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 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 ask “Compare and contrast the 🚦 rules that Lincoln and Washington created as presidents.”
That’s a big difference in expectation, right?
Each tool is represented by an icon that gives students a visual shortcut to expert thinking. 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. If I spot an interesting pattern, I’ll draw a 🌀 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 or professionally designed images. It sets the bar too high. 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 specific 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 of depth and complexity. Yeah, there are a lot! But no need to use them all at first. Get comfy with like four. AND you’ll be surprised how quickly you start to pick them up.
Without a doubt, the biggest problem people make with Depth and Complexity is: pairing an icon with a low level of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
Look at these three tasks and think about what the level of thinking that each requires:
- 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 requires merely 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 – despite using depth and complexity.
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.
So please make sure to pair depth and complexity with high levels of thinking:
- 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 vocabulary words” and really get kids thinking?
Depth and Complexity Resources
Ok! Let’s take a break here and I’ll point you to a few Depth and Complexity resources that I’ve had a hand in creating:
- 📝 I made this free Depth and Complexity PDF
- 📕 I co-wrote the book on Depth and Complexity with my friend Lisa Van Gemert.
- ❓ Lisa took all of the questions from our book put them into a scandalously cheap eBook Depth and Complexity Question Stems eBook.
- 📼 I have videos for each prompt for students as well as for teachers over at Byrdseed.TV.
With all of these resources, you’ll find depth and complexity paired with high-level thinking.
Now, if you’d like to continue on, I have an article about how to introduce depth and complexity to your students!