Complex Instruction (CI)

Cooperative learning is a form of classroom instruction that structures collaborative interactions among learners to achieve the teacher’s learning goals.  Several educational psychologists and sociologists have developed extensive research based collections of strategies that collectively are known as Cooperative Learning.  Slavin (1990), Johnson, Johnson, and Holubec (1993), Kagan (1994), Sharan (1980), and  Cohen and Lotan (1996) are identified with the development of collaborative strategies for small academically focused working groups of children in whole class learning environments.     

    Elizabeth Cohen and her colleagues at Stanford University developed a form of cooperative learning known as Complex Instruction (CI).  For over thirty years, they have worked to translate Expectations States Theory from its research base in the sociology of small group process to promote academically successful groupwork in public school classrooms.  Their work shows us how to organize our classrooms for successful collaboration among heterogeneous groups of learners.  They have bridged research and practice to create a form of Cooperative Learning that is robust in its learning outcomes across disciplines and grade/age levels of students.

     CI groupwork looks similar to other forms of cooperative learning.  As such, it utilizes classroom norms and groups roles like other forms of cooperative learning.  Where CI differs from other forms of cooperative learning is in the assumptions it makes about why children participate (or don’t participate) in collaborative learning groups.  This is important because participation (talking and working together) is key to learning in groups (Cohen, Lotan, and Holthius, 1995).  Children who don’t participate, don’t learn.  Children who participate, do.  CI posits that children 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 to the group. Their attempts to contribute are ignored or rebuffed.  In short, they have low academic status within the group. 

    CI invokes the use of status treatments to equalize academic status within working groups in order to obtain the participation of all children in the work of the group.  There are two major status treatments in CI.  The first is using multiple ability curriculum, curriculum that is designed is such a way as to require the use of a variety of cognitive abilities (eg. making a list, drawing an novel machine, seeing closely, acting out a part, thinking ahead, etc.) that enable a group to complete a given group task.  Multiple ability curricula have by definition a number of learning pathways available for children who are not particularly strong at the more traditional cognitive abilities of reading and writing.  The second status intervention is called assigning competence.  When a usually non participating child starts to make an effort to participate because the multiple ability task taps a strength of theirs, the teacher moves in and assigns competence to that child.  This means the teacher notes what the child did and points out to the group how useful that action can be for completing its task. 

    These two interventions, along with the other supportive elements of CI, are powerful enough to create the necessary talking and working together among all children in a group that leads to the impressive achievement gains characteristic of CI (Cohen and Lotan, 1997). Work with teachers is basically focused on understanding the theory behind and application of these two status interventions.  In order to carry out these interventions, teachers also need to be proficient in:
• establishing collaborative norms in their classrooms
• teaching children how to take on group processing roles in their small groups.
• delegating the authority for learning to the learners in a classroom, and
• modifying or creating rich group tasks.

    In addition, teachers work with a research team across nine formal classroom observations and three formal sessions of feedback to study, modify, and adapt their own delegation of authority to the learners so that each student in a classroom is able to talk and work together with their peers to achieve higher rates of learning.  Research shows that everyone learns more when CI is done effectively.  “Everyone” includes learners who are usually successful in situations of cooperative learning and learners who usually are seen by their peers as having little to contribute to the group working together. 

    At its heart, CI is an academic intervention achieved through the manipulation of the classroom social structure by an informed and effective teacher.