Introducing Depth and Complexity

There's a video related to this article at Byrdseed.TV →

Depth and Complexity icons

Before We Begin

J Taylor Education publishes several products related to the prompts of depth and complexity, developed by Bette Gould and Sandra Kaplan, including these free downloadable images as well as several books.

The List

Depth: Language of the discipline, big idea, essential details, rules, patterns, trends, unanswered questions, ethics.

Complexity: Change over time, multiple points of view, across the disciplines.


Each of these eleven tools are considered essential elements one needs to master a subject. For example, chemists need to understand the language of a chemist, the different points of view of in chemistry, the rules that govern chemistry, the ethical decisions chemists face, etc. Likewise, a master of chess would be an expert in the language of chess, the patterns of chess games, the rules to follow, and the way the game has changed over time.

When students think using these tools, they learn to approach subjects from the point of view of an expert. In doing so, they will understand concepts in a deeper and more complex way.

The best part is, these tools are accessible to young students which means you will have no problem picking them up!

Getting To Know Depth and Complexity

Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll point you towards some outstanding resources created by other teachers:

Try It With Popcorn

Incorporating these thinking tools becomes a relatively simple way to differentiate lessons for gifted students. Even something as simple as popcorn can be extended into an interesting topic.

While popcorn may be plain…

  • discussing the ethical issues of popcorn creates a fascinating debate…
  • looking at the trends of popcorn price at movie theaters reveals economic insights…
  • examining the rules of popcorn popping becomes a science lesson…
  • studying the details of what separates popcorn from other corn broadens thinking…
  • sharing multiple perspectives about popcorn flavoring opens minds to other cultures…
  • analyzing how popcorn has changed over time reveals new information about our changing society…

Apply To Your Curriculum

Now imagine your students…

  • comparing big ideas amongst literature.
  • contrasting the different points of view towards the American Revolution.
  • identifying the details that make one sentence more powerful than another.
  • reflecting on the trends in their math scores.
  • noting the patterns that connect multiplication and addition.

The elements of depth and complexity add a layer to curriculum that immediately increases rigor and engagement. Try inserting them into your lesson objectives to begin differentiation tomorrow.

Here’s a graphic organizer I use in my class that incorporates the depth and complexity icons to help students analyze characters.

The Depth and Complexity Icons

Although the graphical icons are available all over the internet, I’ve struggled for years getting them to fit nicely into a word document. They are always too big, don’t scale down well, and frequently throw off my carefully designed worksheet. I finally buckled down and created some resized versions to improve their readability at small sizes.

Name Small Tiny
Big Idea
Language of the Discipline
Unanswered Questions

The “New” Icons

Recently, a set of 8 new prompts has emerged. I’m not a big fan of these. I explain my thinking on the new depth and complexity icons here.

Next Steps

Next in this series, we’ll look at another set of thinking tools to differentiate your instruction for gifted students: the content imperatives. Later, we’ll also look at how you can combine these tools to create truly rigorous statements. Don’t miss out!