Whose knowledge is it, anyway?

Note 1: This post is geared specifically at Australian readers. If you are reading this in the UK, I am assuming that you will have some knowledge of knowledge organisers based on the writing of Joe Kirby, James Theobold, Kris Boulton, Barbara Bleiman, etc. This post, however, will discuss the utility of knowledge organisers at A Level, which may be of interest.

Note 2: This post is intended to accompany a presentation for the upcoming VATE conference prepared by my colleague Emily Fitzpatrick and myself.

Consider the following scenario, that you most probably face every single day: you are working with a capable student who has reached a plateau with their essay writing and has asked you for extra help. What, realistically, should you attempt to address? Their content knowledge, or their written expression? If we flip the scenario, let’s consider what your student is most likely trying to juggle when constructing an essay:

  • Linking their ideas to key words from the question
  • Applying feedback from a previous essay
  • Managing their time
  • Avoiding repetition
  • Trying to remember small details (correct spelling of a character’s name, remembering possessive apostrophes, etc.)
  • Trying to remember how to use new or more sophisticated vocabulary
  • Trying to remember a quote from a particular scene
  • Trying to remember what literary devices are being used

As writers such as Joe Kirby have commented, a ‘Knowledge Organiser’ is a potentially powerful way for students and teachers to address some of these challenges. I first came across them a couple of years ago when a former colleague mentioned Joe Kirby’s blog post in a department meeting. We trialed their use with our Year 12 VCE English classes (equivalent to A Level in the UK) and were quietly impressed with both their popularity among our students and their effectiveness in helping improve our examination performance. To give you some context, our department had seen a gradual decline in its average study scores for English over several years: from a high of 35 in 2011, falling to 34 by 2013, to 32 by 2015. During this same period, the average ATAR scores and study scores for the school had risen year on year. Six months after we rolled out the use of knowledge organisers at Year 12, our 2016 VCE exam results came in: an average of 35.

So, was the mighty knowledge organiser the silver bullet? No, obviously, but the strong correlation between their introduction and these results (especially given the fact that very few other variables were at play: much the same teachers each year, with much the same cohort ability as per previous NAPLAN scores, etc.) suggested that our use of knowledge organisers helped bring about an improvement in teaching, learning and revision overall. The reasons for this I will speculate on later. First, an overview of what a knowledge organiser is (and more importantly, what it is not) and how we used them.

What is a knowledge organiser?

Below is a snippet from the first page of a Macbeth knowledge organiser that my colleague Emily and I put together:

Macbeth KO 1

Although it may appear to be dense with detail, this is because it is intended to be used from Year 10 to VCE level and requires a little more depth of detail than the examples offered via Joe Kirby’s blog. Before I explain the rationale behind its construction, let me explain what this is not:

  • It is not Sparknotes, nor the Insight guide, nor Shmoop, nor any other study guide simply copied and pasted onto an A3 sheet.
  • It is not your own personal thesis listed onto an A3 sheet
  • It is not a recipe for spoonfeeding, for students to regurgitate word for word (this personal view may appear to conflict with the belief that knowledge organisers are primarily for self-quizzing)

What is it, therefore?

In my view, it is core text knowledge that is designed to work as a ‘springboard’ into a more detailed and conceptualised reading of a text. Elements of it can and should be used for quizzing purposes, but my belief is that the knowledge organiser should be used as a tool to improve writing, by enhancing both the depth and precision of a student’s content knowledge. I am still experimenting with a preferred format and sequential layout for a knowledge organiser (especially in terms of how characters relate to each other and embody the central tensions of a text), but for me a knowledge organiser should include both an ‘A side’ (core knowledge) and a ‘B side’ (essay structure):

A side elements:

  • the central themes or tensions (where possible expressed as assertions that can be developed and challenged)
  • character traits
  • conceptual vocabulary – especially abstract nouns that convey ideas
  • literary devices that characterise the style of the text
  • essential quotes – the ones that help form the most subtle and deep connections with other parts of the text

B side elements:

  • essay planning methods
  • essay structure outlines
  • key verbs and conjunctions to help develop analysis

 

How do you design one?

Ideally, in collaboration with your colleagues. My preferred process would be as follows:

  1. hold a discussion meeting with your colleagues, in which you decide upon the aims and outcomes of the unit of study and discuss the essential text knowledge and ideas that should be taught. Keep the following questions in mind: what should every student understand about the text to be able to do their justice on any essay topic, and what would help your strongest students branch out into the subtext of the text? Debate and agree upon what should be included on the knowledge organiser.
  2. Nominate one or two people to take these notes and write up the first draft of the knowledge organiser.
  3. Hold a final meeting in which you collectively edit and amend the draft, before one colleague refines the final edit.

It is the discussion and collaboration within this process that is key. Having every voice included as part of the process improves both the level of collective investment and the quality of the final edit. Crucially, it allows you to learn from each other. This year I have taught Measure for Measure for the first time. The best training I have received all year is listening to an experienced colleague of mine explain how he had taught the text previously and what subtle details were truly essential to understand the subtext of the play. This was only possible because we had scheduled a special planning meeting devoted to pooling our collective wisdom.

It does take time to create a knowledge organiser, but consider the following equation:

  • teaching lifespan of a VCE English text = 4 years
  • number of students in our cohort = 125 approx.
  • number of students who will benefit from this over time = 500

 

So, how might you use one to improve writing?

This is the essential question to consider. It is no use spending the time creating a knowledge organiser if all students do is file it away in their folders. Yet more importantly, a knowledge organiser is most effective when students and teachers view it as a springboard into the text. Over the last couple of years I have used the following strategies in conjunction with a knowledge organiser:

    1. Students write definitions on the sheet for vocabulary / terminology as you teach them. Use these keywords to build semantic maps, extending the conceptual vocabulary further. Model this with example words, e.g. power / hubris
    2. Set frequent recall quizzes on terminology / quotes / spellings, etc.
    3. Character mapping – use the character traits to flesh out character maps as you study the text. Build more detailed influences and connections maps as you do this
    4. Indexing the text – as you read, index key pages which focus on one of the central dilemmas listed on the knowledge organiser
    5. (After the first read-through) Colour-code the key quotes according to which dilemma(s) and tensions they reflect
    6. (After first read-through)​ Use QR links on the sheet to help build mind-maps on the central tensions. Add links to critical readings of the text
    7. Guided writing: 2+2 principle – set a paragraph topic and students must use 2 quotes from the KO + 2 additional quotes
    8. Flash card creation – to memorise quotes, students write 2 quotes on one side of the card + central dilemmas explored on the reverse. Minimum 20 quotes from the KO, with 20 additional quotes (creating at least 20 cards, with 40 quotes in total)
    9. Developing interpretations: take assertions from the central tensions and ask students to mind-map or write a paragraph exploring it in detail using quotes from the knowledge organiser or their cue cards
    10. Essay planning: students use the reverse side of the sheet every time they plan and write a practice essay.

 

Does it work?

In my view, yes, but for more complex correlative reasons than may first appear. I agree largely with the opinion of Barbara Bleiman that the more you consider this as a starting point for exploring the agenda of the writer, the more useful knowledge organisers become. Last year our English department saw a sharp upturn in exam results upon introducing knowledge organisers, but it is worth unpicking the complex reasons that might explain this:

  1. Creating them fostered close and consistent collaboration between the English team which led to improved subject knowledge and collective teacher efficacy
  2. Through creating them, we helped standardise a consistent approach to the way we taught writing
  3. Student content knowledge improved significantly, both in terms of their recall of key details and terms of how they were able to work outwards from the knowledge organiser into a consideration of the wider agenda of the writer
  4. It rather unexpectedly fostered stronger student cooperation than before – students were able to work with peers in other English classes by using the knowledge organiser as a starting point for their own discussions and debates within their study groups. This level of truly collaborative learning was, for me, the most exciting development of the year. Our students were no longer tied to their individual teachers, but were able to form their own revision groups – think of it as a ‘knowledge squared’ approach.

 

VATE Presentation

At VATE, Emily and I will help guide you through how to create one and how you might use them effectively in more detail. If you are coming along, we would be delighted to see you there.

Here are a couple of resources you may find useful:

Macbeth Knowledge Organiser

Knowledge Organiser Template V1

 

 

 

 

On improving essays – the line of argument

Over the last few years, I have been trying to encourage my students to improve their essay writing by sharpening their initial thinking about any essay topic. Time and time again I read essays which, while offering reasonable text knowledge and written expression, suffer from a weak line of argument. All too often, the introduction is a simple restatement of the essay topic, the body paragraphs list three or four separate ideas covering key terms in the topic, while the conclusion repeats back the introduction. Enough for a C or lower B grade, perhaps, but insufficient to really demonstrate sophistication in thinking. To compound this further, much of the guidance published in official VCE English study guides struggles to make absolutely explicit more effective approaches to essay planning. Take, for example, the current edition of the Insight guide to VCE English:

‘Paragraphs should flow well and be linked through a logical progression of ideas that develop the argument.’

Robert Beardwood, English Year 12, Insight Publications (2016), p.67

There is very little to object to in this advice. It is logical and straightforward. Elsewhere in the same book, there is good advice on how to interrogate a topic and generate ideas. Yet it is not enough by itself to prevent students from following mechanical approaches to topics which run the risk of listing disconnected ideas. Additionally, students are still left with the challenge of working out what ‘flow well’ actually means in practice.

So, how do we make the implicit explicit in this case? The first stage is to take the proposition in an essay topic and convert it into a problem by applying the question stem, ‘Is it true that… ?’

(Is it true that…) ‘In Stasiland, Funder exposes a world both cruel and absurd’ (?)

Essay topic adapted from the 2015 VCE English examination.

By converting the proposition into a problem, students are now led to create an initial ‘Yes, because… but…’ argument. This instantly forms an effective overall contention and suggests the overall thrust of the essay. Now all that is left is to work though two procedures:

  1. brainstorm definitions of key words to generate relevant text examples
  2. form the line of argument by expanding upon the contention

The line of argument is my main area of interest. To create greater complexity in their line of argument, I have begun to encourage my students to adapt the Aristotelian process of narration – affirmation – refutation in their planning. If we return to the students’ initial contention we can then expand it into the following thinking sequence:

  1. (Narration): Initial problem established by the writer (Yes, because…)
  2. (Affirmation): Consequences of this problem for people / places (Consequently…)
  3. (Refutation): How this problem is resolved / unresolved (However…)

While this obeys the classic five-paragraph essay structure, it can form as many body paragraphs as is required to satisfactorily address the essay topic. Crucially, it takes the standard method of brainstorming separate ideas and arranges them into a linear argument. This is one way to improve ‘flow’. Below is an example of one of my current Year 12 student’s writing on Measure for Measure. For her practice coursework task (closed book, written under exam conditions) this was the introduction and opening body paragraph:

Neve Measure essay page 1

Neve Measure essay page 2

While this is by no means perfect, there is a real sense of the student trying to illuminate the essential problem proposed by the essay topic. Please note also that this is not one of my strongest students; she would ordinarily be regarded as a grade B candidate. Given how hard she is working, and how readily she is willing to apply more sophisticated thinking routines, I have high hopes for her eventual exam performance.

It has been an enjoyable process over the last couple of years trying to continually pare down the planning process to this point. My students can now (generally) draw up a clear line of argument in an essay plan, with clearly identified examples, in around 5-6 minutes, which is pretty good.

On using marking codes for VCE English essays

‘That’s him pushing the stone up the hill, the jerk. I call it a stone – it’s nearer the size of a kirk. When he first started out, it just used to irk, but now it incences me, and him, the absolute berk.’

Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Mrs Sisyphus’

 

Marking has always been for me, I confess, something of an onerous task. Time-consuming, draining, laborious and – to be brutally honest with myself – quite ineffective at advancing learning.

Over the last few years my use of verbal feedback and continual checking for understanding has developed enormously. I frequently use hinge questions, multiple choice quizzes, thinking routines, exit tickets, bursts of silent writing where I circulate around the room and add instant comments while pupils write, etc. Through this, I have become reasonably effective at preventing major misconceptions from creeping into essays before they are submitted. That said, marking full VCE essays remains my metaphorical boulder. I have always been guilty of over-marking essays with the usual litany of methods: highlighting errors, comments in the margins, SMART targets at the end of the piece with a summative comment, etc. In part, this is because it was the default expectation of teachers when I first entered the profession, reinforced by the then expectations of Ofsted (The UK national inspectorate).

It took me a long time to fully face up to the one question that every English teacher should ask themselves when they are about to pick up their red pen:

How exactly is that mark on the page going to help the student improve?

Much recent discussion of marking, such as from Jo Facer at Michaela school in the UK, argues eloquently in favour of not writing comments on students’ work and instead on prioritising continual whole class feedback on common errors and weaknesses. There is a great deal of merit (and sanity) in that approach and I have begun to use it increasingly with Years 7-9 classes, often with single paragraph pieces. I will share my own methodology on this in a future post. (For a more comprehensive review of feedback approaches, the recent EEF report is essential reading.) That said, for VCE English essays I still find it difficult to ‘let go’ of marking and have sought to find a balance between offering a clear indicator of what to address while minimising my annotations themselves. As a consequence, over the last couple of years I have experimented with two different feedback approaches: marking codes and mastery grids.

I first began using marking codes back in 2010, when I was appointed Head of English at Silcoates School in the UK. One of my colleagues, Russell Carey, was Chief Assessor for the Cambridge IGCSE Literature exam paper and explained to me their process of using internal marking codes for assessing pupil scripts. We rolled this out across the department to create a consistent system of annotating work (Brief aside: Ask yourself this question: what does a tick on a page actually mean to a pupil? Do they know? Do all teachers mean the same thing when they tick work?), and pupils appreciated the continuity as they moved through year levels and between teachers.

When I moved to Australia in 2013, I had to learn the VCE system and appreciate the subtle differences in approaches to essay writing here. Consequently, my well-honed system of marking codes for GCSE and A Level responses was forgotten and I reverted back to default mode: lots of generalised comments, ticks and summary targets, with very little class time devoted to re-writes. Having now assessed the VCE English examination for the last two years, I feel more confident in my judgements of quality and have worked out the most common errors I try to correct via annotations. The EEF report offers this summary finding on the need to distinguish between errors (fundamental misconceptions) and mistakes (carelessness) when marking:

‘Careless mistakes should be marked differently to errors resulting from misunderstanding. The latter may be best addressed by providing hints or questions which lead pupils to underlying principles; the former by simply marking the mistake as incorrect, without giving the right answer.’

A link to my new marking codes sheet can be found here:

Marking codes feedback sheet

My workflow when using this is as follows:

  1. Skim read the essay to quickly spot major errors, then close read. Ticks on relevant points and circling SPAG mistakes
  2. After reading, highlight the most pressing 5-6 errors on the piece and assign a code in the margin
  3. Write a ‘one quick win’ target on the bottom of the piece, trying to make the target as absolutely specific as possible.

Time taken per essay (800-1000 words) = 9 minutes

As I mark the essays, I keep a Word document open and dot point any major conceptual or knowledge problems that form a pattern among the class. An example of a summary sheet I give out can be found here (Note: I am teaching Measure for Measure this year for Text Response). The feedback lesson then runs as follows:

  1. Explain and correct the main conceptual errors to the whole class
  2. Show 2x examples of the best writing and annotate why they are strong
  3. Give pupils around 20 minutes to read through their essays, process the codes and write their corrections on the essay itself. I circulate and conference with students as they work on this.

The major strengths of this approach, for me, are:

  • Time saved – around 6 minutes per essay (It would ordinarily take me 15 minutes per essay)
  • Efficiency – I no longer write out the same annotations twenty-odd times
  • DIRT (Directed Improvement and Reflection Time) – students have to act on the feedback, with dedicated time set aside for this

Marking codes are not without their challenges, however, with the main ones being that students often struggle to write meaningful corrections due to poor text knowledge or weak expression. It is essential that the codes are as specific as possible, too, since they replace individualised comments (Note: I am still very much in the process of refining these). Over time, my VCE classes have gotten used to the system and have become more willing to think through their errors.

This year, I decided to pilot a mastery grid approach with my Y12 class to compare it against marking codes. Dylan Wiliam describes one method of using them in Embedded Formative Assessment, pages 122-127. I have taken the general principle of a mastery grid and adapted it for tracking structural components of essays. You can find a copy of it here:

Mastery grid feedback sheet

The marking process I use is more or less the same as for the codes sheet. This time, however, I am aiming to offer a relative indicator of quality for the major structural and technical aspects of their essays (each element still contains a letter code which I can add in the margins to signal that a correction is needed). Interestingly, the majority of my students prefer this system because they can gauge both how good each essay is overall and how each skill is developing across a series of essays. The major challenge with it is that without the use of explicit marking codes, students need to be provided with far more ‘worked examples’ of successful and weaker pieces for students to really engage with the self-correction.

Neither of these systems is perfect and a claim can be made that marking codes and mastery grids offer little tangible benefit over traditional annotation and correction. Ultimately, you have to ask yourself: what compromise are you prepared to accept? For me, these methods offer better written feedback than before in less time.

 

If you feel that this post has been helpful or useful in any way, please let me know in the comments section. I would be particularly keen to hear any suggestions for improvement you may have, or any alternative approaches you may use.

Edit: Based on Emily’s comment, I will also include links to my feedback sheets for Argument Analysis. If you use any of my materials, please let me know how well (or badly!) it worked for you.

Argument Analysis Marking Codes Sheet

Argument Analysis Mastery Grid Sheet