What if depth of knowledge actually has nothing to do with knowledge at all?
Just let that simmer for a moment and consider this - or, as Hans and Frans used to say, "Hear me now and listen to me later."
Webb (1997) explains how depth of knowledge "can vary on a number of dimensions, including level of cognitive complexity of information students should be expected to know, how well they should be able to transfer this knowledge to different contexts, how well they should be able to form generalizations, and how much prerequisite knowledge they must have in order to grasp ideas". Hess (2006) describes the levels within Webb's Depth-of-Knowledge Model - which Webb himself describes as "nominative" rather than as a taxonomy that scaffolds - as "ceilings" that indicate "different ways students interact with content".
Take a close look at what both Webb and Hess, who are highly regarded as the experts on depth of knowledge, are saying. Webb talks about students' ability "to transfer the knowledge to different contexts". Hess elaborates by explaining how the depth of knowledge levels indicate"different ways interact with content" - or rather, different contexts.
So perhaps depth of knowledge is truly not about developing and demonstrating thinking and knowledge - or rather, cognition and content as categorized in the Cognitive Domain of Bloom's Taxonomy that was revised by Lorin Anderson and David Krathwohl (2001). Perhaps depth of knowledge is actually about context - the different scenarios, setting, and situations - or ways - knowledge can be transferred and used.
Perhaps when developing learning environments and delivering educational experiences that foster and promote depth of knowledge based upon the levels of Webb's Depth-of-Knowledge Model, we should use these criteria to mark and measure how deeply and extensively students will be expected to demonstrate and communicate their learning:
- DOK-1: What is the knowledge? The context at this level of knowledge is topical, focusing on the specific concepts and content being taught and learned in class. For example, in English language arts, the instructional focus is on the specific text or particular topic being read and reviewed. Similarly, in history and social studies, the instructional focus is on specific ideas, incidents, and individuals that occurred during a particular period of time. In math and science, the instructional focus is on concepts, procedures, and terminology. The objective is for students to read and research to build the background knowledge and foundational understanding. The goal is for students to process the information they have acquired and developed into the knowledge they will need to draw upon and use to attain and explain answers, conclusions, decisions, outcomes, results, and solutions.
- D.O.K.-2: How can the knowledge be used? The context at this level is applicable, involving students in demonstrating and communicating - or showing and telling - how they can use the knowledge they have developed. For example, in English language arts, the instructional focus is on how authors and texts use the elements of craft, structure, and language to present ideas and information. In history and social studies, the instructional focus is on how ideas, incidents, and individuals can be categorized, classified, and compared; In math, the instructional focus is on how mathematical concepts and procedures can be used to solve mathematical algorithmic and word problems. Similarly in science, the instructional focus is on how scientific concepts and procedures can be used to produce a particular outcome or result. The objective is for students to examine, experiment with, and explain how and why concepts and procedures can be used. The goal is for students to understand and use these concepts and procedures to answer questions, address problems, accomplish tasks, and analyze texts and topics.
- D.O.K.-3: Why Can the Knowledge Be Used? The context at this level is multidimensional, engaging students to think critically and strategically about reasons, relationships, and results and how and why answers and outcomes are accurate, achievable, and attainable. The context can be reflective, engaging students to think strategically transfer and use what they have learned to attain and explain causes, connections, and consequences. In these contexts, students are presented the outcome or result of a scenario or situation and asked to transfer and use what they have learned to defend, explain, and justify why it is practical, possible, or even proper. In English language arts, the instructional focus is on explaining the impact of a text or topic and its intended - or unintended - effect on the reader or audience based upon how its written and presented. Similarly, in history and social studies, the instructional focus is on explaining the impact and effect of historical ideas, incidents, and individuals. In math, the instructional focus is on using reasoning and proof to defend, explain, and justify why an answer or solution to a mathematical algorithmic or word problem is correct or incorrect. In science, the instructional focus is on explaining why can science be used to explain a natural event or phenomena. DOK-3 contexts can also be hypothetical, asking students transfer and use the knowledge they have acquired and developed consider, imagine, and predict, and validate - or invalidate - what if, what could happen, what would happen, or and how will. DOK-3 contexts can also argumentative, engaging students to transfer and use the knowledge they have acquired and developed as examples and evidence to strengthen and support their claims and conclusions. In essence, the objective is for students not to transfer and use the knowledge they have acquired and developed to describe what is the answer or demonstrate how can the answer be attained but decide and defend why is this the answer.
- D.O.K.-4: What else can be done with the knowledge? The context at this level is extensive, encouraging students to look beyond the teacher, the text, the topic, and even themselves to explore how else can the knowledge be used and express what can you do with the knowledge. At this level, students are demonstrating expert thinking and communicating disciplinary literacy - the ability to read, write, and think in the academic disciplines. These learning experiences take students across the curriculum and beyond the classroom to explore how and why can the deeper and extensive knowledge they have acquired be transferred and used to address and respond to a variety of academic and real world circumstances, issues, problems, and situations. In English language arts, the instructional focus is on exploring how the central ideas and themes expressed in a particular may be expressed similarly or differently in another text within a the same or different genre or written by the same or different author. In math, the instructional focus is on exploring how can the mathematical concepts, operations, procedures, and theories can be used to address and solve complex real world problems. Similarly in science, the instructional focus is on extensively exploring and explaining natural events and phenomena through scientific inquiry and engineering design. In history and social studies, the instructional focus is on exploring and establishing the lasting and long-term impact and relevancy of historical ideas, incidents, and individuals. The objective is to make the concepts and content students are learning practical and personal by encouraging them to experiment with and design how else could they transfer and use what they have learned beyond what has been presented to them in class as an assignment or an assessment. The goal is for students to develop self-knowledge and awareness of why the concepts and content is important and vital - or essential - to learn and how can they personally use what they have learned academically, professionally, and personally.
When considering what level of Webb's model a learning experience falls - be it for planning or evaluating instruction - use the following questions to guide you:
- Is the expectation for the students to show and tell what is the knowledge that defines the concept or content? Then the learning experience would be designated as a DOK-1.
- Is the expectation for the students to show and tell how can the knowledge be used to answer a question, address a problem, accomplish a task, or analyze a text or topic? Then the learning experience would be designated as a DOK-2.
- Is the expectation for the students to show and tell why can the knowledge be used to attain and explain answers, conclusions, decisions, outcomes, results, and solutions? Then the learning experience would be designated as a DOK-3.
- If the expectation for the students to show and tell what else can be done with the knowledge or how can you use the knowledge in different academic and real world contexts o? Then the learning experience would be designated as a DOK-4.
Hopefully this clears some confusion about what exactly depth of knowledge. It's not about the content or the cognition but rather the context in which the knowledge and thinking can be transferred and used - topically, applicably, multidimensionally, or extensively.
Erik M. Francis, M.Ed., M.S., is the lead professional education specialist and owner of Maverik Education LLC, providing professional development and consultation on teaching and learning for cognitive rigor. His book Now THAT'S a Good Question! How to Promote Cognitive Rigor Through Classroom Questioning will be published by ASCD in July 2016. For more information, please visit www.maverikeducation.com.