Complex Instruction

Recently on dy/dan I posted a comment discouraging another teacher from visiting San Lorenzo High School to observe classes operating under the Complex Instruction model. Writing that comment was a sad moment for me. Pretty much all of my reflections on my time at San Lorenzo are bitter sweet.

San Lorenzo High was the “Mecca” of Complex Instruction. When I taught there, it wasn’t uncommon that teachers from other schools, many from other states, would come to observe us. I was proud of what we were doing and I was glad that other teachers were learning from us and attempting to bring the Complex Instruction model to their own schools.

Perhaps it’s just the way of things. That “all good things must come to an end” or “this too shall pass” or whatever other expressions and homilies you can think of to represent the end of something great. For some reason, despite the fact that the program at SLZ was considered remarkable by other schools, by educational researchers, by the teachers within the school, the administration at the district office didn’t believe in what was happening in the math classrooms. The test scores weren’t good enough, and they believed that they knew better than anyone else what “good teaching” should look like. Their picture didn’t look at all like Complex Instruction. Changes got made, teachers decided to leave, and the CI culture at San Lorenzo is starting to disappear. So, I stand by my recommendation to stay home.

However, I realized that this isn’t particularly helpful for teachers and other people who want to know more about this system. I decided I needed to share some resources that I think are helpful if you are someone who wants to know more about CI.

An overview: Complex Instruction is about group work. But CI recognizes that group work is more, much more, than just seating students together and telling them to work on a problem together. There are two essential ideas to effective group work: 1) having a “group-worthy” task, and 2) recognizing and taking conscious steps to alleviate status issues that will arise in any group activity, no matter how well-designed.

Some good starting places:

  • The book Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom by Elizabeth Cohen is great. I read this book when I was student teaching (in a school that was implementing Complex Instruction). It changed the way I thought about teaching and learning.
  • Everything I’ve ever heard about The Teacher’s Development Group has been positive. I haven’t taken their courses, but someday I’d like to. They have an institute called Designing Groupwork In Mathematics that I have heard wonderful things about, and that is based on the ideas of CI. I pulled the following from their description of the institute: “Participants gain tools and strategies for assuring that all students – regardless of their ethnic, language, socio-economic, and/or achievement backgrounds – have equal-status participation in small groups and are accountable for success on challenging learning tasks.” What’s not to like about that? They also have a Groupwork session for science teachers.
  • Jo Boaler’s book What’s Math Got To Do With It? has some really good examples of Complex Instruction in math classrooms at several different schools in both the states and Great Britain.

If anyone else has ideas about good CI resources, please post them in the comments.

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2 thoughts on “Complex Instruction

  1. Boaler and Cohen have both been great resources for me to learn about complex instruction (along with the 2-3 former San Lorenzo High teachers who helped me a ton). As I continue to develop my teaching pedagogy I am learning that authentic groupwork / groupworthy tasks / complex instruction is so much more than the physical arrangement of your students. It is about what you’re asking the students to do together (seatwork vs. true cognitive challenges); it’s about how you establish the norms in the classroom and what mathematical habits of mind you value. It’s about how you validate students’ multiple intelligences, assign status, and construct environments where every student has the opportunity to make meaningful contributions.

    The act of working in groups is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to creating a setting that is conducive to complex instruction.

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