Why KWL Grids Are Not Fit For Purpose

If you are not familiar with KWL grids, let me explain. They are an assessment tool of three stages. What the learner already Knows (K), what the learner Wants to know (W) and then finally what the learner has Learnt (L).

So, they usually look something like this:

Teachers give them to pupils at the start of a unit of learning (e.g. Ancient Egypt) and pupils would fill in the first column. However, there is no retrieval cue for the learner, just the empty column as you saw above.

So, as a means of finding out prior knowledge and gaps in learning between students, this column is extremely limited in its use. We would be better placed as teachers to ask questions that link specifically to our curriculum:

e.g. “What do you know about the use of the River Nile in Ancient Egypt?”

This allows learners to retrieve specific knowledge related to what they will learn, enabling them to potentially see connections between other units, such as rivers studied in geography or other history units.

The middle column is often wasted time. It gets learners to write down what they would like to know about. This leads to learners writing questions about things you won’t cover (as they’re not relevant) or oddly specific questions you likely do not have the subject knowledge to answer.

The final column suffers the same issue as the first. There is no retrieval cue for learners to respond to. They are met with an empty column and expected to dump all the knowledge learnt into it. This, inevitably, leads to learners not writing down all that they truly remember.

Often, the L part of the grid is completed by students flicking back through books. The issue here is that it does not require the learner to retrieve from long-term memory. The learner is just storing content in working memory momentarily, while they copy it across to the grid.

Consider which is more effective:

– Write down everything you have learnt about Ancient Egypt.

– Tell me what you know about the Ancient Egyptian belief of the ‘afterlife’.

The former is likely to elicit some factual knowledge with perhaps no depth or thought given to connections between the facts – at least for the majority of pupils. The latter requires the learner to think harder, to think of specific facts and then consider the relation between them.

The latter is by no means a perfect assessment question, but serves the purpose of assessment far better than an empty L column. Ideally, a series of questions similar to the ‘afterlife’ one are given – perhaps even facilitating links between it and prior knowledge:

e.g. We learnt about the Norse belief of the afterlife when we studied the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons in Year 3. What similarities and differences do you see in their beliefs and the beliefs of the Ancient Egyptians on the afterlife?

I used KWL grids myself. It is only through using them for a while that I discovered their inadequacy. I fell for the illusion that it was an engaging task because I was using the middle column to engage learners and to let them take control of what they learnt.

But assessment is essential. Essential to teaching, essential to curriculum and essential to sequencing learning over time. We do ourselves and the learners we teach a disservice if we don’t assess as accurately as we possibly can.

I do not claim any one type of assessment is the *best* in foundation subjects. However, there are many that serve the purpose more successfully than KWL grids (such as retrieval quizzes, multiple choice Qs, essays and short paragraphs in response to Qs).

Published by mrmorgsthoughts

Curriculum Advisor. Interested in curriculum and task design.

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