What is Complex Instruction?

I often start professional development sessions by asking participants if they’ve heard of Complex Instruction. A Google search of “Complex Instruction” yields a quarter million hits, but usually there are minimal or no hands.

To me, Complex Instruction (CI) is a method of organizing instruction to increase the cognitive demand for students by giving rich tasks that are groupworthy (that is, that cannot be done individually) and creating a classroom environment with clear group norms and roles so that students can effectively communicate through the struggle that should ensue when they work together. There are many components of Complex Instruction, and they’re all interdependent. Here’s how I see them:

Of the many components of Complex Instruction, two stand out to me as being especially critical: understanding status and groupworthy tasks. The latter is something that is challenging because it requires teachers to either find, adapt, or create groupworthy tasks, all of which can be frustrating and time-consuming.

In the next posts, I will share the mistakes I’ve made and things I’ve learned about each of the components of Complex Instruction.

via Freakonomics: Qualities of Effective Teams

As an avid lover of podcasts, one of my favorites is Freakonomics Radio. In Episode 243, How to Be More Productive, there is a segment around the 23-minute mark that focuses on research Google did on its employees about what makes effective teams. As a teacher who utilizes Complex Instruction, I found that segment in particular to be especially applicable to students in group settings. Here are the things I from the podcast I will apply to my classroom (my thoughts in italics):

  • Even though we want to prioritize efficiency and working on tasks, letting teams have time to get to know each other functions as a glue that holds the team together.
    • I find this to be true of the class as a whole, which is why it’s essential for me to have off-topic non-math conversations during class time (although I try to have these conversations before class starts when possible).
  • The most important aspect of the team is not who’s on it or who leads it, but psychological safety–“which means that everyone at the table feels like they have the opportunity to speak up and that the other team members are actually listening to them and that their team members are sensitive to non-verbal cues”.
    • Because of the latter, I think it’s helpful to have a norm for asking quieter members how they feel and what they think.
  • It’s important that team members feel like they can fail and that the group will still support them.
  • There’s a difference between productivity and efficiency. Off-topic conversations are not necessarily efficient, but they can help the group be more productive.


Edublogging, take one

The first time I read an edublog was the 2007-08 school year (dy/dan, of course), and I was immediately fascinated by the way Dan Meyer reflected and collaborated about his teaching practice. I wanted this for myself, but with my wife pregnant with our first child, I thought that I should wait until I figured out the whole parenthood thing before starting. Smash cut to 8 years later where I still have not figured out parenting, but have at least learned enough to realize that there is no time like the present.

At many points in my early career, I was young enough to think I knew everything about teaching, but I’m now long past the point where I feel like Ygritte’s words were meant for me. Because I know that I know nothing, I am not foolish enough to put a direction on this edublog, but I’m quite curious to see what will capture my attention. My educational foci have changed a lot since I started teaching: from classroom management to Complex Instruction to the implementation of reform maths curricula to alternate assessment practices to mathematical modeling and back to status.

Even though I currently feel the most knowledgeable about Complex Instruction and its components, for the last year and a bit, I have been even more obsessed than normal with the mistakes in learning. I’ve always talked a lot about mistakes to my students, but for whatever reason, it just kept coming up in my brain and classroom this past school year. So with that in mind, it feels comfortable to name my edublog accordingly. As W.S.Anglin once wrote about mathematics: “[it’s] not a careful march down a well-cleared highway, but a journey into a strange wilderness, where the explorers often get lost.”

Let’s see how lost I can get…