Part of my job as a curriculum supervisor involves doing professional development with teachers about curriculum and instruction in mathematics. With implementation of the Pennsylvania Core Standards (based on the Common Core State Standards) coming quickly, we are spending a great deal of time talking about the shifts that must happen in our classrooms to effectively implement the standards.

Part of that shift is teaching for greater depth, and a focus on “cognitive sweat,” asking students to reason, argue, and solve problems.

But my kids can’t even multiply 6 times 8 yet. How can they solve complex problems? They have to learn the facts and skills first. And besides, there’s this state test.…” The conversation often ends with an assertion that getting to rich, engaging problems is a pipe dream that can’t happen until kids get smarter and state assessments go away. Which means never.

My argument that the facts, skills, and state test will work out just fine if we really do focus on the deep learning are waved off as the ramblings of an idealistic administrator who has lost touch with the “real world.”

The state test results in my district, like in many, are the rope in a tug of war. We simultaneously want to improve our scores (since they matter to the community and school board) and also to ignore them because they don’t tell the real, rich story of learning that happens in our classrooms. We pore over benchmark data, trying to figure out how to remediate weaknesses and support struggling learners. We search for programs and resources and ideas for getting kids to proficient. All while we lament the relentless race to the top.

Please don’t misunderstand: I am not opposed to using data to inform instructional decisions. Quite the opposite. In fact, I think there are some specific things we can learn about our students from the data that we get from these state tests and benchmarks. I also think we have the wrong approach to fixing the problems the data reveal.

As part of our Core Standards curriculum alignment, we have begun introducing our teachers to Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK). In a nutshell, Webb’s categorizes tasks into four groups based on the level of cognitive engagement required to perform them:

Level 1: Recall. These are straightforward, single-​step tasks where the only cognitive effort is to remember a fact, algorithm, or simple procedure.

Level 2: Skill/​Concept. At this level, students are required to make some decisions rather than just demonstrating a rote response. This includes sorting activities, comparisons, interpreting graphs, and such.

Level 3: Strategic Thinking. The essential features of this level are reasoning, planning, and the use of evidence. Drawing conclusions and justifying decisions would be examples of a Level 3 task.

Level 4: Extended Thinking. These tasks typically require investment of significant time, effort, and resources. Examples would be designing and conducting an experiment, planning a survey and analyzing the data collected, or synthesizing ideas from multiple sources across content areas.

Standardized tests attempt to assess students’ abilities to perform Level 2 and Level 3 tasks. Unfortunately, the limitations of the test format make the test items look, to us, as though they are Level 1 recall items. Our response is, naturally, to drive our instruction to degenerate into a series of drills intended to help kids recall the answers to those questions. We end up chasing a shapeshifting Púca because the specific items may or may not be the same as what we see in the item sampler.

Our curricula and the textbooks we choose to support them are designed this way, too. We take things that are complex and subtle and reduce them to mechanical processes that students are trained to follow until they are automatic. Rich problems are reduced to a recipe. Math teacher Dan Meyer puts it this way: “What we’re doing here is taking a compelling question, a compelling answer, but we’re paving a smooth, straight path from one to the other and congratulating our students for how well they can step over the small cracks in the way.” (from Math Class Needs a Makeover)

Choosing to teach for depth, aiming for real problem solving instead of rote recall of algorithms, is hard work, but it can work. I had the opportunity today to speak with educators from the Washington Montessori public school in Greensboro, NC. The school is the 2014 recipient of ASCD’s Whole Child Vision in Action Award. Several years ago, facing an imminent shutdown by the state due to low achievement scores, the school reinvented itself. The team has created a space and culture that nurtures the whole child and focuses on deep and real learning.

Being a Montessori-​accredited school, they follow the Montessori principles, which include broad student choice, independent learning plans, and multi-​age groups. As as a public school they are accountable for the same standards and high-​stakes tests as all other public schools in North Carolina. Yet they have found a way to blend these apparently competing goals and achieved great success in the process. “The teachers at this school make the difference,” says curriculum team member Paulita Musgrave. According to Musgrave, teachers do not just teach, they care for each student, often spending a great deal of time nurturing them and helping them to become more self-​reliant and self-confident.

Gillian Hill, who teaches a 1st/​2nd grade class in the school, explains that the teachers are not limited by preconceptions about what a child can do. She often has first graders who see what older or more advanced students are doing during their independent work and want to do it themselves. Because Hill has a broad collection of resources in her class, “I’m able to take them as far as they can go. They’re able to fly.” Students actively seek to work hard so they can attempt and participate in the more challenging tasks they see other students doing.

So my challenge to you is to take a brave step: walk away from the test prep curriculum, and think about how to build your classroom around deep, engaging, learning. What will that look like? What are the obstacles that might get in your way? How can you work with those obstacles, or work around them, to make this happen? Share your thoughts in the comments.