The prompts of Depth and Complexity are eleven thinking tools that enhance a study of nearly any content area with any age group. Each tool 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.
The Back Story
The Depth and Complexity prompts throughout to move students towards expert knowledge of content. Betty Gould and Sandra Kaplan 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.
Gould and Kaplan identified eleven of these traits and assigned a name and graphical icon to each. The idea is that students can use these same ways of thinking to move closer to an expert’s level of knowledge and understanding. And you can integrate them into your lessons to make sure students are moving toward that expert level.
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 unlikely to push advanced students. They can too easily settle into the obvious and surface-level.
- Instead, tell 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.”
By adding a tool of depth and complexity, we should always see the expectations for content knowledge increase.
About Those Icons
Each tool’s icon gives students a shortcut to expert thinking. Each image acts as a visual trigger. When your students see a black and white diamond (), for example, they know they should be considering ethical problems.
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 the nice clip art too much. 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 they should be able to use their tools whether or not they have access to the clip art.
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.
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.
The Basics of Depth and Complexity
Here are the eleven prompts of Depth and Complexity along with a teeny explanation and a link to the 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 within this field.
- Rules – The laws, hierarchies, norms, etc within a topic. Breaking these often have a consequence.
- Patterns – Expected repetition within a field. These can break without dire consequences.
- Ethics – The problems, ambiguities, or dilemmas of a topic.
- Trends – How a topic is currently changing and what forces are causing those changes?
- Change Over Time – How has a topic changed over long periods of time?
- Multiple Perspectives – How do different people view this topic?
- Across Disciplines – How does this topic represent an intersection of other fields? How do language arts and math appear in a 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 what can’t we know? Consider questions that are truly unanswered to humankind.
If you’re ready to dig in deeper, let’s start with Big Idea and Essential Details.
You can, by the way, grab the official icon images from JTaylorEducation.com.
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