Complex instruction and group-worthy tasks: my favorite math supply

If there is one thing I can’t live without it’s the knowledge gained from good professional development. I’ve sat through some awful PD, where the presenter’s material is as empty as a blank Word document—with the only visible sign of life is a flashing cursor. Not this year. I experienced something called Complex Instruction and I’ve been weaving it into my daily practice.

Complex Instruction is an alternative that addresses the limitations of ability grouping and tracking. It calls upon each student to contribute their own individual intellectual strengths to the group task.–Stanford University

I’ve previously written about some middle school math tasks we’ve created during our professional development this year (led by Evanston High School teacher Zach Herrmann), but here’s the big picture—at least my interpretation of why and how Zach implements Complex Instruction. Zach, if I get it wrong or if you want to clarify, please comment.

Why Complex Instruction—abbreviated

According to Stanford University Complex Instruction is about achieving equity in the classroom. The goal “is to provide academic access and success for all students in heterogeneous classrooms.” It is accomplished using a variation of cooperative learning where students of various abilities and backgrounds make meaningful contributions to the task. Simply put, students “don’t fail to participate because they are too shy or don’t want to participate. They don’t participate because other children in the group see them as having nothing to offer…In short, they have low academic status within the group.” (University of Vermont).

Complex tasks designed with multiple entry points lowers the barriers allowing all students an opportunity to learn. See Dan Meyer’s recent post on Equity, Race, and the Opportunity to Learn.

How it works—establishing norms and accountability

Students are empowered when the teacher creates an environment where the students are considered the authority, where most questions can be answered using the groups’ collective resources. As such each student is held accountable for the success of the group. It begins at the start of the year by setting norms, explicitly teaching, and reinforcing the expectations of what effective group work looks like and sounds like. How does the group demonstrate overall patience with others? How does an individual demonstrate patience while explaining the solution to others? How do you acknowledge and honor a valued contribution? How does the group encourage all members to participate equally? What does it mean to be a productive and responsible group?

These norms are then woven in with the eight mathematical practices. It is the responsibility of the group to make sure all members understand how one or more solutions to a task are found.

How it works—creating group-worthy tasks

Tasks are considered group-worthy if they are complex and have multiple entry points so that all learners can access the problem. The tasks are open ended, have multiple representations, and may have more than one solution.  (Boaler)

Additionally, clear criteria are provided for group and individual accountability. Several high school tasks created by the Complex Instruction Consortium can be found here.

cic task library

I’m not aware of any middle school tasks aside from few our district has created so if you know of some please share.

How it works—facilitating the learning

Students recognize that they should utilize each other as the primary resource. At times a group huddle may be needed. If the teacher sees several groups asking the same question, a representative from each group is then called to a group huddle where the teacher provides some insight. Or resource cards with information are provided. The resource cards are designed to allow more entry paths towards solving the problem. The onus is on the students to make sure everyone in the group contributes and can explain how to complete the task.

There’s a whole lot more to complex instruction but this is the gist.

In the fall

Within the first two weeks of school next year I plan to explicitly teach the behaviors and expectations of positive group interactions. I think that part is very similar to Socratic Circles. If I have time, before the year is out, I may even record a group of students working on a task. A picture or video is worth a thousand words.

But it’s not just about the behavior. It’s about best practice. I have students with a WIDE range of abilities in the same classroom. Everyone deserves access.

My apologies if this reads more like Dan Meyer’s Math Recap. Nothing wrong with Math Recap, it’s just the format may not be what readers expect from a blog post on my favorite math supply. I hope it became clear as to why I termed this as is my favorite “supply”.


4 thoughts on “Complex instruction and group-worthy tasks: my favorite math supply

  1. You have articulated the goals for my classroom this year. I strive for a student centered classroom where students look to each other as resources in the classroom. I teach four different grade levels in middle school and have taken a slightly different approach in each. By the sounds of it, you have a greater diversity in your classroom than I. I wanted a “redo” on my initial efforts. In two of my classes, the students would share their thoughts/answers, but they would not listen to each other. There was no true conversation. So I started to use a format similar to critical friend protocols (read/reflect on problem, share and record thoughts one at a time, respond to the suggestions) to help with purposeful conversation. This process did help them to listen to one another. After they became comfortable with relying on each other, I have been able to introduce more complex tasks.I spend hours searching for better tasks than will require everyone in the group think. Thank you for sharing the curricular resources! I had thought about Socratic Circles but wasn’t sure how to adapt them to math. I am sorry that I don’t have any concrete suggestions, but I wanted to let you know that I share in your struggles.

    1. We are all in this together. The critical friend protocols you describe could also be framed with the formative lessons designed by the Mathematics Assessment Project. Allow the students to work independently for 10-15 minutes, collect and return the next day with written feedback. The students continue to make individual progress based on the feedback, then have them assemble in groups to create a better solution.

      I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts!

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