Wednesday, November 30, 2016

An Open Letter to Those Who Understand Depth of Knowledge

Dear Teacher Who Incorporates DOK in your Classroom,

First of all I would like to thank you for all of the help and support you have given me this year.  I have learned so much from the resources and ideas you are posting on your websites, blogs, and Twitter.  As I work to improve my students number sense and move them beyond algorithms, focusing on depth of knowledge and reworking some of my questions in class has greatly improved the work we do in class.  Sometimes a simple change to a question makes all the difference.

If you have ever read my blog before you know that I have far more questions than ideas to share.  So here are the questions I am still struggling with about DOK that I am hoping you can answer.  Many teachers talk about tasks that have low floor, high ceiling.  Is that how I should be viewing DOK?  For students who struggle with math do I start them at DOK 1 and that is all I expect from them?  And students who seem ready for more depth can get more complex tasks in DOK3?  Perhaps you think this sounds absurd.  I certainly do, but this is how I see some teachers using/interpreting DOK.  I feel like we should be giving all students DOK2 and DOK3.  The idea of differentiated instruction is sometimes interpreted as give struggling students basic tasks they can be successful at (or in my opinion memorize some stuff and do without truly understanding).  I understand that if a student isn't ready for grade level skills it does not benefit them to give them those task.  So what does this actually look like in a classroom?  Do all students get the same task and the differentiation is in the conversations that stem from it?  Or am I giving different students different tasks?

I am also curious about assessment.  We do tests at the end of each chapter in our textbook.  Typically we ask DOK1 (maybe some DOK2) questions because we are assessing skills.  We have a letter based grading system, and when creating our tests we discuss what mastery of each skill looks like.  In the end we have many bare number problems and very little depth.  In class we use higher level thinking but somewhere along the way it seems to have become the belief that not all students can do higher level thinking independently and therefore we should not assess them on it.  I would love to know how you use DOK in your assessments.  At this point I feel like I can't address these issues (perhaps they are not issues and it is just my perspective that needs to change) if I don't fully understand where we need to go.  Once we have a better understanding of DOK, how can we use that lens to improve our assessments?

I appreciate your time in reading through this letter and welcome any and all responses and comments.

Adrianne Burns
Grade 7 Math
A little lost and hoping for guidance


  1. Hi Adrianne. Thanks for this open and honest post. Check out what I have written regarding frequently asked questions about DOK here: I know it addresses some of what you asked about. Then you can let me know what questions you still have in the comments.

  2. Adrianne,

    I agree with you, DOK 2 and 3 should be present in all classes for all students. I hope by now many of us has moved past the vision of successful math students as human calculators. Instruction to me should always look like level 2 or 3- but initial informal assessments of those skills typically start out with DOK 1 problems. I am not sure about the students you have, but with the students I have taught over the years there are very few who are only able to do DOK 1 problems, unless you allow them to.

    Standardized assessment is tricky, states can't afford to pay independent companies to hand grade each test for every student in the state, and thus DOK 1 problems are the easiest to ask, grade and report. Right now there is a big push with testing companies to write problems in such a manner that multiple choice or short fill in can provide teachers with more insight to student thinking- thus the rationales that are starting to be provided with the tests.

    We can definitely talk about this as a group in #msmathchat, I think it'd be a great topic.


    1. Bryan,
      I would love for this to be a #msmathchat discussion. It would be interesting to put some math questions out there have teachers work to decide what DOK level it is or a DOK1 question and how it could be reworked to have a higher level.

  3. Hi Adrienne,
    I had the pleasure of attending a workshop with Dr. Webb a few years ago - my biggest take away - DoK is not about the verbs! It is important to frequently return to the definitions of each level, which you can find here:

    This guide from Karen Hess is also helpful (even though it includes verbs):

    Dr. Webb also make a very clear distinction between difficulty and complexity. A lot of time we interpret rigor as difficulty rather than complexity. DoK is not hierarchical. Kids do not need to master DoK 1 skills before they dig in to a complex DoK 3 problem, and often digging into that complex provides them with greater motivation to work on those DoK 1 skills. The other thing that we have to be careful of is reducing the cognitive demand of a task by breaking it up into smaller chunks for students. DoK 1 + DoK 1 + DoK 1 =/= DoK 3.

    1. Jennifer,
      Thank you so much for the resources. I will check them out. Having seen teachers implement DOK problems in a hierarchical way concerned me. Thinking of it as complexity and giving them the motivation to work on and use DoK 1 skills makes a lot of sense. The last point you mention hits home for me too. Often we break things into smaller chunks and the students don't even really realize what they are doing, as opposed to being given a DoK3 task and letting things evolve naturally.