The prompts of depth and complexity are an incredible tool to begin differentiating learning objectives.
Teachers can quickly modify a lesson’s goal to increase the challenge by plugging in the depth and complexity prompts. But, I frequently see the prompts used at a mere surface level in classrooms.
🚨 Depth and Complexity won’t do anything meaningful if we’re asking low-level questions to start with 🚨
In other words, you have to consider Bloom’s Taxonomy before you play with Depth and Complexity.
Beyond Just Depth & Complexity
Sure, you can drop “patterns” into an objective to raise the level of the content, like so:
- Before: “Look for a character’s actions”
- After: “Look for the patterns in a character’s actions.”
Note, however, that the thinking skill is unchanged. Students are still “looking for.” On Bloom’s Taxonomy, that’s “identify” — a very low-order thinking skill. When we use depth and complexity we can’t neglect the thinking skill.
It’s Not Your Fault
I gave a talk about this problem and a program supervisor came up afterwards, ashen-faced, and said, “I’ve been doing it wrong for ten years!”
It’s such an easy trap to fall into because every example of Depth and Complexity I see is at the bottom of Bloom’s. There’s virtually nothing out there that’s actually deep or complex!
Look at any of these charts and you’ll see this pattern: every question begins with “what…”
- What are the rules…
- What are the patterns…
- What are the details…
These low-level questions are an ok starting point, but please don’t stop here.
It’s About Thinking, Not Just Content
When planning a lesson, we can’t just differentiate content (which is what the prompts of depth and complexity do). We must also adjust the thinking that we expect students to do.
A Shakespeare play is content. And it seems like pretty advanced content — unless you’re asking something like this:
List the main characters’ in Romeo and Juliet.
That’s bottom-of-the-barrel Blooms. Remember or identify. You can add all of the depth and complexity you want, but you’re still asking a low-level question.
Meanwhile, Dr. Seuss seems like basic content — unless you’re asking students something like this:
“Evaluate the ethical use of power in The Cat In The Hat and compare it to the use of power in Green Eggs and Ham. In which story is power used more dangerously?”
Here, despite the seemingly low level of content (Dr. Seuss), we’ve pumped up both the content (by making it about the ethical use of power) and the thinking (evaluate; compare and contrast) so that it’s actually a pretty interesting question… even for older students. Heck, this would have been a fun question to tackle in college!
When writing an objective, we must increase the complexity of, not just the content, but also the thinking skill.
Climb The Taxonomy
Instead of just asking kids to “identify” over and over, climb Bloom’s Taxonomy in combination with a prompt of depth and complexity. Here’s an example:
- Look for patterns in a character’s actions.
- Compare the patterns in this character’s actions with another character’s.
- Judge the ethics of the patterns we see in this character’s actions.
- Create a new situation that would continue this pattern.
At each step, students are forced to think harder about the patterns they’ve uncovered. They’re no longer just “identifying.”
And notice how each step easily leads to a larger, more complex product.
At level one, a student could just write a sentence, but after that, the responses need to be bigger. Perhaps by the end, students are debating and creating skits.
An Interactive Version
Many years ago, I created The Differentiator, an interactive tool based on these ideas to help you modify the parts of a differentiated objective. Play around with it to see what a big difference the thinking skill can make!
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