Dr. Jo Boaler explaining ‘Complex Instruction’ to achieve equity in the classroom



Here’s a new phrase (at least to my ears) about education reform and the need for more collaborative learning: Complex Instruction. The definition as provided by Standford University (excerpted):

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.


Another link from Standford explains Complex Instruction:


Making group work equal

Group work is critical to students’ mathematics learning, as students need to talk about math in order to reason and justify, two practices at the core of the discipline that are also central to the Common Core . But when students work in groups, the group work is often unequal, with some students doing much more of the work than others. In this post we share a strategy for making group work equal.


Is anyone reading this post (who has business experience vs academic experience) who thinks that group work is equal and can be equal?  When you are involved in group projects in your employment, do all group members contribute equally?  Do all group members have the same desire, the same knowledge, the same abilities so the task at hand is shared equally?  Or is it more that no student’s individual knowledge is deemed more important than another student’s individual knowledge?   Boaler indicates in the video below that students realize that not everyone possesses the same information but that everyone’s contribution is appreciated.

Is this a realistic goal for students in an academic setting that they then carry on to the workplace?  Can educational theories and reinvent human nature?  If a highly competitive student is placed with a disinterested student for a group project, what do you think will happen? In the business world, it is highly probable the disinterested employee will be terminated for lack of production.  The highly competitive employee will probably be promoted.  Are schools teaching that group work can be equal and equal grades will be given out in the name of equity?

Dr. Jo Boaeler  explains on video how equity can be accomplished via ‘Complex Instruction’.  Pay particular attention to her presentation after the 5:00 minute mark.  She indicates that students realize that not everyone possesses the same information but that everyone’s contribution is appreciated:




Is Complex Instruction’s main objective all about equity and not so much focusing on academic achievement?  Does it concern you that other students are responsible for other students’ learning?  Is this a measurable goal for students?  If a group project fails, does that failure measure the academic knowledge of all students or just some?  Will the students of that group receive the same grade?

NRICH (Cambridge University) offers information on Boaeler’s studies regarding Complex Instruction.  Here is a link and description on a study she did on Railside Schools using this pedagogy and how it enabled mathematical equity:


How Complex Instruction led to High and Equitable Achievement: The Case of Railside School
by Jo Boaler

This paper introduces the work of a group of equity-oriented teachers in an inner city school in California, who brought about amazing progress in mathematics. The teachers used an approach called ‘Complex Instruction’, to bring about high achievements and great enjoyment of mathematics among students.


You might be a true believer in Complex Instruction after reading her report.  It is a report that seems to conclude that ‘no child gets left behind’.  However, this report caused a fire storm in the Math Community with Professor Milgram and others writing a response challenging the research and methodology used in her report for her conclusions.  From


A brief, illustrative Jo Boaler anecdote by Dan Meyer, currently one of her doctoral students:

I was talking to Jo Boaler last night (name drop!) and she admitted she didn’t really get the whole blogging thing.

I laughed. Some background:

Jo Boaler, a Stanford professor, conducted a longitudinal study of three schools that’s widely known as the Railside paper. She presented the results to a standing room only crowd at the National Meeting of the National Council of Math Teachers in 2008, convincing almost everyone that “Railside” High School, a Title I, predominantly Hispanic high school outperformed two other majority white, more affluent schools in math thanks to the faculty’s dedication to problem-based integrated math, group work, and heterogeneous classes.

“Reform” math advocates, progressives whose commitment to heterogeneous classes has almost entirely derailed the rigor of advanced math classes at all but the most homogenous schools, counted this paper as victory and validation.

Three “traditionalists” were highly skeptical of Boaler’s findings and decided to go digging into the details: James Milgram, math professor at Stanford University, Wayne Bishop of CSU LA, and Paul Clopton, a statistician. They evaluated Boaler’s tests, the primary means by which Boaler demonstrated Railside’s apparently superior performance, and found them seriously wanting. They identified the schools and compared the various metrics (SAT scores, remediation rates) and demonstrated how Railside’s weak performance called Boaler’s conclusions into question. Their resulting paper, “A close examination of Jo Boaler’s Railside Report”, was accepted for publication in Education Next—and then Boaler moved to England. At that point, they decided not to publish the paper. All three men were heavily involved in math education and didn’t want to burn too many bridges with educators, who often lionize Boaler. One of the authors, James Milgram, a math professor at Stanford, posted the paper instead on his ftp site. Google took care of the rest.

The skeptics’ paper has stuck to Boaler like toilet paper on a stiletto heel; she’s written a long complaint about the three men’s “abusive” determination to get more information from her. From an Inside Higher Ed report on her complaint:

[S]he said she was prompted to speak out after thinking about the fallout from an experience this year when Irish educational authorities brought her in to consult on math education. When she wrote an op-ed in The Irish Times, a commenter suggested that her ideas be treated with “great skepticism” because they had been challenged by prominent professors, including one at her own university. Again, the evidence offered was a link to the Stanford URL of the Milgram/Bishop essay.

“This guy Milgram has this on a webpage. He has it on a Stanford site. They have a campaign that everywhere I publish, somebody puts up a link to that saying ‘she makes up data,’ ” Boaler said. “They are stopping me from being able to do my job.”

Boaler is upset because ordinary, every day, people aren’t merely taking her assertions at face value, but are instead challenging her authority with a link to a paper that, in her view, they shouldn’t even be able to read. So you can see why I laughed. This is a woman with absolutely no idea how the web works. “It’s not even peer-reviewed!!!” That people might find the ideas convincing and well-documented, with or without peer-review, isn’t an idea she’s really wrestled with yet.


Read the entire article here.  The writer is a teacher in the classroom teaching math and believes that what needs be taught in the classroom (and how) cannot be taught via common pedagogy.  The writer also believes that any research must be backed up with reliable data:


 Why bother?

Like most mathematicians, MBC are vehemently opposed to reform math. Both Milgram and Bishop spend a lot of time working with parents or districts that are trying to get rid of reform curricula. In his rebuttal, Professor Milgram says,

Indeed, a high ranking official from the U.S. Department of Education asked me to evaluate the claims of [the Railside study] in early 2005 because she was concerned that if those claims were correct U.S. ED should begin to reconsider much if not all of what they were doing in mathematics education. This was the original reason we initiated the study, not some need to persecute Jo Boaler as she claims.

However, given both men’s determination to oppose reform math, and their willingness to work with parent groups organizing against reform math, Boaler believes, as Milgram says, that the paper was an attempt to discredit reform math, as opposed to an honest academic inquiry.

I have no opinion on that, but then I spend a lot of time on the Internet. MBC all seem pretty mild to me.

I’m not a traditionalist. I’ve written many times in this blog that for a pro-tracking, pro-testing discovery-averse teacher, I am stupendously squishy. Milgram, Bishop, Clopton, and Professor Wu would undoubtedly disapprove of my teaching methods. My kids sit in groups, I use a lot of manipulatives, I don’t lecture much or give notes, use lots of graphic organizers. To the extent I have a specialty, it lies in coddling low ability, low incentive kids through math classes whilst convincing them to learn something, and what they learn isn’t even close to the rigorous topics that real mathematicians want to see in math class. (Some lesson examples: real life coordinate geometry, modeling linear equations, triangle discovery, factoring trinomials, teaching trig and right triangles.) Nonetheless, I firmly believe that discovery, problem-based math, and complex instruction are ineffective with low to mid ability kids and think tracking or ability grouping is essential. So I’m not really tied to either camp in the math wars.

Besides, the math wars have largely been resolved. Lectures won’t work for low ability kids, but neither does discovery. High ability kids need fewer lectures, fewer algorithms, more open-ended problems, more challenges. Traditionalists have a lot of energy around reform math, but I think they could dial it back. For the most part, reform has lost in schools, particularly high schools.

Since Boaler will, if she acknowledges this post at all, complain about my motives, let me say that I am not a Boaler fan, but my disapproval is based purely on her opinions as revealed through her work: the Amber Hill/Phoenix Park paper, the Railside paper, and yeah, her recent bleat struck me as a big ol’ self-pity fest. But I’m not actively seeking to hurt her reputation, and while my tone is (cough) skeptical, I’m perfectly happy to learn that all of these questions I raise involve perfectly normal research decisions for academics.

However, I am constantly surprised at the unquestioning acceptance of educational research, particularly quantitative research.

Remember, this is a hugely significant paper in the math wars. Boaler is the hero who went out and “proved” that reform math gets better results. Suppose it’s academically acceptable for Boaler to assert that San Lorenzo High School algebra students outperformed the algebra students from two more affluent schools, based on the test results of students not in her study cohort. Would it nonetheless be important for education journalists to point out that the San Lorenzo students included the best students in the school, while the Greendale and Hilltop schools’ best students were in more advanced classes? And that a component of her success metric relied on scores of students who were two years behind her cohort?

To the extent I have an objective, there it is. Educational researchers may, in fact, engage in entirely acceptable behavior that nonetheless hides information highly relevant to the non-academic trying to use the research to figure out educational best practices.

Who’s responsible for bringing that information to light?

  (Phrases bolded byMEW)


Are schools now measuring and teaching math via collaboration to ensure equity goals instead of offering of diversity in math teaching to accommodate the differening abilities of students?  If the end (educational equity) justifies the means (not providing data to prove your claim of increasing math achievement), what could go wrong?  From some comments in the article:


“They are stopping me from being able to do my job.”

Oh, sack up. If people criticising your work is that devastating, then I don’t trust you with that kind of power over my country’s educational system. Hell, I wouldn’t trust someone like that with the right to vote.

Here’s an interesting op-ed she did in the Irish Times. Personally, I’m intrigued that she didn’t provide any, y’know, maths in the piece. Also, it seems to be a tacit acknowledgement that a lot of people aren’t capable of advanced maths:



I do wonder why table 6 was presented in the report. Other than that, it appears to be the usual education research that puts a favorable spin on data that has too many moving parts to produce meaningful conclusions.

The Railside cohort appeared to catch up with the other schools during 9th grade – they did poorly on the pre-test & were a little behind the other schools on the post test. Well, the Railside students had twice as much algebra in 9th grade as the students at the other schools – full year of 90 minute blocked classes (pg 626 of report). Also, the pre-test & post-test were covering different topics. It could be that the Railside students would still do much worse than the other schools if the test of “middle school topics” was given again at the end of 9th grade, weakening the evidence in the report. Or, it could be that the Railside students would actually outperform the other schools if retested on the “middle school topics” test, strengthening the evidence in the report.

Railside had half year classes, except for Algebra I. Boaler seems to indicate that this is why not every student in the Railside cohort was tested every year – 344 tested in 9th grade, 199 in 10th, and 130 in 11th.

On the end of year 2 assessment, the Railside kids apparently passed up those in the other schools by a good margin (table 2). But, in year 3, the other schools kids almost closed the gap with Railside (table 2). Golly, year 3 was almost excactly like year 1, except in reverse.

How you reach any conclusions from all of this, for or against, is beyond me.

So if you run across the term ‘Complex Instruction’ in your school district, you might want to start asking the research/data available proving it will increase your student’s academic performance.  If there is none offered, you might then ask your curriculum director its intended purpose: is ‘Complex Instruction’ designed for academic equity or academic excellence?  This pedagogy of ‘Collective Instruction’ sure looks like collectivism to me:









Gretchen Logue

Share and Enjoy !

0 0