3. Types of knowledge

Video transcript

Presenter intro: Chloe Wardle

Everything that we decided to include in a lesson should help pupils to achieve clear learning goals. But it can often feel like there is a large amount of content to cover. Teachers need to identify the different types of knowledge that a lesson includes, and know why they are there. How do different bits help to develop pupil understanding? Identifying different types of knowledge helps teachers to understand the best routes through the content and what areas they might prioritise.

Presenter main

When you look at a lesson, there is often a daunting amount of content to teach. It would be overwhelming to present pupils with a mass of content, but we can’t simply cut out all the detail either. Instead teachers need to create a meaningful pathway that guides pupils towards clear learning goals. Put another way, we want to help pupils to construct coherent mental models from the content that we teach them.

A mental model is what we know about something. It is a structured body of knowledge and skills that helps us to make sense of things. We use mental models to understand and navigate the world around us. When we enter a restaurant, our mental model of what a restaurant is and what people do within a restaurant guides our actions. Our mental model of a restaurant is likely to include the fact that there will be menus to choose from. So we might look for a menu when we sit down. When we read a text that mentions the word dinosaur, we draw on our mental model of what a dinosaur is to make meaning from the words. We know that dinosaurs are extinct and could be ferocious, and this will help us to make sense of the text. The more we know about the world and the better that knowledge is secured and organised, the more we can know and do. We want to help pupils to build mental models and retain them in the long term. Examining your own mental model of the content, what you know about it, will help with this process.

To identify the different types of knowledge within a lesson and the role that they play in forming pupils’ mental models, it can be helpful to do a sorting exercise, in which teachers identify the most important content that they want pupils to remember, and the additional content that will be necessary for this. They can identify the critical content and supporting materials such as the best examples, analogies, stories, and details to frame it and make it stick.

Critical content is what you hope your pupils will remember in one year, three years or even more. The concept of solitude, the concept of evaporation. Supporting material enables pupils to access this critical content. But we may be willing to accept pupils forgetting some of it. Individual examples of solitude, that the puddles dried up in the playground before children had a chance to jump in them. Supporting material includes analogies, stories, and illustrations. There are different ways of presenting material and teachers need to think carefully about this choice. Examples give your understanding substance. Critical content will sit at the heart of our pupils’ mental models, and lots of other content will relate to it. We want our pupils to keep hold of it, and apply it in the future.

Both critical and supporting content are important. Supporting material may provide the concrete examples that make sense of an abstract concept to recall the prior knowledge that will help pupils to understand and remember something new. Supporting material can provide pupils with the rich breadth of knowledge that the broad and balanced curriculum should offer, and increased complexity. For example, when teaching the First and Second World Wars, including the contribution of BAME soldiers helps to expand pupils’ understanding of the personal sacrifices made. Supporting materials might also bring the lessons to life and help pupils to pay attention. For example, a geography teacher may want pupils to understand the concept of biome. To do that they might teach pupils about some of the different plants and animals that live in a particular biome, perhaps the Amazon rainforest. Over time pupils are likely to remember the meaning of biome, but forget some of the details specific to the Amazon rainforest. That pupils retain the understanding of biome is important but that doesn’t make the details redundant.

When teachers have a good understanding of the critical content and supporting material in a lesson, and how they are connected, they can sequence learning in a coherent way. They can identify prior knowledge that links to the critical material, and ensure that the lesson builds on that. They will know when to introduce supporting material and when to move on from it, and which content they will need to revisit in order to strengthen it. They can take their pupils on a better learning journey.

Presenter exemplification framing

In the next model, you will hear part of a coaching conversation. The focus of the conversation is to identify the different types of knowledge that one particular lesson covers, and the order in which they should come. As you watch pay particular attention to how they do the following:

  • Identify essential concepts, knowledge, skills and principles of the subject
  • Sequence lessons so that pupils secure foundational knowledge before encountering more complex content

Exemplification: Sarah Cottingham and Paula Delaney

COACH (SARAH COTTINGHAM): So our goal for this coaching session is to understand what content you’re teaching in the lesson, and why that each piece of content is there. So we want to know the most critical content and what the role of the supporting material is playing in their learning. Remind me what the scheme of work is? What is the overall learning goal of the lesson? And how is the lesson connected to the goal in the scheme of work?

 ECT (PAULA DELANEY): So this is a year 3 scheme of work about the rainforests. And the learning goal for this lesson is to understand some of the differences between their lives and the lives of tribal families. And so far pupils have a good understanding of what a rainforest is and the vast amount of species and plants that the rainforest supports. But in this lesson, they will be learning more about the people that the rainforest supports. Later on pupils will learn what deforestation is. So a key goal of this scheme of work is understanding the detrimental effect of deforestation. In this lesson, pupils need to acquire an understanding of how vital the rainforest is to the people that live there, so they can recognise how bad deforestation is for the people that rely on it.

COACH: Great. I know that you’ve looked at the suggested lesson resources to identify what pupils are learning. Can you show me the list of knowledge and skills that you’ve identified?

 ECT: Yep, here’s the list.

  • To know that most children in the UK tend to live with their parents
  • To know that in the Amazon rainforest children live with their extended family in tribes
  • To know that children in the UK have free access to healthcare via the NHS
  • To know that tribal families in the Amazon rainforest have limited access to healthcare clinics or hospitals but instead rely on local plants and remedies
  • To know that many of the medicines we use in the UK come from plants which grow in the Amazon rainforest
  • To know that children in the UK must now be in education or training until at least the age of 16. In England the age is 18
  • To know that education in the Amazon rainforest can take many different forms as communities can be quite small and remote: some pupils may have lessons which are delivered remotely while others attend small schools where there are pupils of different ages taught by the same teacher
  • To know that in the UK much of the food we eat is bought from shops and supermarkets
  • To know that in the Amazon rainforest communities tend to work together to grow and produce their own food locally or hunt for it using tools they have developed specifically for this purpose

COACH: Great. So now I want you to think about which of the content you would describe as critical. So by critical, I mean, it’s the content that you want your pupils to remember in the long term. Perhaps because there’s lots of other ideas that relate to it, or because it’s critical to their understanding of other concepts in the scheme of work like deforestation or sustainability.

ECT: Okay. Sure. I think that this is the content that I would describe as critical.

COACH: Let’s apply a couple of questions to these statements, to test out whether they really are critical content. Let’s take this statement first. Why is it important that pupils know and remember this?

ECT: So food is locally sourced by Amazon rainforest communities from the forest and river around them. They have developed a specific tools and practices for hunting local game, and children learn about different plants that are edible as part of their education. So if our pupils know this it will help them to recognise that one of the reasons why deforestation is so devastating because it deprives communities in the Amazon rainforest of that vital food source.

COACH: Great. Is there any material that you think is supporting? So by supporting, I mean it helps to understand this core content but we might not require pupils to remember it in the long term.

ECT: Yeah, remembering the specific types of food that people in the Amazon rainforest eat.

COACH: Okay. So why is this material in the lesson?

ECT: So introducing them to different food types gives them a concrete example, which will help them to see how much communities in the Amazon rely on local food production. I wouldn’t expect them to remember the precise foods consumed in the Amazon, but I do want them to remember it, that they are reliant on local foods.

COACH: I agree. And looking back at your original list, I would suggest that the following content could also be described as supporting material. It serves that important purpose in the lesson, but we’re willing to accept that pupils may forget some of it. Let’s have a look. So knowing what school is like for children in the Amazon rainforest will be really interesting to our pupils. And it’s another example of something concrete that will help them relate to children in the Amazon, but it’s okay if pupils lose this detail, once it’s served its purpose in the lesson. In terms of sequencing, which items on your list do you think it makes sense to start with first?

ECT: I think it would be good to start by looking at the different food sources in the rainforest. This gives pupils an opportunity to recall what they know about the different plant and animal species in there. This is something we explored in previous lessons. It also helps them to visualize what rainforest are like. And they will need to do this before they can think about the lives of the people who live in the rainforests.

COACH: What would pupils need to learn next?

Presenter exemplification analysis

There were a couple of key ideas to highlight from this conversation. First, both the coach and the early career teacher were clear about what they wanted their pupils to remember from the lesson. From a longer list of knowledge, they identified the critical content. Once they had identified what knowledge pupils needed to learn, they discussed how to sequence it. They identified which knowledge pupils needed to secure first. In this case, knowledge of the different plants and animal species found in the Amazon rainforest.

This is only a snapshot of a longer coaching conversation, so it cannot show the full detail of everything discussed. However, even from this short example, it is clear that the early career teacher was thinking deeply about what pupils were learning in the lesson, what purpose each piece of content served and the best order in which to teach it. This will enable the early career teacher to plot a clear path through the large amount of content, ensuring that the pupils secure and revisit the big ideas of a subject over time.

Presenter key ideas

In this video, we have explored how to identify different types of knowledge in a lesson, and how to sequence them. Before we finish, read over the key ideas that we have covered. Which ones do you feel that the example illustrated the best?

  • Identifying essential concepts, knowledge, skills and principles of the subject and providing opportunity for all pupils to learn and master these critical components.
  • Sequencing lessons so that pupils secure foundational knowledge before encountering more complex content.
  • Revisiting the big ideas of the subject over time and teaching key concepts through a range of examples.

Presenter summary

Thinking hard about what you are teaching is a vital part of a teacher’s role. Examining different types of knowledge in a lesson and how it is connected helps teachers to know what they’re teaching and why. They can then use this knowledge to make decisions in the classroom that can help motivate pupils in their learning and develop sophisticated mental models of their subject.

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Teaching challenge

Mr Jones has reviewed the curriculum for his next topic: he is confident about the learning goals, has refreshed his knowledge of the key ideas and has talked to colleagues about how pupils can best learn them. However, the amount and range of content appears huge. He is unsure how he will find time to cover everything in depth. What should he prioritise teaching?

Key idea

Teachers can develop pupils’ mental models by identifying and ensuring they understand and retain critical subject content.

Evidence summary

Mental models

Mr Jones is using guidance from the school curriculum, colleagues and curricular resources to build up an increasingly sophisticated mental model of the subject. A mental model is a structured body of knowledge. It is a collection of concepts, knowledge, skills and principles which fit together to provide an overall understanding of an idea (Sweller et al., 1998). For example, most adults have a mental model of a restaurant: this means they know what to do (more-or-less) in a new restaurant or an unfamiliar country (Sweller et al., 1998). Similarly, Mr Jones has a mental model of the topics he is teaching: both the content that he is going to teach about and how to teach it in a way that links to a subject – what makes this content historical or mathematical? He knows the key ideas, the underlying principles and how they fit together. For example, he knows the key events of the English Civil War, how they are linked and different ways in which they can be interpreted.

To achieve curricular goals, he must use his subject mental model to motivate pupils to develop increasingly complex mental models of the subject. The more complex a pupil’s mental model, the better they can apply it to skills such as answering questions, solving problems or learning new ideas (Willingham, 2009). For example, a pupil whose mental model did not include the word “monarch” or the concept of “Parliament” would struggle to make sense of a text describing the causes of the Civil War. In contrast, a pupil with a complex mental model would move from attempting to understand the story of the Civil War to using historical reasoning as to which cause was most significant.

The importance of knowledge

When pupils learn, they gain – and retain – deeper and more sophisticated knowledge in their mental models. Developing pupil knowledge is important as the more pupils know (and the better organised their knowledge), the better they can understand a new idea (by connecting it to their existing knowledge) and the better they can solve problems (by applying their knowledge). Their existing knowledge reduces the burden on pupils’ working memory (Deans for Impact, 2015; Willingham, 2006).

Therefore, if Mr Jones is to help pupils achieve ambitious learning goals, his priority is teaching pupils knowledge in order to also develop their skills (Willingham 2009). He should focus on what he wants his pupils to know and be able to do. For example, a wide vocabulary will help pupils understand unfamiliar texts, while knowledge of long multiplication gives pupils the capability to solve previously unseen maths problems.

To develop pupils’ mental models, Mr Jones must first identify their constituent parts: exactly what he wants pupils to know. This helps him to reduce his sophisticated knowledge into comprehensible building blocks for pupils: doing so reduces the risk of overestimating pupils’ knowledge and underestimating how hard they will find new ideas (Wiliam, 2013). If he wants pupils to explain the causes of the Civil War, he can identify what he wants them to know about each cause, for example: “to know that King Charles I believed he ruled by Divine Right.” If he wants pupils to complete long multiplication, he can identify that he wants them to know that a number can be partitioned into tens and hundreds.

Prioritising subject content

Having identified everything he wants pupils to know about a topic, Mr Jones is left with a problem: there is a huge amount of relevant and interesting knowledge. He can address this by identifying the essential concepts, knowledge, skills and principles – the ‘critical’ subject content that pupils need to remember in order to have a complete mental model (Counsell, 2018; Sweller et al., 1998). Critical content is what he hopes pupils will recall in one, three, or perhaps even ten years: Iago’s jealousy, the causes of the English Civil War, and how to design an experiment.

Mr Jones could also identify how he wants his pupils to organise what they remember. For example, concepts are organising ideas that allow us to categorise knowledge (Chi, 2009). Critical concepts, then, are important subject ideas Mr Jones will want to return to many times to help pupils develop organised mental models of his subject. Therefore, he can introduce the idea of the tragic form in English literature and teach Othello as an example of this. In science, he could teach the scientific method in biology, chemistry and physics and use experiments as examples of these. This content will also influence how he sequences what he teaches. He can plan how a new idea can be linked to previous and future learning (Wiliam, 2013) by asking: which content is foundational and why? Where relevant, he might also identify subject principles (Chi, 2009). Subject principles are rules or theorems that serve to apply across a whole field. They can be used to transcend specific examples. For example, in physics he might teach the Law of Conservation of Energy or Newton’s Second Law (F=MA) and highlight when these principles are returned to, to help pupils organise their mental models. In an Early Years setting, teachers might return to the principle of synthetic phonics at different times as they teach reading.

The National Curriculum also calls for a ‘broad and balanced curriculum’. So, in addition to ‘critical’ content, Mr Jones should select ‘supporting’ content: further examples, stories and illustrations that he won’t necessarily expect his pupils to remember, but which will bring his teaching to life and support pupils to remember and understand the critical content. It is particularly effective if these examples explicitly link to pupils’ knowledge and experiences. This supporting content helps pupils make sense of critical content: Othello wouldn’t make sense without all its characters; getting the equipment wrong means an experiment will not work. So, while Mr Jones is teaching these topics, he wants pupils to know, understand and recall supporting content as well as the critical content. However, after teaching the topic, he will accept that he does not need to revisit supporting content (since not every item of information can be recalled and his time is limited); but he will want to ensure critical content is revisited to strengthen it.

Nuances and caveats 

Developing pupils’ knowledge does not just mean teaching isolated facts: mental models are organised collections of concepts, knowledge, skills and principles.

While it is important that supporting content brings critical content to life and makes it meaningful, teachers need to be careful that it does not distract from pupils remembering critical content.

Key takeaways

Mr Jones can help students to develop their mental models and think more effectively about his subject by:

  • Focusing on developing pupil knowledge in order to ultimately develop pupil capabilities and understanding.
  • Developing his mental model using available resources and reflecting on what this implies in terms of the important knowledge he wants to teach.
  • Prioritising types of knowledge and identifying which is critical subject content – concepts, knowledge, skills and principles – that he wants pupils to retain, while teaching enough supporting content to give pupils access to a broad and balanced curriculum.

Further reading 

Deans for Impact (2015). The Science of Learning.


Chi, M. T. (2009). Three types of conceptual change: Belief revision, mental model transformation, and categorical shift. International handbook of research on conceptual change, 89-110. Routledge.

Counsell, C. (2018). The indirect manifestation of knowledge. The dignity of the thing [blog].

Deans for Impact (2015). The Science of Learning.

Sweller, J., van Merrienboer, J. J., & Paas, F. G. (1998). Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design. Educational Psychology Review, 10(3), 251–296.

Wiliam, D. (2013). Principled curriculum design. Redesigning Schooling 3, SSAT.

Willingham, D.T. (2006). How knowledge helps. American Educator.

Willingham, D. T. (2009) Why don’t students like school? San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.


Answer the questions in the quiz to check your understanding of the evidence summary.

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Reminder of key takeaways

Mr Jones can help students to develop their mental models and think more effectively about his subject by:

  • Focusing on developing pupil knowledge in order to ultimately develop pupil capabilities and understanding.
  • Developing his mental model using available resources and reflecting on what this implies in terms of the important knowledge he wants to teach.
  • Prioritising types of knowledge and identifying which is critical subject content – concepts, knowledge, skills and principles – that he wants pupils to retain, while teaching enough supporting content to give pupils access to a broad and balanced curriculum.

Reflect on the following questions

  1. What did you see in this module that you already do or have seen in other classrooms?
  2. What do you feel is the gap between your current practice and what you have seen in this module?
  3. Which of the ‘key takeaways’ do you need to focus on? Where and when might you try to apply them to your teaching?