The complex instruction model aims to “disrupt typical hierarchies of who is ‘smart’ and who is not” (Sapon-Shevin, 2004) by promoting equal status interactions amongst students so that they engage with tasks that have high cognitive demand within a cooperative learning environment (Jilk, unpublished document, 2009).
What is Complex Instruction?
Complex Instruction (CI) is a coherent program of pedagogical strategies grounded in the sociological research of Elizabeth Cohen and her colleagues (Cohen & Lotan, 1997; Cohen, 1994). CI aims to increase participation and learning for every child. In particular the Complex Instruction model focuses on the following:
Find out more about the pedagogy of Complex Instruction, the research behind it, and resources available below.
Complex Instruction Program
Through the Complex Instruction Professional Development Program:
Find out about our SFUSD CI Program Components below.
Schools in Our Complex Instruction Program:
Additional teachers have taken the Complex Instruction course. The above list reflects departments and sites that are committed to the work of Complex Instruction and supported through the SFUSD Complex Instruction Program.
The Research Behind Complex Instruction
Three principles of CI, when simultaneously enacted, support equitable participation and increased student learning (Cohen & Lotan, 1997):
- Multiple Ability Curriculum – provide curricular tasks that are open-ended, rich in multiple mathematical abilities, and support learning of important mathematical concepts and skills central to a big idea.
- Instructional Strategies – develop autonomy of and interdependence within each group through the use of norms, roles, and teacher interventions.
- Status and Accountability – raise intellectual expectations for all students, hold individuals and small groups accountable for learning, and intervene in status issues.
Teachers and researchers have worked together to enact and study CI in mathematics classrooms (Boaler & Staples, 2008; Featherstone et al., 2011; Horn, 2007). Research has found that engaging with CI can support teachers to rethink traditional assumptions about which students are capable, shifting the conversation from questions like, “Who is high level and who is low?” to “What does each student have to learn? What does each student have to contribute?” (Horn & Little, 2010; Horn, 2007). Research has found that teachers’ use of CI strategies for “treating” status problems—from the use of rich, open-ended mathematics curriculum, to the establishment of classroom norms of accountability and support, to direct and explicit “assignments of competence” to low-status students—can advance equity by closing racial achievement gaps and supporting students from traditionally marginalized and historically underperforming groups to learn mathematics and demonstrate their learning at high levels (Boaler & Staples, 2008).
Complex Instruction Resources
Books and research behind Complex Instruction:
- Cohen and Lotan, 2014. Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom, 3rd edition. New York: Teachers College Press.
- Featherstone, Crespo, Jilk, Oslund, Parks, and Wood, 2011. Smarter Together: Collaboration and Equity in the Elementary Math Classroom. NCTM.
- Horn, 2012. Strength in Numbers: Collaborative Learning in Secondary Mathematics. NCTM.
- Edited by Nasir, Cabana, Shreve, Woodbury, and Louie, 2014. Mathematics for Equity: A Framework for Successful Practice. Teachers College Press and NCTM.
- Watanabe, ed. 2012. "Heterogenius" Classrooms–Detracking Math & Science: A Look at Groupwork in Action. New York: Teachers College Press.
This page was last updated on June 22, 2023