DOK: A Catalyst for Depth of Instruction

I am not sure if we are in the middle of a series of reforms, finishing another round, in a lull, or just really getting started. I think the answer would be different depending on whom you ask, and the most popular answer may be “all of the above.” In this confused state, many dedicated educators are trying to sift through the issues of compliance and reform to maintain focus on our purpose: student learning and classroom instruction. We need to find the right leverage points within each District to foster the systemic growth that is within the organization’s capacity to learn. At East Hampton Schools we are using Webb's Depth of Knowledge (DOK) to connect three separate initiatives, all focused on the planning of instruction.

The organizational learning required needs to be within what I have come to think of as the systemic “zone of proximal development” (ZPD). The zone of proximal development has been defined as: "the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers" (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86). It is the area between what a learner knows and can do on their own and the new learning desired. With guidance and support, the student can move toward the independent application of the new knowledge and skills. If organizations are “organic,” then the organization has a ZPD which is where organizational learning can happen with the proper guidance and support.

Where are the best leverage points for systemic improvement in classroom instruction? I believe that the next steps in school reform must be devised and implemented at the district level. For better or worse, we have evolved into a system where state assessments drive instruction. The state provides standards and assesses student achievement of those standards. The new standards and assessments are by no means perfect, but they are better that what was and more in line with the knowledge and skills students need. The instructional rubrics each district has adopted outline the type of planning, instruction, and assessment required. Each district, or groups of districts, should evaluate what new learning will best move the system in the desired direction. Through the teacher observation process, I have witnessed hundreds of the learning experiences teachers have created for our students. In most of those classes, teachers demonstrate hard work, professionalism, and a deep caring for the wellbeing of their students. When I evaluate the successes and areas where the experience could be improved, there are some consistencies I have noticed throughout the 19 years I have been observing teachers. Using the Danielson Rubric as a tool, teachers consistently struggle with Domain 1, Planning and Preparation, specifically Component 1c. As Danielson states in Enhancing Professional Practice, “In the framework for teaching, the purpose is central. Component 1c (selecting instructional goals) casts a long shadow over the entire framework. The instructional goals must themselves be valuable and suitable for the students. Also, the instructional methods, proposed assessment techniques, and teacher’s reflection on the lesson must address the instructional goals. Do the activities and materials serve to achieve the instructional purpose that the teachers have established? Will the assessment techniques assess student achievement of the goals, and will they respect both the content and process inherent in the goals?” (Danielson, 1997, P.26).

You must plan for successful instruction. That process starts with clearly understanding what you want the students to learn, what level of mastery you expect them to achieve, and how they will demonstrate the degree of proficiency they achieve. Before the implementation of the CCSS and the related initiatives, Popham (2009) wrote of the “repeated mistakes made by generations of educators.” He identifies “A preoccupation with instructional means...Many teachers focus almost obsessively on the instructional procedures they use, rather than on the impact those procedures have on students...Many teachers persist in employing instructional activities that are of limited benefit to students.” He suggests, “Teachers who have a clear grasp of the relationship between educational ends and means are more likely to understand the importance of routinely verifying the quality of their instructional procedures (means) according to the impact those procedures have on students (ends). The nature of this means-ends relationship - and the need to evaluate means according to the ends they produce - must be emphasized in the preservice preparation of teachers and administrators.” Discussing the underutilization of classroom assessments, and abysmal assessment literacy he states, “Assessment-dependent educational decisions call for assessment knowledgeable educators...Preservice and professional development initiatives need to address two key areas: classroom assessment and accountability assessment.” (p. 6-7)

These areas of concern for the planning and preparation of rigorous instruction have as their foundation the ability to create or find the right question(s). The right questions to frame student inquiry, the right questions to engage students throughout the process and the right questions to assess student levels of mastery. This is not taught in pre-service training, and very few of our veteran teachers received professional development in this area. In designing standardized assessments of the new standards, states have used Webb’s DOK to align the cognitive complexity of the standards and the assessment items. In-service learning, using DOK as a tool to understand the relationship of the learning required by the standards and the planning and preparation process, seems to be a logical leverage point for productive change within the systems ZPD. The DOK construct is simple to get started with, yet nuanced enough to grow with increased understanding and more complex application.

If a thorough knowledge of DOK will inform the instructional improvements we desire, how is that new learning best delivered to the teachers on a scale that will have system wide impact? The East Hampton School District is piloting initiatives within the District and regionally that target improvement of the planning process through an understanding of DOK and the alignment of cognitive complexity between the standards, instructional outcomes, assessments and instructional activities. Each initiative looks to take advantage of a different leverage point within the system, all with the shared goal of improving the student learning experience. The first is embedded in the existing observation process; the second focused on new staff members, and the third is a regional testing consortium.

As the next step in improving our observation protocol and embedding the language of DOK into the district culture, all administrators involved in teacher observations and consultants that deliver professional learning for the District, experienced a full day training in the DOK construct through WebbAlign, building on prior knowledge of DOK for our administrators and consultants. All social studies and science teachers initially received the same training. Additional groups of teachers received training throughout the year. Our observation protocol, using the Danielson Rubric, will focus on question development using DOK as a framework. Teachers will not be held accountable for DOK alignment of standard, instructional outcome, assessment, and activities; they have not received sufficient training. Embedding the learning process in existing routines like the pre and post observation conferences is a natural way to leverage systemic change. We are learning together.

The focus of the second initiative is to provide new teachers with a strong instructional foundation. The first years of teaching can be overwhelming. Trying to navigate an often flawed system and find your niche in the school culture that you hope to thrive in is stressful enough. Add in trying to apply all you have learned about teaching and learning during four years of college while struggling with classroom management, student motivation, and parents, and there are a lot of sleepless nights. The first few years are difficult at best, and I believe some of the negative institutional habits present in schools stem from this early experience. Many leverage points can be used to initiate change, but the most logical place to focus on long-term systemic change is with new teachers. The East Hampton School District has traditionally invested resources to support new teachers. There is a three-day orientation before the first day of school. During the three-day orientation, workshops focused on creating a familiarity with the Danielson Rubric and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK). These first two meetings during the summer were intended to narrow down the focus for the new teachers. The rubric was distilled down to question development as an essential linchpin and how the DOK construct, in combination with the rubric, can guide alignment with the new standards. As we move into the school year, the workshops require teachers to use Domain 1 of the Danielson Rubric in conjunction with their understanding of DOK to create a unit of study that they consider “exemplary.” The project is a collaborative process, each teachers working with peers and administration. Second and third-year teachers will participate in the same project but will be able to start with a unit already used in the past and look to improve the outcomes. This constant revision and improvement is another habit that benefits all teachers. The quality of the product will also be a shared responsibility, not a reflection of any individual's abilities to be assessed by the administration.

The third initiative is a regional testing consortium. The eastern end of Long Island is geographically isolated, and the school districts are small. The objective of the assessment consortium is to provide data to inform instruction by developing common end of year assessments for the participating districts. The database created will be sufficient to provide statistical analysis not possible for individual districts. The development process requires training in; assessment literacy; DOK; item development; and analysis of NYS standards. The experience is designed to cultivate teachers’ support of the process and product and the long term development of the skills needed to develop units of study around rigorous questions.

The three initiatives underway at East Hampton all focus on creating opportunities for new learning that are within most participants ZPD. The initiatives all share a common goal and language. We anticipate the foundational DOK constructs and application to the planning and preparation process will become embedded in the instructional culture of the district and leverage the instructional improvements we seek. The professional development at East Hampton is an example of what can happen on the district and regional level to continue the progress towards research based instruction. Each district must evaluate the capacity of its' staff, what new learning is "in the zone," and then determine what leverage points will have the best chance of resulting in the new learning having a positive effect on classroom instruction.


Danielson, C. Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching 2nd Edition.Alexandria VA. A.S.C.D. 1997.

W. James Popham. “Unlearned Lessons: Six stumbling blocks to our schools’ success.”Harvard Education Letter. March/April 2009 Vol 25, Number 2: 6-8.

Vygotsky, L. S. Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.1978.

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