What do students need to remember?

In an excellent blog on Knowledge Organisers in Primary Schools Jon Brunskill has outlined how he uses Knowledge Organisers.

Knowledge Organisers are an overview curriculum document that serves three purposes.

  1. As a planning tool for the teacher.
  2. As a resource for the child and parent.
  3. As an assessment tool.

A knowledge organiser is a summary document that tells teachers, students and parents exactly what students need to know by the end of the unit. Students are expected to commit the knowledge organiser to memory.

Here is the example Jon used.


I’m unsure of the need for students to commit so much detail to memory.

In the Google age, how important is it to know the significance of July 20th, 1969. Perfect for trivia nights but is it powerful to know?

What about Nov 16th, 2011.

Is the date the Apollo 11 crew were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour worthy of committing to memory? I think not. 

That is one of our dilemmas. How much content, in how much detail do we want students to remember?

In Victoria, Australia where I teach, we are increasingly allowing students to bring resource materials into to the final exams. For example in Maths students can bring in a textbook to their final exam. In Physics students can have a double sided A3 page of notes, often referred to as a “cheat sheet”. Students load this up with every equation and definition needed. In effect, they produce a Knowledge Organiser that they can use during the exam.

Why do we ask students to commit the knowledge organiser to memory?

The logical consequence of “open book” exams or letting students have the knowledge organiser with them during the test is the type of questions we ask. There is no point asking students “What is Newton’s Second Law of Motion?” They will just copy that off their Knowledge Organiser that they have with them. That means we must ask more high order questions; questions that students cannot just “look up” on the Knowledge Organiser. Questions that involve analysis and synthesis of information rather than recall. If you look at a Victorian Year 12 Physics exam, it is all from higher levels of Blooms Taxonomy. That is a desirable consequence of greater access to resources in exams.

Learning should be more than who can commit the most facts to memory. It should be about who can solve problems using those facts.

Will education evolve to the point where students will have access to Google in an exam?

That is a real challenge for exam writers. Design questions students can’t Google the answer to.

Jon’s summative assessment piece for this Apollo 11 unit is “to write an information text and great information texts are precise, detailed and accurate.

I agree this is a success criterion for informational texts but who sits and writes an informational text without access to information? It is not a task that is done under test conditions. Why wouldn’t you let the students have the knowledge organiser in front of them when they are producing the information text?

But let me argue against myself here.

The Sea of Tranquillity was on the knowledge organiser for the Unit.

An educated person should know where it is. Yes, Google tells you it is on the moon, but a quality education system should embed that knowledge in all students’ long-term memory. They should have “Sea of Tranquillity” in their long term memory ready to be brought to bare whenever needed.

Why did “The Eagle” touch down in the Sea of Tranquillity ?

Try answering that question with no prior knowledge!

Here is where the real dilemma starts. Which bits of knowledge are essential for students to have in long term memory and which are we happy for Google to provide for them?

I always tell staff to abdicate the responsibility of this important decision. It is not ours to make. Better minds than ours should have done this job for us. The people that write the curriculum we teach should have done this for us.

In some systems they have. I know the KIPP schools have an incredibly detailed curriculum with the essential knowledge clearly spelt out.

In Australia the curriculum is fluffy. It leaves so much up to individual schools to interpret what actually needs to be taught.

Here is a statement from the Science Curriculum.

The transmission of heritable characteristics from one generation to the next involves DNA and genes.

That is what I have to teach our Year 9 and 10 students about genetics. That is as much detail as the curriculum document provides.

How much detail should I go into?

Dominant, Recessive, Phenotype, Genotype, Co-dominance, Nucleotides, Frameshift mutations, DNA Transcription and Translation, The Hardy-Weinberg Equation.

It is up to individual schools to decide how to interpret that statement. A knowledge organiser like the one above would make life far easier for all concerned.

But staff then squawk loudly. “There is too much content. We are just covering content all the time and not doing deep learning”. When I ask them what deep learning is, they can’t tell me.

How much content is too much content is a discussion that will keep teachers in faculty meetings for years. I will never recover the time spent in meetings we have wasted on whether Year 10 students need to know the difference between Co-dominant Inheritance and Incomplete Dominance or whether we need to teach either.

What to leave in and what to leave out of the curriculum will never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

So back to knowledge organisers.

They clearly show what has been left in the curriculum.

That is a valuable thing. If, for no other reason, this makes them a worthwhile artefact.

Do students need to commit what is on the knowledge organiser to memory?

Here is one view:

Don’t make knowledge the enemy of thinking. To apply, explore and predict we need lots of knowledge and this knowledge needs to be remembered. (Daisy Christodoulou)

I am convinced that to apply, explore and predict we need lots of knowledge. 

I’m not as convinced the knowledge needs to be recalled rather than just recognised.

3 thoughts on “What do students need to remember?

  1. I’d agree with lots of what you say here. In my blog quoting Jon’s blog I highlighted the point that these are 6 year old children. Learning full dates seems an odd thing to prioritise at the age of 6 to me. I would also involve the children in deciding what they were most interested in learning or thinking about.


  2. Thanks for the blog – and the dilemma. You mentioned the “Google it” factor but I am also struggling with the “Siri it” factor. What difference will (should) it make to the axiom when we have information available ‘on demand’? Geroge Siemens offers us the idea of connectivism – that we will be able to devolve some of the functions of long-term memory (which we know if unreliable) to more reliable cloud-based systems.

    Advocates of the “memorise lots of stuff” model tend to focus on the idea of the shift from short-term to long-term memory using a very simple model of the mind. They tend to gloss over other established characteristics of long-term memory – its unreliability, errors and biases.

    So, like you “I am convinced that to apply, explore and predict we need lots of knowledge.” but I would possibly amend your final sentence to, “I’m not as convinced the knowledge needs to be recalled exactly and accurately rather than just signposted and then accessible to be checked.”

    So what we need (and where KO’s may be useful) is schema for learning not the details as the details can be accessed quickly and easily. Education is not the same as a pub quiz.

    Liked by 1 person

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