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Striving for Higher-Order Thinking and Depth of Knowledge

A little over a year ago, I read Higher-order thinking is the exception rather than the norm for most classrooms on Scott McLeod's blog, Dangerously Irrelevant, and have been mulling it over, wondering if our school district is any different.

Over the past year, our teachers periodically collect data with their teams on the types of questions/tasks they ask students. One teacher records teacher questions and the other records student responses on a shared Google Doc; then teams sort through their own data, plotting teacher questions by Bloom's Revised Taxonomy, and student responses to those questions/tasks with Webb's Depth of Knowledge (DOK). The 2012-2013 data showed we were not very different from other districts; therefore, our teams set their own goals for higher-order thinking and depth of knowledge.

The data so far for the 2013-2014 school year shows questions asked of students are up and down the Bloom's ladder, equally distributed (with a little less in the create category, but that's probably because the 20 minutes of collecting data in those classrooms did not occur during PBL). However, on average, the student responses and tasks were still primarily in the DOK Levels 1 and 2. Thus, teacher teams are focusing on creating DOK Level 3 discussions and tasks.

Why should we strive for DOK Levels 3 and 4?

Depth of Knowledge (DOK) is about the cognitive complexity of thinking. In DOK Level 3, students must justify and defend their reasoning (thus more rigorous and requires more critical thinking). While DOK 4, is continued analysis over longer periods of time.

The critical thinking and rigor that occurs in DOK Levels 3 and 4 are our goal as 21st century thinkers, and our goal for preparing them for college and careers (thereby also the goal of the Common Core).

What does DOK Level 3 look like?

DOK Level 3 questions and tasks require more than one "correct" answer. Below are some examples, based on the work of Karin Hess:
  • ELA: Explain, generalize or connect ideas, using supporting evidence from the text or source.
  • Math: Solve a multiple-step problem and provide support with a mathematical explanation that justifies the answer.
  • Music: Analyze or evaluate the effectiveness of the concept of ‘groove’ in a musical composition.
Click here to download as PDF
How do you move student responses and tasks to DOK Level 3?

DOK Level 3 requires the question or task to have more than one acceptable answer. This is a shift for teachers to ask these questions and design these tasks, and it's a shift for students because they are used to answering and waiting to see if they were "right".

Raise Awareness of DOK Level 3

Why not explore DOK with the students? Discuss what DOK Level 3 questions and tasks are; have students design a few; and share the benefits of this type of thinking.

Question stems

Asking open-ended questions that do not have right/wrong answers would give students more DOK Level 3 opportunities.

Here are some question stems to help create more strategic thinking:
This requires some time up front, but the end result is greater rigor and cognitive complexity of thinking.

Tracy's Twist on a DOK Level 3 Question Stem

The teacher makes a claim such as, "This is the best book I've read" or "Online activities are better than face-to-face activities." Then students can decide how much they agree or disagree with the statement, and place a sticky note on the spectrum from agree to disagree to represent their opinion, and support their claim with reasons.

While this can be done face-to-face with sticky notes or by physically lining up, it can also be online with free tools such as Padlet. For example, if I claimed this activity is better to do with online sticky notes, then we could discuss how much we agree with the statement by placing our own sticky note on the line spectrum to quantify our perspective, while supporting our thinking by adding reasoning.

Click here to download image to use.

Final thoughts: Task predicts performance

Is it worth it? Is it worth the teacher's efforts to seek DOK 3 and 4 responses and learning tasks? Heck ya! Task predicts performance.

When students work at DOK Levels 3 and 4, students are prepared to transfer their learning to other situations and non-routine applications. Isn't this what we want for our students? Isn't this what the Common Core is trying to accomplish?
  • What question stems do you like to use to promote deeper thinking? 
  • How would you create DOK Level 3 questions and tasks?
  • Why do you think higher-order thinking and DOK learning activities should be goals of educators?


  1. Thanks, Tracy. This is a powerful post. I'm printing it out to share as well as linking to it. I'm wondering, how often do your teachers implement PBL units? Is your school focus to instruct at Levels 3 and 4? Or, is the reason for the Level 1 and Level 2 results this year and last year because the emphasis is on passing tests, on getting enough "right answer" skills practice? How do we change the focus? These are the questions I'm dealing with. If CCSS promote Depth of Knowledge, will the required tests reflect that? Can they? If not, will we ever move to more of a focus on Levels 3 and 4 of DOK? Thanks for the great graphics, strategies, and for stretching my thinking. Sheri

  2. Hi Sheri,

    You have asked some huge questions. More and more teachers in our district are implementing PBL in the classroom. Beginners usually plan a PBL unit, and on average, those are typical of a beginning PBL with it being mostly directed by the teacher (common in elementary), or have teacher-given parameters (common in secondary). However, those who are experienced PBLers, don't always "plan" their PBL units, but their class naturally goes in that direction because of all inquiry that goes on in the classrooms... which leads to PBL.

    What are the reasons for lower DOK? Our teachers work very, very hard, and are transitioning out of what NCLB created for us. Teacher evaluations were based on direct instruction lessons (which then became the "model" of a good lesson), and students were not used to opportunities to critically think because "frustration" was seen as a "bad" thing. --So, on the whole, its a transition for teachers, students, and parents.

    How do we change the focus? -- I think two things need to take place: 1) Admin & Teachers need to have the same vision of what good teaching/learning is, and 2) Teachers must come to this conclusion collaboratively.

    For us, Instructional Rounds helps with this. Our Instructional Rounds are done by teams of teachers (rather than administrators as a site), and they then are in charge of their own solutions. In other words, they own it because it's not an administrator telling them they have to do something else; but rather, it's them choosing what their next steps are and why it should replace other focuses.

    It's exciting to see the growth and professionalism. It's also exciting to know that administratively, Instructional Rounds are safe, and we are building a culture of "risk" -- "risk" to try something new and to innovate. I would say that risk to innovate is becoming the expectation, the norm.

    I hope this discussion is helpful! It helped me think through how we are growing, and some replicable solutions for how to grow this elsewhere.

    Kind regards,

  3. Thanks, Tracy. I would say because of the culture of trust and professional collaboration which you are creating, that your district will definitely move forward.Your staff feel "safe" and are respected to find their own solutions. So you have provided an environment that builds success -- shared purpose through autonomy to reach mastery. Wowser! I have one more question. You said "Teacher evaluations were based on direct instruction lessons (which then became the "model" of a good lesson)." What are teacher evaluations based on now? Thanks, Tracy! I learn so much from you and the work of your staff!

    1. Another great question, Sheri. It's no longer based on a one time all or nothing lesson. It's based on an accumulation of learning that takes place in the classroom, and the professional learning. Some of the big ideas on the evaluation are: Planning; Instruction (standards-based, differentiation, monitor/adjust, active student engagement); Collaboration; Classroom management (behavior, classroom culture, procedures/routines); and Assessment.

      Hope that helps!

      Kind regards,

  4. Thanks, Tracy, for presenting your district's process of growing a culture of learning for students and staff.

  5. Tracy -
    Your posts are always chock full of great information and inspiring questions. The comments between you and Sheri add to this post.

    I'm going to say that it would be hard for teachers not to reflect honestly with those DOK verbs staring you in the face. I'm going to see if I can have a colleague come into my classroom and take some data - would love to see the outcome (although I think I have an idea already).

    Just read this great article over the weekend in Edutopia: 5 Powerful Questions which has set the stage for your great suggestions.

    Will be seeing how I can incorporate more of these over the coming months.

    As always, thank you for sharing great information and insights. Your district is lucky to have such a thinker in their midst who is so dedicated.

    Thank you.

    1. Hi Nancy,

      What's interesting is our teachers know and comprehend Bloom's Taxonomy, and they are beginning to really comprehend DOK as well, but they've never actually assessed the application of it in the classroom. While they are asking higher level Bloom's questions, students (on average) weren't responding with that same depth. So, now we are focusing on creating the learning environments that promote that.

      When our teachers record the questions/responses, there aren't any names on the Google Docs. Thus, it's not a teacher evaluation, but rather they are looking at trends so together they can create goals and collaborate with one another on those goals.

      Thanks so much for sharing the Edutopia article! Great 5 questions to ask and have as mantras!

      Kind regards,

  6. Hi Tracy!

    I'm reviewing ideas for questioning and Genius Hour. I'd like my students to think more clearly about those "thick" and "thin" questions. I revised your flow chart in this presentation to help students think about it. I also included your DOK image because it so clearly explains Webb's Depth of Knowledge. Thank you for sharing your work so we all can learn.


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