Complex Instruction


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so that they engage with tasks that have high cognitive demand within a cooperative learning environment (Jilk, unpublished document, 2009).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:

  1. ​Access to a rigorous grade level curriculum for all students
  2. Status issues—that is those students who are perceived as smart or not based on issues of race, class, gender, reading ability, language, religion, etc.—interfere with students’ participation and learning
  3. Teachers are responsible for and capable of creating classroom communities that support all students to recognize intellectual strengths and weakness and work collaboratively to learn more content

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:

  1. Teachers learn to engage all students in rigorous mathematics learning.
  2. Equity-centered professional learning communities will support teachers to engage every student in rigorous mathematics learning.
  3. All students, and especially those from traditionally marginalized groups (AA, Latino, ELs, and Spec. Ed), will learn and achieve more in mathematics.

Find out about our SFUSD CI Program Components below.

Schools in Our Complex Instruction Program:

Elementary Schools
  • Bret Harte Elementary School
  • Cesar Chavez Elementary School (3rd grade team
K–8 Schools
  • Alice Fong Yu Alt. School
  • Bessie Carmichael K–8
  • BV/Horace Mann K–8
Middle Schools
  • Aptos Middle School
  • Denman Middle School
  • Everett Middle School
  • Hoover Middle School
  • Martin Luther King Middle School
  • Willie Brown Middle School
High Schools
  • The Academy - SF @ McAteer High School
  • Burton High School
  • Downtown High School
  • Galileo High School
  • June Jordan School for Equity
  • Mission High School
  • O'Connell High School
  • SF International High School 
  • Washington High Schoo

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):

  1. 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.
  2. Instructional Strategies – develop autonomy of and interdependence within each group through the use of norms, roles, and teacher interventions.
  3. 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:

This page was last updated on June 22, 2023