The Depth and Complexity icons are tools that will take students of any age deeper into a study of any content area. Each of the eleven prompts acts as a different lens, prompting students to look at a topic in a new way. They will help you to take your advanced students deeper into grade-level material rather than moving them onto a new topic.
Sound too good to be true? Read on!
👋 And, by the way, I co-authored the book about the entire Depth and Complexity Framework!
- The Back Story
- Quick Example
- Why the Icons?
- The Basics
- The Number One Problem
- How to Introduce It
- Combining the Prompts
- Student Reflections
The overarching goal of Depth and Complexity is to move students towards expert knowledge of content. Bette Gould and Sandra Kaplan (yes, two people developed this framework!) looked to understand how an expert understands their field differently from a layperson. Through interviews, they saw that these experts knew things like repeating patterns, required rules, ethical dilemmas, changes over time, and essential vocabulary within their field.
They identified eleven of these traits and assigned a name and a symbol to each. The idea is that students can use these same ways of thinking to move closer to an expert’s level of understanding.
Rather than just asking general questions about content, the Depth and Complexity prompts help you to quickly increase the level of content knowledge required in a question.
- A task like “Compare and contrast Lincoln and Washington” is ok, but too broad. It’s unlikely to push advanced students. They can too easily settle into the obvious and surface-level (both are humans, both are men, one has brown hair, one has grey hair).
- Instead, ask students to “Compare and contrast the ⚖️ ethical dilemmas Lincoln and Washington faced” and suddenly there’s room for a deeper understanding.
- Or say “Compare and contrast the 🚦 rules that Lincoln and Washington created as presidents.”
When we add a thinking tool, we should always see the expectations for knowledge increase.
Each tool is represented by an icon that gives students a shortcut to expert thinking. Each icon acts as a visual trigger.
The tools’ icons especially benefit younger students or those learning English. They unlock access to higher levels of thinking than those students’ vocabulary would otherwise support. But their use should not be limited to just those students.
Even as a grown man, I use the graphical icons when I take notes for my own purposes. If I spot an interesting pattern, I’ll draw the patterns icon to call it out. When I see a student draw an icon on their work, I know that they are calling out a certain way of thinking.
A final note about the graphical icons: beware relying on pretty clip art. Instead, draw the icons by hand as you teach and encourage students to do the same. The Depth and Complexity prompts are ultimately students’ tools and students should use their tools whether or not they have access to the clip art.
Here are the eleven prompts of Depth and Complexity along with a teeny explanation and a link to full articles.
|🏛️||Big Idea||An overarching idea about a topic.|
|🌻||Essential Details||The most important specifics about a topic.|
|👄||Language of the Discipline||The vocabulary an expert would use to discuss their field.|
|🚦||Rules||The laws, hierarchies, norms, etc within a topic. Breaking a rule leads to a consequence.|
|🌀||Patterns||Expected repetition within a field. These can break without necessarily creating a problem.|
|⚖️||Ethics||The problems, ambiguities, or dilemmas of a topic.|
|⏳||Change Over Time||How has a topic changed over long periods of time?|
|👓||Multiple Perspectives||How do different people view this topic?|
|❓||Unanswered Questions||Perhaps the most under-used of the prompts. It’s so much more than “What questions do you have?” Instead, push students towards what we don’t yet know about this topic? Or whatcan’t we know? Consider questions that are truly unanswered to humankind.|
|📚||Across Disciplines||How does this topic represent an intersection of other fields? How do language arts andmath appear in a topic?|
|📈||Trends||How a topic is currently changing and what forces are causing those changes? Trends is the prompt I’d most like to get rid of.|
So that’s the eleven prompts. Yeah, there are a lot. But (1) no need to use them all at first and (2) you’ll be surprised how quickly you start to pick them up. Oh! I also made an introductory Depth and Complexity PDF as part of the book I wrote with Lisa Van Gemert.
Without a doubt, the biggest problem I now see in my own, early implementation of depth and complexity was this: pairing an icon with a low level of Bloom’s.
- Identify the rules in this math problem.
- List the important details about George Washington.
- What are the patterns in the solar system?
Do you see it? ☝️ Every one of those questions only requires a list as an answer. Even though I might be taking the content deeper, I’m still asking super low-level questions. I’m at the bottom of Bloom’s.
And, now that I’m aware of it, I see it everywhere. Just do a search for “depth and complexity worksheets” and spot all of the low-level questions out there. It’s almost impossible to find any examples where the icons paired with high-levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Even the “official” products feature low-level questions.
Instead, try to:
- Compare/Contrast: How is Poe’s 👄 language different from Lewis Carrol’s?
- Evaluate: Which author most effectively uses 👄 language to create their tone?
- Synthesize: What would happen to the tone if we used some of Carrol’s 👄language in The Raven.
See how we can go beyond “List the language” to really get kids thinking?
To help you avoid this common problem, I built a tool that combines Blooms and Depth and Complexity and I’ve also written a whole article just about making sure to avoid low-level questions.
Since there are so many different tools, it’s perfectly fine to introduce them slowly over several weeks if necessary. There’s no need to overwhelm yourself or your students. In these articles, we’ll look at pairs or trios of tools that work nicely together.
Always introduce a prompt of Depth and Complexity using a topic that students are already familiar with. Then, once they understand the tool’s use, take it to grade-level content. I always like to practice with a hamburger, our school, a bicycle, video game systems – anything that kids already know about.
Introduce a Few Per Year
The school I taught at began introducing depth and complexity in kindergarten with just a handful of prompts (maybe 🏠 Big Idea, 🌻 Details, 👄 Language of the Discipline, and ❓Unanswered Questions). By second grade all the prompts were in play. Then, teachers of older students began combining multiple icons or integrating the content imperatives.
But not everyone is in a school like this. If you’re taking it on all by yourself, how do you introduce depth and complexity all at once without exploding your kids’ brains?
Introduce them Together
Personally, I like the following sequence. It pairs up prompts that (in my opinion) add to each other. Spend a week or so on each group so that students get a chance to really understand their meanings. No sense in rushing.
🏠 Big Idea and 🌻 Details: I introduce these first since they’re the easiest to grasp and are clearly opposite. Because they’re opposites, they work well as a pair. Details give us Big Ideas.
🚦 Rules and 🌀 Patterns: These can seem similar so introducing them together allows you to highlight their differences. Rules represent things that must be followed or there’s a consequence (hierarchies, laws, social norms) and Patterns represent things that often repeat, but don’t have to repeat.
⚖️ Ethics, 👓 Multiple Perspectives, and ⏳ Change Over Time: I think Ethics and Multiple Perspectives go hand-in-hand. How do different folks see the same problem? But we can also use Change Over Time to supplement Ethics. How has a problem changed? I’d also emphasize that we can combine these prompts with Rules, Patterns, Big Ideas, and Details as well.
👄 Language of the Discipline and 📚 Across The Discipline: we can talk about the word “discipline” here.
❓ Unanswered Questions was my most under-utilized prompt, so I might introduce it all by itself to give it the spotlight. Often I just had students “make a list of things you don’t know.” But does that really stretch their thinking? We have to do something with their unanswered questions.
Oh. And, I don’t know, throw Trends in wherever you want 😝 I think it’s superfluous.
Yes. Once they know how to use each prompt on its own, you (and your students) can start putting Depth and Complexity tools together. I love asking students to support or refute statements based on a combination of icons.
Here are some possible statements:
- 🌻 Details come together to form 🌀 patterns.
- ⚖️ Ethical problems lead to the development of new 🚦 rules.
- New 🚦rules lead to new ⚖️ ethical problems.
- 👓 Multiple perspectives create ⚖️ ethical problems.
- 👓 Multiple perspectives can come together to solve ⚖️ ethical problems.
- 👄 Language can ⏳ change over time and develop new meanings.
- 👓 Points of View can ⏳ change over time. What appears foolish at one time may wise later; and vice versa.
- When a 🌀 pattern changes, it becomes a 📈 trend.
- A ⏳ change leads to new 👓 perspectives.
- 🚦 Rules depend on the 👓 point of view.
- 🏠 Big ideas are built from 🌻 details
- A 🏠 big idea can ⏳ change over time
- New 🚦 rules create new 🌀 patterns
- 👓 Different people will view a 🌀 pattern differently
- ⏳ Changes lead to ⚖️ ethical issues.
- 📚 Combining disciplines leads to new ⏳changes.
Ok… so how would you use these? After finishing a unit, try asking students to prove or refute them.
- In Abraham Lincoln’s life, is it true or false that “New 🚦rules create new 🌀patterns?”
- In Ancient Greece, show that “⚖️ Ethical issues lead to new 🚦 rules.”
- In Hatchet, is it true that “📚Combining disciplines leads to ⏳change?”
Students will search for specific evidence to show whether these statements are true or not. Have them go across multiple disciplines. Or ask students to focus solely on math or European history or Where The Red Fern Grows. Or ask students to consider their own lives when examining these statements.
Try generating your own statements using a combination of depth and complexity. You’ll probably find that some prompts go together very naturally, while some don’t seem to fit.
Better yet, see what your students can come up with.
The prompts of depth and complexity can apply to students themselves. Try them with reflections:
- Examine the change over time in their scores. What big idea does this point to?
- Spot the patterns in the type of questions they’ve missed. Create a plan to solve this.
- Did they simply misunderstood a rule?
- Has there been a recent trend upwards or downwards?
Or you can apply the prompts to problems in class:
- Is there a problem in your class? Frame it as an ⚖️ ethical issue.
- Compare/contrast how 👓 different people are seeing this same ⚖️ problem differently?
- Is there a new 🚦rule that we need to follow to fix this?
These tools can easily go beyond the academic and into the social realm.
So Much More To Learn!
Once you get the basics, there’s always more to learn about these thinking tools. It’s a multi-year journey. I’ve been working with them for over a decade and am still surprised by their flexibility and power. Don’t be afraid to experiment and see what new ideas you and your students can create.
Gosh, if you’ve made it this far, you may be interested in the whole darn book!