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Higher order thinking correlates to the kind of knowledge and type of thinking that needs to be demonstrated in order to answer a question, address a problem, or accomplish a task.  When we  plan instruction and and assessment for higher order thinking, we educators typically mark and measure the level of thinking students are to demonstrate using Bloom's Taxonomy - specifically, the revised version by Anderson and Krathwohl (2001).

Depth of knowledge is an entirely different means of measuring and monitoring rigorous teaching and learning.  It correlates more to how extensively students are to express and share their knowledge and thinking.  Are students expected to express and share the depth of their factual and conceptual knowledge (What is the information that needs to be known and understood?), procedural knowledge (How can the information be used to answer questions, address problems, and accomplish tasks accurately and appropriately?), strategic knowledge (Why can the information be used to produced a correct answer, desired outcome, or specific result?), or extended knowledge (What else can be done with the information? How else could it be used?  What could you design, develop, or do with the information?)?

​The Depth-of-Knowledge Model developed by Norman Webb (2002) designates the scope of a learning activity as well as the depth of understanding students are expected to demonstrate and communicate in order to answer a question, address a problem, accomplish a task, or analyze a text or topic.   Webb's Depth-of-Knowledge Model, however, is not a taxonomy.  It does not scaffold like the categories within Bloom's.  Hess (2006) describes the levels as ceilings, not steps, establishing how deeply and extensively students will express and share the depth of their learning.​

​Unfortunately, depth of knowledge has been misinterpreted and misrepresented as another way to categorize and scaffold higher order thinking skills, and much of that misconception can be attributed to this poster of the D.O.K. Wheel.  If you look at the different pies in the wheel, you will notice that it categorizes depth of knowledge by the actions students will perform.  That's higher order thinking, and those verbs are cognitive actions or processes students will demonstrate.  

Depth of knowledge establishes the setting, scenario, or situation in which learning is demonstrated and communicated.  It addresses context rather than cognition -- in other words, it's not what the student is expected to do or demonstrate but rather the scenario or the situation in which students express and share their learning.

A D.O.K.-1 learning experience involves knowledge acquisition - acquiring and gathering the information students will need to strengthen and support their thinking.  A D.O.K.-1 assignment or assessment is very content-driven, focusing recognizing, researching, and rephrasing who, what, where, when, and how about data, definitions, details, facts, figures, ideas, information, principles, and procedures.  hese questions, problems, and tasks  would directly address and respond to the specific texts and topics being read and reviewed in class.  For example, the work of literary fiction current being read, the mathematical concept being taught, the scientific subject, or the historical topic.  Students can think deeply about the concepts and content; however, the context is more academic and factual.

A D.O.K.-2 learning experience involves knowledge application - demonstrating and communicating how information can be used to achieve or attain a certain answer, outcome, or result.  A D.O.K-2 assignment or assessment is highly procedural, challenging students to understand, analyze, and evaluate how does it function, how does it work, or how is it used.  These learning activities prompt students to answer questions, address problems, and accomplish tasks correctly and successfully by applying practices, principles, and processes accurately and appropriately.   Examples of D.O.K.-2 items and tasks would involve explaining how to use a mathematical procedure to solve mathematical and real world  algorithmic and word problems, explaining how a natural event of phenomena occurs, how a text or author uses craft, structure, and the conventions of language to express and share ideas and information, or how a historical event turned out as it did.  

A D.O.K.-3 learning experience involves knowledge analysis - examining and explaining why is this information essential and relevant to know, understand, and be aware of in order to study phenomena, solve problems, and solidify meaning.   A D.O.K.-3 assignment or assessment engages students to think strategically and use reasoning to analyze and evaluate what are the causes, connections, and consequences.  These learning activities prompt students to express and share why can the knowledge be used to produce a certain result and how can the knowledge be used to categorize, classify, and clarify ideas, incidents, individuals, and issues.  Examples would be analyzing why an author chose to present ideas and information in a certain medium and evaluate what is the effect the author's choices has on the text and the reader.  In math and science, a D.O.K.-3 question, problem, or task engages a student to a combination of deductive and inductive reasoning to examine and explain outcomes and results.  In history, students are engaged to establish historical arguments about the claims and conclusions made about historical ideas, incidents, individuals, and issues.  They also encourage students to think hypothetically about what if, what would happen, or what could happen given certain criteria, factors, or situations.

A  D.O.K.-4 learning experiences involves knowledge augmentation - recognizing and realizing how and why information is beneficial addressing and responding to circumstances, issues, problems, and situations in a variety of circumstances and contexts.  A D.O.K.-4 assignment or assessment encourages students to expand their knowledge and extend their thinking beyond the topic, the teacher, the text, and even themselves to consider what else or how else.  These are the items and tasks that generally foster and promote active learning such as project-based and problem-based learning that encourage students to analyze and evaluate what impact or influence do ideas, incidents, individuals, and issues have across the curriculum and beyond the classroom.  They also encourage students to think creatively about what can you create, do, or produce with the deeper thinking and extensive knowledge they have acquired and developed.

Notice how these levels are categorized not by the cognitive actions the students are to take but rather the context in which students demonstrate and communicate their thinking.   While the level of thinking varies, the depth of knowledge depends upon the extent in which student are to demonstrate and communicate what they have learned - factually (D.O.K.-1), conceptually and procedurally (D.O.K.-2), strategically and reasonably (D.O.K.-3), or extensively and authentically (D.O.K.-4).

Still, many of us educators and our students need some kind of graphic or visual to help us clearly "see the picture" presented by depth of knowledge.  The D.O.K. Wheel unfortunately brings more confusion than clarity.  Therefore, I would like to present a visual that could provide some guidance and support - the D.O.K. Ceilings (see the graphic at the header of this blog).

Below is the graphic I use when I conduct my presentations on questioning for cognitive rigor, which is defined by the level of thinking and depth of knowledge students are challenged and engaged to demonstrate and communicate in their learning.  Look closely at how this image is constructed.  These are not steps but rather ceilings that indicate how extensively students are to engage with the subjects and topics they are learning.  

Hopefully, this graphic will help you design those D.O.K. lessons you are desperately trying to develop and your administrators are wanting to see - and finally rid us of the grossly inaccurate D.O.K. Wheel.

why the d.o.k. wheel does not address depth of knowledge

How many of you have seen or been given a copy of the DOK Wheel?

Perhaps you were provided this graphic from your district or school to use as a frame of reference for planning instruction and assessment for depth of knowledge.

Perhaps this is the image that popped up when you conducted an online search about depth of knowledge.

Perhaps some of you are using this to develop lessons and units that you believe prompt and encourage students to demonstrate their depth of knowledge about the concepts and content they are learning.

​Well, stop it!  Do not use this wheel! In fact, BURN THIS if not physically then out of your memory because this is NOT depth of knowledge.  It's actually a (very poor) graphic for demonstrating higher order thinking.

What's the difference?

By Erik M. Francis, M.Ed., M.S.

Originally Published September 2016, ASCD Edge

Updated February 2017