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Program for Complex Instruction

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Achieving Equity in the Classroom

Complex Instruction evolved from over 20 years of research by Elizabeth Cohen, Rachel Lotan, and their colleagues at the Stanford School of Education. The goal of this instruction is to provide academic access and success for all students in heterogeneous classrooms.

Complex Instruction (CI) has three major components:

1) Multiple ability curricula are designed to foster the development of higher-order thinking skills through groupwork activities organized around a central concept or big idea. The tasks are open-ended, requiring students to work interdependently to solve problems. Most importantly, the tasks require a wide array of intellectual abilities so that students from diverse backgrounds and different levels of academic proficiency can make meaningful contributions to the group task. Research has documented significant achievement gains in classrooms using such curricula.

2) Using special instructional strategies, the teacher trains the students to use cooperative norms and specific roles to manage their own groups. The teacher is free to observe groups carefully, to provide specific feedback, and to treat status problems which cause unequal participation among group members.

3) To ensure equal access to learning, teachers learn to recognize and treat status problems. Sociological research demonstrates that in CI, the more that students talk and work together, the more they learn. However, students who are social isolates or students who are seen as lacking academic skills often fail to participate and thus learn less than they would if they were more active in the groups. In CI, teachers use status treatments to broaden students' perceptions of what it means to be smart, and to convince students that they each have important intellectual contributions to make to the multiple-ability task.

Many teachers in classrooms across the U.S., in Europe, and in Israel use complex instruction. Professors at the California State University system work collaboratively with the program bringing CI to pre-service teachers. Working for Equity in Heterogeneous Classrooms: Sociological Theory in Action (Teachers College Press, 1997), edited by Cohen & Lotan, is a definitive review of the research base of the program. At the present time, program staff are investigating ways to scale up the program while maintaining its effectiveness.

Reflections on CI

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