one example of ‘life forms’…


Reif argues that hierarchies are the most desirable structure – associative networks are difficult to mentally navigate, and lists have too little organising structure, being little more than a single grouping.

These are not the only ways of organising knowledge, a quick glance through the work of Nancy Duarte will quickly reveal that.


Or even just taking a look at MS Smart Art:


Siegfried Engelmann also has a fascinating series of principles around how knowledge should be organised and presented to learners, but that’s a story for another day.


The reasonable criticism that I think can be levelled at Knowledge Organisers, as they currently stand, is that they all seem to be making use of the list structure, and only the list structure.

This doesn’t mean they will be ineffective, not at all, but it does mean they might be less effective than they could be.

By ‘less effective,’ I mean it might take a learner more time to commit the facts to long-term memory, that they might do so with lesser storage strength, and that the relationships between the facts will be weaker, than if an alternative structure were adopted.

Note: Before I go any further, it’s worth noting that I can also see very good reasons for constructing knowledge organisers the way that everyone is constructing them, and I’ll speak to that at the end.


For now, I’m going to use a single example to talk through this, characters in The Tempest.

I finally saw this for the first time last month, and set about learning the plot and characters so that I could follow what was happening on stage.  SparkNotes presents character information as a list, similar to how it would be presented in a conventional Knowledge Organiser:


While reviewing this, I found I had to do a lot of mental work to formulate a mental image of who was whom, and how they related to one another.  I voluntarily undertook that work, but it would be easy for this to be presented to a child who didn’t automatically undertake that effortful work, or didn’t know how to, or struggled to hold and process everything in working memory simultaneously.

In that instance, the pupil would only see a list of unrelated loosely connected names, and wouldn’t develop the mental schema of how they relate to one another – it would resemble the so-called ‘rote learning’ that many teachers viscerally fear.

An alternative would be to present the information like this (click for larger image):


Here, relationships between characters are made explicit.  Size of box and colour show relative importance of the character in the play, and hint at who to read about first.  Ultimately, this is the mental schema we would want pupils to construct in their own mind; by laying it out transparently we guarantee success for everyone.

Note: I had wanted to try to follow Reif’s advice and construct a hierarchy, but for something like this there didn’t seem to be a useful way of grouping the relationships into ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ levels.  Anything I might have chosen – e.g. relationship to one another, importance in play, proximity on stage – all fell apart when trying to bring the groups together.

Pros and Cons

The associative network I drew, above, has some drawbacks.

If presented altogether, it is probably more overwhelming – more likely to induce cognitive overload – than the list; where do you start reading?  What do you read next?  etc.  (I ran into this problem a few times when trying to present several different overviews of all of mathematics to pupils – it was always too much information shared at once, and I didn’t see that they couldn’t possibly navigate it the way that I did.)

This can be overcome by introducing it to pupils in stages – something that Engelmann would do e.g. Start by showing only Prospero’s box, then the Orange Boxes…  However, this restricts its utility as a self-quizzing tool, something that pupils can make use of independently of teachers (indeed, Engelmann’s chapter on knowledge organisation assumes that the information is being presented to pupils by a teacher.)  It also limits its ability to serve as a single sheet of paper, given to pupils at the start of a new sequence of lessons, that presents all the most important facts in a given unit.

It’s a lot more difficult to construct: prone to perfectionism, and consumes much more time than a simple list.

Finally the benefit of the spatial layout is offset by its consumption of space – you can fit far less information into the same space.


As I said right from the start, there are good reasons that Knowledge Organisers are being constructed the way they are, and their utility and ease of construction means that probably shouldn’t be abandoned.

There are alternative structures, though, that could increase the probability of a given child’s speed in committing facts to memory, the storage strength and enduring retrieval strength of those facts, and their knowledge of the relationships between the facts.

It would be interesting to see the results if teachers started to experiment with these structures, in addition to the list.


About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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11 Responses to Knowledge Organisation

  1. BunsenBlue says:

    Perhaps the list structures could be given initially, and as the teacher explains different concepts, the associative networks could then be shared? In this way, the benefits of both types are gained, with the temporal spacing serving to overcome the limitations of the associative network.

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Good idea! If I remember right, I think Engelmann recommends something similar to what you’re suggesting, in some cases – start with a simple list, then continue to expand it in time. I’ll tweet out some screenshots from this part of the book.

  2. oliver caviglioli says:

    Great post Kris. Much needed development to the current discussion around KO. I wrote an article ten years ago about the deduction/induction options when individual items have to be categorised. There is an example of an Induction Tower which I’ll post on Twitter. Here is the article (don’t forget the times in which it was written!):
    Inductive Tower
    Column for Teaching Thinking and Creativity magazine

    Oliver Caviglioli May 2007

    What is inductive thinking?
    You could say that there are only two main types of thinking we can do: deductive or inductive. Deductive thinking is where you move from principles, rules or general concepts down to particular, specific items. This characterises what is termed traditional teaching. Teachers explain rules and principles to their pupils and give them the task of applying them. So, for example, as a child, I was taught a grammatical principle and then spent half an hour or so going through exercises applying it. And so on.

    Inductive thinking, by contrast, goes in the opposite direction. You start with specifics and move towards the general. Step–by–step, in exploratory manner, hypothesising and searching out what the over–arching principles are, based on reasoning and experimentation. Perfect for dialogue (see my article in this edition called I Hear What You Say, and See What You Mean).

    Which is better? Now that’s a very interesting question. I guess the overwhelming majority of the articles that have appeared in this magazine advocate inductive thinking. And for good reasons. There’s a far greater chance of pupils being deeply engaged and questioning with this mode of thinking. Former head of the Standards and Effectiveness DfES department, David Hopkins, was once part of a team that demonstrated this and its impact on achievement. They reported their findings in their book called Models of Learning—Tools for Teaching (Joyce et al 2000).

    Yet inductive thinking isn’t always the best strategy to adopt. In fact, Robert Marzano (Marzano 2001) found that deductive techniques fared better overall than inductive teaching in raising achievement (p.106). It’s simply a question of using the appropriate tool for the job. There’s little point in children constantly having to re–discover existing knowledge. In my case as a child, inventing or discovering the rules of grammar would have been a waste of time. So, choose carefully when you want to schedule inductive activities.

    So what’s an Inductive Tower?
    You’ll have noticed that the names of most visual tools don’t give you an indication of what they’re for. This one does. It’s a visual tool that directly supports inductive thinking by building up the stages, or steps, of moving from specifics to overall concept or principle. And being a tower, each step is clearly defined and open to questioning. With an inductive tower, there’s no chance of jumping to conclusions without justifying your reasoning.

    And what’s its purpose?
    The purpose of this visual tool, like many others, is to categorise. In this sense it is identical in function to tree diagrams and model maps. But its different graphic format ensures the process of categorisation takes place inductively and, most importantly, explicitly and in graduated steps.

    It places the emphasis on conjecture, either alone or, more powerfully, in dialogue with others. By making hypotheses about the meaning of what you are working with at the start of an inductive tower, you are constantly searching for overarching principles that bind certain individual items together. You are conceptualising. And having to justify it.

    So how is an inductive tower made?
    I’ll talk you through the stages by referring to the illustration on global warming. As you can see, at the bottom, are a series of objective measures on certain aspects of the environment. Write these known items, facts or observations at the bottom line, side by side.

    Now comes the inductive thinking. If working with pupils, encourage them to draw lines connecting certain of these items on the bottom line if they seem to have something in common. Experiment, as there may well be several alternative ways in which they are similar. When the group of pupils has agreed, affirming the reasons for the decision, start them articulating a concise way of capturing this higher order, shared component. This establishes the next, second level. In the case of the illustration you can see that Ice Shelves dropping chunks of ice has, obviously, been identified as what was happening to both the Larsen ice shelf and the Ward ice shelf. In the case of the other base line items, there was no grouping together at the next level up. What did happen was a higher level of description. The box Oil, Coal, Gas was further refined by the description Burning Fossil Fuels.

    This process continues, as you will be able to follow by reading the visual tool from upwards towards the top. It culminates at the concept Global Warming melting the ice caps.

    Finally, when is it useful to use an inductive tower?
    Although inductive thinking is strongly associated with the scientific method, it need not be restricted to this subject. Whenever you want your pupils to think through an issue and question assumptions, try an inductive tower. And do it with a group of pupils. As my article on dialogue explains, using a visual tool such as this one will
    • Slow down impulsive responses
    • Expose jumping to conclusions
    • Establish meaning making
    • Demonstrate and record the group’s thinking
    • Demand reasons and explanations for assertions
    • Scaffold logic thinking in graduated steps
    • Encourage curiosity and hypothesising
    • Support rigour in critique while avoiding personal sensitivities.

    Joyce, B et al (2000) Models of Learning—Tools for Teaching, Buckingham: Open University Press
    Marzano, R. et al (2001) Classroom Instruction That Works, Alexandra, USA; ASCD

    • Kris Boulton says:

      The induction/deduction choice is an interesting one. Engelmann’s methods are predominantly, though not entirely, inductive. The power and limitations of providing a description of a concept are laid out well by Reif (mostly just that while the generalisation obviously contains all of the specifics within it, for a novice, it’s very difficult to see how, and they tend to fail to apply the generalisation correctly.) So in Engelmann’s framework, the inductive approach isn’t about exploration, discovery or reasoning, it’s just the simpler starting point that’s more likely to lead to later success, including the ability to apply the generalised form.

      It’s something I’d like to read more first hand research about. Might take a look at the Marzano paper.

  3. Peps Mccrea says:

    Important contribution. I’ve always argued that the structure (connections between things) IS the content (or at least part of it).

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Agreed. I often say that ‘understanding’ is a function of knowledge and relationships between. The more you have of both, the more understanding, and it never ends – you never ‘understand,’ job done.

  4. What an interesting post, Kris.

    I agree with BunsenBlue that there is a role for both lists and graphics. I suppose the key issue is working out what types of information are best conveyed visually or in lists.

    For me seeing the relationships between the characters visually was very useful and would have taken quite a bit of mental effort to construct for myself. However I think I prefer to read the detail about characters in a list format.

    I very much agree that knowledge organisers could benefit from more visual elements. For example, the plot of the Tempest could be depicted using a timeline. And different categorisations of characters could be shown in a table, which I would argue is a list/visual hybrid.

    I am not involved in the education world but here are some general thoughts stimulated by Frederick Reif’s book Applying Cognitive Science to Education. (I came across the book via one of Oliver Caviglioli’s tweets and found it very useful in developing the concept of multi-level summaries, which I have applied to non-fiction books here –

    What I took from Reif’s book is not that information within individual clusters of knowledge (in this discussion, knowledge organisers) necessarily needs to be organised hierarchically but that it is best for different clusters of knowledge to be related to each other hierarchically.

    As he writes on page 146: “It is helpful if the knowledge within each cluster is also organized in an easily manageable way. (For example, it might be organized hierarchically in some clusters, or organized in different useful ways in some other clusters.)”

    1. PositivTeacha has written a fascinating blog post – – about how his students have benefitted from being taught a simple timeline showing the different literary movements that have developed since the Industrial Revolution and explaining how they came into being in response to political, economic and social change and as a reaction against previous writers.

    I am sure that having that simple visual timeline and an explanation of the wider context (ie. moving up a hierarchical level) doesn’t just make learning more interesting but also allows more sophisticated insights into the work of individual writers.

    2. Frederick Reif uses the analogy of different levels of detail within geographical maps to illustrate his concept of hierarchical knowledge organisation. For example, if one is looking at a general map of London, one can go up hierarchical levels to see where London is in relation to the south-east or the UK as a whole. Alternatively one can use more detailed maps to go down hierarchical levels and explore specific parts of London.

    It may be that individual knowledge organisers could be made more effective if they become hierarchically organised.

    Below is just one way of showing how organisers could be linked at different levels of detail.

    a) the top level could give a visual summary of all the different areas of the curriculum for one subject that are going to be worked on over a year or even for the whole examination.

    b) each of the areas could then have its own summary organiser page showing the individual categories that comprise it and providing some key points for each of the categories.

    Taking your example of The Tempest, there could be a summary of all the key categories that are going to be looked at eg. the characters, the plot, the main themes, the key facts, the language, how the play fits in with Shakespeare’s other plays etc.

    c) Finally, each of these categories would have its own detailed knowledge organiser page providing a mixture of lists and graphics.

    This would allow students to move between the big picture and the detail easily.

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Mr Miller – an honour to hear from you! I’ve been using your guidance on multi-level summaries to structure a book I’m trying to write at the moment. I would love to show you how I’ve used them so far and get your thoughts, if you wouldn’t mind?

      Also great reminder about the detail of what Reif said. It’s always interesting what we take away and retain, versus what is *actually* said. One thing I found a little disappointing about the book was that he clearly attempted to apply his recommendations about organisation and summarising… but it didn’t quite work. The paragraph level summaries, for example, didn’t really add very much for me.

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