Research School Network: Knowledge: Never the Same River Twice Mark Miller, Head of Bradford Research School, on why we don’t simply ​‘revisit’ knowledge


Knowledge: Never the Same River Twice

Mark Miller, Head of Bradford Research School, on why we don’t simply ​‘revisit’ knowledge

by Bradford Research School
on the

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.


Revisiting previously learnt content is an important part of curriculum design. Pupils forget, so it is necessary to revisit, often through retrieval. But does this mean that we are stuck in the past, wasting time on things that we have already covered rather than learning anything new? On the contrary. In fact, we can never simply repeat things, because when we revisit knowledge everything has changed.

The context is always different

Schemas are webs of knowledge that develop over time, and understanding these helps us to understand the way we represent knowledge. The more complex the schema, the more items we know and the more links we have between those items. The EEF describe them as follows:

Schemas (sometimes referred to as mental models, scripts, or frames) are structures that organise knowledge in the mind. When learning, the mind connects new information with pre-existing knowledge, skills, and concepts thereby developing existing schemas.

David Didau explains the concept beautifully in his blog here.

Because a pupil’s schema of any subject or topic will grow and change over time, when we revisit any knowledge that we have previously encountered, we revisit it in an entirely different context. We know many more things, our schemas are far more developed, and we have far more connections to make with other knowledge. Not only do all of these new connections provide a more fertile ground for the material we revisit to stick, but they also fundamentally change that knowledge, because it can connect to more recently learnt information in different ways.

Revisiting knowledge is important because schemas do not always develop neatly and perfectly. There may be some misconceptions that develop, so retrieving that knowledge with some feedback will help.

Deeper and wider

Clare Sealy writes about her concept of a 3D curriculum, and the vertical, horizontal and diagonal links we can make. She says that these vertical links are deliberately constructed within a subject so that over the years, key high yield’ concepts are encountered again and again.’ Here is the example she shares:

We first meet a ‘tyrant’ in year 1, when our students encounter King John (of Magna Carta fame) and learn that he was (until the barons got him) a tyrant. We don’t meet any tyrants in history again until in year 5 when we encounter Dionysius of Syracuse (the definitive tyrant) where his tyranny is counterpoised with the democracy of Ancient Greek city states. While its quite a stretch to expect that children will remember the word ‘tyrant’ from 4 years previously, it provides an opportunity to remind students about the Magna Carta and how power is limited in Britain. Then in year 6, we can compare Hitler with Churchill. By now, we also know the adjective ‘tyrannical.’

So when we design a curriculum well, we are not merely retrieving things we have learnt in the past, but we are building on them, making links, understanding them in ever deeper and richer ways. (Horizontal links are across different subjects within a year and diagonal links span subjects and years). It’s not just a sequence, but a cascade.

Another example where we can go deeper is through vocabulary or concept knowledge. We do not merely revisit vocabulary but develop our rich understanding further, and every new encounter helps to do that. Cronbach (1942) set out the ways that our knowledge of words develops:

  • Generalization: You can define a word.
  • Application: You can use it correctly in a particular context.
  • Breadth: You know the multiple meanings of the word.
  • Precision: You are able to apply the word appropriately in all situations
  • Availability: You can use the word where apt.

You can read more on the development of vocabulary knowledge in our blog here: Getting to know words


The more we know, the more opportunities we have to elaborate on material. Weinsten et al (2018), summarise that elaboration involves adding features to an existing memory’. Any memory can be elaborated on only when there are things that can be elaborated on, and only when the pupil knows enough things to make elaboration worthwhile. Thus over time there will be more ways that a pupil can elaborate.

As well as a host of context-specific how and why questions, you can ask generic questions that will apply to any particular material:

  • How does x relate to y?
  • What else do I know about this?
  • What else do I know that can relate to this?
  • How do we know this?

Look at this example from a maths Knowledge Organiser:


We could ask pupils what else they know about this. This might be everything else they know about equilateral triangles, everything about triangles, internal angles of any polygon, the formula for calculating external angles. All of this serves to strengthen the knowledge and connect the knowledge. But responses to these questions will change over time as pupils learn more. So even simply revisiting’ the item on the knowledge organiser is different every time. (This example taken from our blog on Elaboration and Knowledge Organisers)

So, when looking to revisit material, it’s never quite the same material.

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