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Before We Begin

To really understand the use of the depth and complexity icons, purchase one of Dr. Sandra Kaplan’s books (Flip Book or Flip Book, Too for example).

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

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!

11 Ideas

  1. elonahartjes 23 August 2009 at 5:44 pm #

    Although your focus here is on gifted lessons, I can see applying your suggestions to lessons for my “at-risk” students. They may find more depth and complexity more engaging . I'm usually just trying to get them through the course. I'm rethinking my approach now and going to add more depth and complexity. Do you know if anyone teaching “at-risk” kids has used this approach?

    Elona Hartjes

  2. Ian Byrd 27 August 2009 at 10:46 pm #

    At my school, depth and complexity is used in all classes. My understanding is that it was designed with English Learners in mind, hence the visual icons. Let me know if you have success implementing depth and complexity in your situation!

  3. greguche 19 April 2010 at 1:05 am #

    I have learned a lot about the nature and use of depth and complexity in GT instructions. I intend to use them in my class.

  4. greguche 19 April 2010 at 5:05 am #

    I have learned a lot about the nature and use of depth and complexity in GT instructions. I intend to use them in my class.

  5. Plau 8 July 2010 at 5:03 am #

    At risk means very little. Many GT kids are also at risk. Depth and complexity is the goal. The means is scaffording. It would be easier to manage if you have it done as student-guided..

  6. Tavia Leachman 9 November 2010 at 5:19 am #

    you should explain what the icons mean. that would help a lot better with the understandings. Thanks

  7. Lloredo 10 December 2010 at 6:04 am #

    i am trying to implement depth and complexity in my classroom for all students. Special education has to be service at their level of learning, but I believe they have to be challenge . I always modified the lesson for this students, but I have to understand that they are a lot low levels students that are GT in different areas. So I have to modified my lesson to meet the expectation of our students needs.

  8. Aswan 12 December 2010 at 3:34 pm #

    I don’t have a GT class, yet there are a few really smart kids mixed in with the striving. The other day I offered some open ended questions about weight (tons) and let the kids reveal their prior knowledge. They really enjoyed the conversation. Even the stiving students had something brilliant to say. Seems akin to self-directed and I will do the open ended instruction more often.

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