Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Relevancy Check: Why Am I Teaching This?

Is It Time for a Relevancy Check?
You know what you're supposed to teach.  It's defined in academic standards implemented by your state and and outlined the curriculum adopted by the district.

You know what your students are expected to know, understand, and do and how deeply they need to know, understand, and be aware of what they're learning.  It's stated in the performance objectives your state's academic standards and set by the questions, problems, and tasks your students your students must answer, address, and accomplish.

However, can you honestly say why you are teaching the ideas, principles, subjects, theories, and topics you you are teaching or even why it is important and vital - or essential - for students to learn these concepts and content?

How often have you been asked by your students - or did you even ask your teachers - why do they need to know this?  What do you tell them?  Do you find yourself at a loss for words and unable to find the connection between academic concepts and real world circumstances?

Then perhaps it's time for you to conduct a relevancy check.

For years, we've been focused on conducting checks for rigor to determine the levels of difficulty and depth of complexity of what we are teaching.  That's what the Common Core State Standards have encouraged and prompted us to do.  However, what we seem to struggle with is to have our students recognize and realize how they can use the academic concepts and content they are learning to address real world circumstances, issues, problems, or situations.

Cognitive Rigor Matrix (Hess, Jones, Carlock& Walkup, 2009)
Hess, Carlock, Jones, and Walkup (2009) developed the concept of cognitive rigor to aligned  Bloom's Taxonomy with Webb's Depth of Knowledge.  They even developed the Cognitive Rigor Matrix to help teachers align the cognitive complexity Bloom's Taxonomy and Webb's Depth of Knowledge.  While most teachers are able to provide questions, problems, and tasks that have students demonstrate higher level thinking, they struggle with challenging and engaging students to extend their thinking across the curriculum and beyond the classroom.

What most teachers seem to strive for yet struggle with is what has become the elusive D.O.K.-4 Question that extends students' thinking across the curriculum and beyond the classroom.  With D.O.K.-4, students are challenged and engaged to conduct research and investigations to solve real-world problems with unpredictable outcomes.  The strive has been to connect the academic concepts and content being taught and learned to real-world situations.  The struggle has been for teachers to think about what exactly are those real-world circumstances, issues, problems, are situations.

D.O.K-4 questions are not just about rigor but relevance - the thinking and reasoning behind what we are teaching and how knowledge, understanding, and awareness can be used to answer multidisciplinary questions and address real world issues, problems, and situations.  The D.O.K.-4 establishes the importance and value - or relevancy - of what we are teaching and our students are learning.

To define the relevancy, we need to consider how deeper knowledge and thinking about academic concepts and content can extend across the curriculum and beyond the classroom.  In order to do this, we need to consider the following questions:

  • How could learning these ideas, principles, processes, and theories benefit our students academically, personally, professionally, and socially?
  • How could learning these concepts and content help our students better understand the past, handle the present, and prepare for the future?
  • What is the connection these subjects and topics have globally, nationally, and locally?
Relevancy Check Chart
In order to help teachers recognize and realize the relevancy of what they are teaching, I have developed what I call the Relevancy Check - a chart that will help teachers determine the connection between the academic concepts they are teaching and their importance and value in the real world.  

The first box is where you will identify the concept, content, subject, or topic you are teaching.  For example, perhaps you are teaching fractions, the American Revolution, plate tectonics, or Macbeth.  The second box is where you will list the performance objectives of the standards and clusters you are teaching.  The next set of boxes is where you will determine what is the relevance of what you are teaching academically, personally, professionally, socially; to the past, the present, and future; and globally, nationally, and locally.

Not all of these sections will be answered.  However, there should be more than an academic relevancy to what you are teaching.  Otherwise, why are you teaching it (because it's in the text or the standards are not a good enough reason).

As we head back to campus for another school year, consider how you could use this chart to help you recognize and realize the importance and value - or relevance - of what you're teaching.  If you can't see the relevancy, then perhaps you need to reflect upon your own depth of knowledge of what you are teaching.

- E.M.F.

(To learn more about how you can use the Relevancy Check or how you can receive a professional development training on how to use this tool, please contact us at erik@maverikeducation.comor visit our website at

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Michael Crichton + Cognitive Rigor + Common Core = Complexity Through Creativity

Each year, districts and schools conduct book studies as part of their professional development plan to learn new insights, methods, and strategies to improve student achievement, teacher effectiveness, and overall school performance.  The books typically read for these book studies are either education trade books that discuss key issues or best practices in education or leadership and management books that address how to improve operational effectiveness and stakeholder relations.

However, what if this year for the book study your school read a Michael Crichton novel and analyzed and evaluated how his books reflect the kind of learning we want students to demonstrate and communicate?

The Literary Fiction of Michael Crichton
Perhaps you've heard of Michael Crichton's books or their movie adaptations - Jurassic Park, Congo, Sphere, Rising Sun, The Great Train Robbery, Disclosure, The Andromeda Strain, A Case of Need (apparently, there was a film adaptation made in the 1970s), or Eaters of the Dead, which was adapted into the film The 13th Warrior.  Perhaps you've seen the film Twister or watched the TV show E/R.  Perhaps you've read one of his fiction novels that was not turned into a film such as Airframe, Pirate Latitudes, Next, Prey, State of Fear, or Pirate Latitudes.  Perhaps you read his nonfiction work Travels.

If you're familiar with Michael Crichton's works, you know that his novels, films, and TV shows are not mindless tales that showcase nonsensical topics.  They are actually academic and even highly cerebral tomes that address open-ended, thought-provoking essential questions in an entertaining manner.

Consider the topic addressed in Jurassic Park - Should scientists bring back the dinosaurs and reintroduce them into the world and how would they do it?  This would be an interesting topic to explore in a K-12 science classroom studying fossils, biology, genetics, cloning or artificial selection.  In fact, the part of the novel Jurassic Park that explains how the scientists extracted dinosaur blood from fossilized mosquitoes and how the scientists mistakenly chose to replace the unknown DNA strands with amphibian DNA reads like a biology textbook.  It also examines and explores a number of prevailing debate over whether dinosaurs are more closely related to birds than reptiles.

In Congo, Crichton takes us into the heart of Africa where the characters encounter the natural dangers and the political strife occurring in the jungle.  He also examines and explores the controversial idea of the evolutionary connection between humans and apes by featuring an ape who communicates through sign language and savage simian creatures that protect the gemstones the expedition team is looking for whose features and behaviors indicate they are either an ape-chimpanzee hybrid or even a gorilla-human hybrid. 

Timeline addresses time travel, explaining how time travel is similar to transmitting a message via a fax machine in which the original form of a person stays in the present and a "facsimile" of them actually travels through the time spectrum.  Sphere also addresses time travel as well as what lies at the bottom of the ocean in a highly complex, psychological manner.

Most of Crichton's novels  focus heavily on scientific theory.  The Andromeda Strain is one of the first books that presented how the world would react to the spread of a deadly epidemic (in this case, it was an extraterrestrial biological infestation brought back by an American satellite that returns to Earth). The Terminal Man is about unlocking the hidden potential of the human brain.  Prey is about nanotechnology.  Twister is about how to be able to track and predict tornadoes.  Next is another evolutionary story about man's connections to apes.  State of Fear is about global warming and is considered to be one of his most controversial novels.  

Crichton also dabbled in the social sciences with his stories and also addressed some very topical yet controversial issues.  Rising Sun addresses the controversial subject of how Japanese business practices and culture has seeped into American culture.  Disclosure takes a different turn on sexual harassment - male on female - and infers how it can be used for leverage and selfish intentions.  Airframe is about the procedures and politics involved in investigating airline crashes.  Crichton has also written historical fiction such as Eaters of the Dead, The Great Train Robbery, and Pirate Latitudes based upon actual events and people.

What's interesting and relevant about Crichton's novels and stories in their connection to education is not what the stories discuss - although you would definitely learn more about whatever it's discussing - but rather how he presents this information.  Crichton's books are the epitome of metacognition, the ability to use knowledge a person develops through learning to answer a question, address a problem, or accomplish a task or even come up with new ideas, knowledge, perspectives, and ways of thinking.  Each one of Crichton's novels is based upon a hypothesis or notion he has about a particular academic, social, or scientific concept, idea, subject, or topic.  Each novel or film asks a question that he examines and explores throughout the story.  His stories are actually expository and even argumentative writing, and he tests his hypotheses and presents his ideas through narrative.

Crichton's novels are also examples of project-based learning - particularly by communicating his ideas clearly through oral, written, creative, and technical expression.  He teaches us something new with every story.  Think about it.  Did you ever consider dinosaurs could possibly be the ancestors of birds rather than reptiles before you read or watched Jurassic Park?  Was that the "ah-ha" moment you took away from the book or the movie?  Did it compel you to look up and research whether there was any truth to what Crichton suggested?

Crichton's novels also exemplify the depth in which we want our students to think critically, creatively, and strategically and examine and explore through research, investigation, experiential, hands-on learning, and creative design.  He takes us beyond the facts and information as they are presented or provided and challenges us to question what we believe we know and what we are currently learning.  His books could actually be a supplement to any science or social studies textbook or be taught in conjunction with exploration of current events.

Plus, his books and movies are so much fun to read and watch!

How can we have our students' demonstrate higher level thinking and communicate their deeper knowledge, understanding, and awareness of what they are learning as if they were Michael Crichton?  

We need to provide them opportunities to express and share their knowledge, understanding, and awareness using their innate skills and talents.

That's what Crichton did.  He used his verbal, visual, and technical skills to present his ideas in a creative manner.  He was also highly intrapersonal in that he was an author who preferred to work by himself (though he did collaborate with his wife in writing Twister and also directed a couple of films such as Coma. Looker, and Westworld).

That's not to say every child should express their learning creatively through a novel or a film or even art.  Crichton wrote nonfiction as well.  In fact, many of his articles are great examples of expository and argumentative writing.

Multiple Intelligence Activities: World War II
Multiple Intelligence Activities: Pythagorean Theorem
To have my students express and share their knowledge, understanding, and awareness like an artisan or thinker like Michael Crichton, I created the Multiple Intelligence Activity grid based upon the Tic-Tac-Toe tool used typically in differentiated instruction that allows students to use their strengths, skills, and talents to demonstrate and communicate their learning.   The projects I included in there were aligned to the multiple intelligences defined by Howard Gardner.  

Each box had one or two very abstract, broad, and complex descriptions of the project the student could develop - draw a poster, write a short story, make a PowerPoint presentation or video, engage in a debate.  How the students designed and developed the project was up to them.  In keeping with the practice of differentiated instruction that allows students to choose how they learn, I allowed them the choice of either working alone, with a partner, or as part of a group or team to complete their project.  I also provided them the opportunity to do a student original combo if they did not like any of the project ideas presented, which meant they could combine one of the projects presented within the grid - for example, turn a short story written by one student into a graphic novel or a film.  They could also come up with their own idea for a project they would want to do that addressed the objective of the unit, answered one of the good cognitive rigor questions of the unit, and also would prompt their audience to think deeply about what they are learning.

Multiple Intelligence Activity: Science Fiction
Along with their projects, each student would have to write a research and process paper that detailed the research they conducted to complete their project and how and why they designed and developed their project as they did.  That's what I would grade since that's really what I was focused upon - how deeply they learned about the concept, idea, subject, or topic they addressed in their project and how they defended, explained, or justified their thinking and reasoning.  I would turn the projects themselves over to the class for grading.  The final week of the unit was the class showcase in which each student or group presented their problem.  My students read the stories and papers and watch the presentations and performances.  After they were viewed, they would answer three questions:
Multiple Intelligence Activity: Animals

  1. How does the project address the objectives of the unit?
  2. How does the project answer one or more of the essential questions of the unit?
  3. What deeper knowledge, understanding, and awareness did you acquire from this project?

After the reviews were submitted, my class would engage in a Q & A session with the presenter(s) of the project to discuss how they produced their project and what their intent, message, or purpose was.  Based upon the results of the reviews, the students would receive a grade from the peer evaluation that I would average in with the grade I gave them for their research and process papers.

Teaching and grading like this not only made my class more enriching but also enjoyable and even manageable.  Before this, I would spend days grading a different version of the same project I assigned over and over.  I also encountered the "angry parent" who would be upset about my critique over the quality of the project.  By turning the grading of the project to the students, it relieved me from grading the quality of their project and allowed me to focus more on what I really was concerned about - how deeply did they learn about the concept, idea, subject, or topic and how did they use that knowledge to accomplish the task or create new ideas, knowledge, perspectives, and ways of thinking.

Plus, these projects gave me student-produced artifacts I could use to teach my students in the other classes as well as in the future!  That's one of the essential reasons why we should have our students do projects - to have student-created artifacts, examples, and exemplars that we can use to teach our students deeper and show students what they have the potential to do with what they have learned.  Whenever I presented a story, research paper, video, or work of art one of my former students did, I always had a student who muttered, "I could do that," or even claim they could do it better.  

When we do project-based learning, we're not only allowing students to demonstrate and communicate their deeper knowledge, understanding, thinking, and awareness using their innate skills and talents.  We're helping these students to develop these skills and talents into expertise they will hopefully be able to use successfully in their personal and professional lives.  We're also thinking about the future by showing our students what they could potentially do with what they are learning and giving them the freedom to take what they have learned and come up with their own ideas, knowledge, perspectives, and ways of thinking.

Just like Michael Crichton did in every story he wrote.

- E.M.F.

(If you're interested in learning how to do project-based learning with the Multiple Intelligence Activity grid or have this training as a professional development for your teachers at your school, please contact me at or visit my website

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Let's Make a D.O.K.! A Game Show Approach to Depth of Knowledge

What exactly is depth of knowledge?

Questioning with Webb's Depth of Knowledge
The framework designed by Norman Webb (1997) categorizes depth of knowledge into four levels. 

D.O.K.-1 questions require students  to recall or reproduce knowledge and/or skills to come up with an answer that is either correct or incorrect.  Questions at this particular level usually involves working with facts, terms, and/or properties of objects.

D.O.K.-2 questions expect students to think deeper about how to answer questions by applying the knowledge and skills they have acquired and developed.  Such teaching and learning experiences involve students working with or applying skills and/or concepts to tasks related to the field of study in a laboratory setting.  They also require students to follow a set of principles, categories, and protocols in order to answer a question, address a problem, or accomplish a task. 

A D.O.K.-3 question challenges students to think critically and strategically how to answer a question acceptably, accurately, appropriately, and authentically.  They challenge and engage students to demonstrate and communicate higher levels of thinking such as analysis and evaluation but also communicate their thinking and reasoning behind their responses and results.

A D.O.K.-4 question engages students to examine and explore concepts and content deeply and think creatively how they can use their knowledge, understanding, and awareness to answer questions or come up with new ideas, knowledge, perspectives, and ways of thinking about what they are learning.  Such questions encourage students to examine and explore how to address, handle, settle, or solve real world circumstances, issues, problems, and situations through research, investigation, experimentation, and creative design.  They also expect students to express and share their claims, conclusions, decisions, and reasons using oral, written, creative, and technical expression. 

Sounds simple, right?

Then why is there so much confusion as to what qualifies as deeper knowledge, understanding, thinking, and awareness?  

Why is there so much concern over how students' depth of knowledge of concepts and content will be assessed and evaluated on assessments such as the PARCC or the Smarter Balanced exams?  

How would you explain this academic concept to a new teacher who has just entered the profession or moved from a state that had not adopted the Common Core State Standards?

How would you explain this cognitive schema to a veteran teacher who is used to aligning their instruction to the categories within the Cognitive Domain of Bloom's Taxonomy or its revised version which has split knowledge into its own dimension?

How would you explain this instructional focus to parents and students who for years have been instructed, assessed, and evaluated based upon how much they know, understand, and can do rather than how deeply they know, understand, and aware of a concept or content in order to answer a question, address a problem, or accomplish a task?

How can we develop instructional activities and assessments that not only stimulate student thinking and deepen their knowledge, understanding, and awareness about what they are learning but also measure and monitor the level of thinking and depth of knowledge they can demonstrate and communicate?

We can teach them like game show contestants.

Now wait a minute.  I'm not suggesting we turn our classroom into entertainment centers in which students compete with their classmates as to who can answer questions, address problems, or accomplish tasks correctly or successfully for a prize or reward.  I'm suggesting that they can use the format of questions, problems, and tasks on various game shows to challenge and engage students to demonstrate and communicate different levels of knowledge, understanding, thinking, and awareness.

D.O.K.-1 activities generally resemble the kind of questions contestants are asked on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or Jeopardy - multiple choice or short answer questions that require demonstrating and communicating factual knowledge of specific details, elements, and information correctly.  The questions asked on Jeopardy are similar to how we assess and evaluate our students' factual, procedural, and conceptual knowledge of the subjects and topics they are learning - asking them to recall, recognize, and remember specific details, elements, facts and information correctly.   Such questions are more difficult than complex, requiring students to work hard at remembering so many details correctly, which is why Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Jeopardy are two of the most difficult game shows on the air.  However, such questions can help students develop the knowledge and understanding they will need to think deeper about what they are learning. 

D.O.K.-2 activities are similar to the competitive tasks presented on shows such as Top Chef or Hell's Kitchen in which contestants expected to use conceptual and procedural knowledge to answer a question, address a problem, or accomplish a task.  These shows are like a lab experience in which students actively apply their knowledge, understanding, and skills to complete and are evaluated based upon their ability to produce a correct, desired, or specific result.  It expects students to use what they have learned to answer a question, address a problem, or accomplish a task.  As with Hell's Kitchen and Top Chef, D.O.K.-2 questions focus heavily on skills-based performance, expecting students to demonstrate their ability to use the factual, conceptual, and procedural knowledge they have acquired in a specific area, discipline, or subject.

D.O.K.-3 activities are similar to the problems and tasks presented on game shows such as Survivor or The Apprentice  Both shows are prime examples of problem-based learning that challenges students to think critically and strategically about how to answer a question, address a problem, or accomplish a task.  They also emphasize collaboration in that the questions, problems, and tasks posed, presented, and provided cannot be answered, addressed, or accomplished alone or immediately.  D.O.K.-3 activities are like the competitions on Survivor and the tasks on The Apprentice in that they are highly complex and focus more on the process in which a question, problem, or task can be answered, addressed, or accomplished.

D.O.K.-4 activities are like Shark Tank, which essentially is project-based learning and even engineering design.  A person thinks creatively about how to design and develop an innovative or inventive plan or product that addresses a particular circumstance, issue, problem, or situation; plots out the plan or produces a prototype; tests their idea or design; and then presents their conclusions to a panel, defending, explaining, and justifying their reasoning and results.  Project-based learning should mirror the experience of Shark Tank in that students should be expected to present what they have designed, developed, or done and have their project evaluated by the teacher and their peers as to whether it answers the essential question of the unit or class, addresses a particular objective, and teaches them something new about the concept or content they are learning.

So when you are planning your D.O.K. activities this year, consider which game show your question, problem, or task will appear and how it expects to students to demonstrate and communicate their thinking - and let's make a D.O.K.!
- E.M.F.