How specifying the knowledge has really helped all our learners

In this blogpost, Richard Kennett shares his department’s work to focus on core knowledge at A level. The approach could be applied at other levels. This sort of curriculum conversation leading to development is what we want to share on #OBHD. Please share your work too and meanwhile follow @histassoc and find more support via 


The problem of a lack of A* grades

Last summer when we checked the A-Level results in mid-August our history team was a little disappointed. We only had one A* grade out of two classes. This was not what we predicted. In September we recalled a few exam papers from students who got an A grade and also borrowed a few A* scripts from our colleagues in other Bristol schools. What made the difference became apparent pretty quickly – knowledge. Our students wrote as well as their peers at a different Bristol school. They used the same structure. They could argue equally as well and there was no difference in the style or flair in their writing. What made a difference was that the A* students used bags loads of knowledge to support their argument. It was in greater depth than our students and often the A* students used a greater range than our students. We needed to do something about this.


The solution of core knowledge sheets

We discussed as a team whether the textbooks went far enough and actually realised that they did. The A* students from the other school had not really used any knowledge that was not in the textbooks. We needed to make it clear that we expected students to learn more and remember more. We needed to help our students pick through the jungle that is the structure of the A-Level books to find the fruit they needed to use in their essays. Thus the core knowledge sheets were born.

In essence we decided to split the two courses we teach (Tsarist and Communist Russia and the Tudor church) into sensible chronological periods. For the Russian half I split the 1855 to 1964 into nine periods spanning a clear bit of the story, for example the rule of Alexander III (1881 to 1894). For each of these periods we then defined with pinpoint precision the knowledge the students needed to know for that bit of the course. Below is the first half of the Alexander III sheet (or click here for the full 1917 one).

Screenshot (28)

The sheets were split into clear sections (for example the start of Alexander’s reign) which were introduced with an opening sentence to set the tone and theme, and then followed by bullet points to detail the knowledge. Often the knowledge was defined in great detail, for example that there were 332 cases of resistance in 1888. Additionally, all the keywords and facts were highlighted in bold. In short, these were text heavy knowledge organisers. We used the textbooks to create them and supplemented them with our own knowledge from reading and three years of exams under our belts.


How we used the core knowledge sheets

Students were given core knowledge sheets at the start of each section of the course and then we used them in the following ways:

  • We often used them in questioning, e.g. “Oscar can you remember what the name of the secret police was that Alexander III created? It is on core sheet 2.”
  • We used them as starters for our lessons with simple slides saying “Core Knowledge from the last two lessons”.
  • We set regular revision activities for Home Learning and have created bespoke online quizzes using Google Forms that test this knowledge and self mark.
  • In class we do paper knowledge tests at the end of each period. These tests are cumulative, so Test 2 tests the knowledge from Sheet 1 and Sheet 2,


What was the impact of these sheets?

The impact of these sheets was pretty immediate with students using far more knowledge in their essays. We have noticed students remembering far more and feeling more secure in using this in class discussions too. Higher prior attaining students have been producing better essays which are now packed with the level of knowledge that the A* essays we saw in the summer had. But what has been far more interesting is the unintended impact with lower prior attaining students. These students often feel overwhelmed by the textbooks which are quite wordy but these sheets give them the confidence that they don’t need to know everything because we have defined the body of knowledge they need to know. It has made our expectations clear that knowledge is important and as a result this has genuinely helped all our learners.

It has taken a lot of effort to define the body of knowledge for the whole course but this effort will only be needed once. Next year we have all the sheets, quizzes and tests ready to go. Whilst I was a little concerned that we would be spoon feeding the students and limited their learning, actually the opposite has happened. As students have a secure foundation of knowledge more students than ever have been completing wider reading, engaging with historians like Orlando Figes, in a way that I think they were not confident in doing in the past.

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