Depth and Complexity

Tools for Differentiation

Depth and Complexity Icons...

  • can be an answer to that question..."What are you doing for gifted students?"
  • are visual cues (pictures) that guide student thinking and understanding.
  • provide a low-prep way to meet individual learning needs.
  • align with teaching standards to differentiate for ALL students and often fit with what you are already doing.

Many of the GT resources to come will include references to Depth and Complexity. To get started, a poster with the icons and question prompts is attached to the email for you to print and post in your classroom. To familiarize yourself and your students with the icons, use the poster as a point of reference while teaching, during class discussions, and when planning lessons. First, watch the video (it's short) below about how to introduce the icons! Also attached is an overview chart, a sample menu using non-fiction responses and a primary fiction menu (see email attachment). All but the primary menu can be accessed as Google Docs by clicking on the titles below.

A Little Background Information

Based on the work of Sandra Kaplan, the Depth and Complexity icons are visual prompts, or "visual thinking tools" that help students go beyond surface level understanding of a concept and enhance their ability to think critically. They help students dig deeper into a concept (depth) and think about a topic in more complex ways. Think about the icons in relation to how pictures in a picture book help students make sense of a story. It is the same for the thinking icons. They help students makes sense of their thinking and what it means to understand a concept in depth. It is using a picture to cue thinking. See below for an explanation of each icon (8 for depth, 3 for complexity). I can provide you with additional materials and lesson examples - please email me if you would like to meet.

Eight Icons Representing DEPTH - learning a concept from the concrete to the abstract, the known to the unknown

Language of the Discipline

  • Specialized language or vocabulary related to a concept or topic - Includes key words, phrases, signs, symbols, figures of speech, etc...
  • To understand a mathematical concept, students must understand the language of math - sum, difference, equation. Chemists must understand the "language of chemistry".
Thinking Skills: Categorize, Identify, Define


  • Supporting information that enhances understanding - parts, factors, attributes, traits and variables
  • Who, what, when where, why and how. Discerning important details of a story is key to critically analyzing a text.
Thinking Skills: Identify, Describe, Compare, Contrast, Prove, Prioritize


  • Recurring/repeating elements or factors in ideas, objects, stories and events - predictable, repetitive and ordered
  • Repetitive language - "Little pig, little pig...", mathematical patterns - number lines, geometry
Thinking Skills: Analogies, summarize, Relate, Predict/Hypothesize, Determine Relevant vs. Irrelevant


  • Organizational elements that create structure, represent order and hierarchy
  • Classification in science, structure of text (main idea, details), mathematical formulas, rules of a chess game
Thinking Skills: Generalize, Hypothesize, Judge, Draw Conclusions


  • Ongoing factors/changes or causes and effects of changes that influence a topic or discipline
  • Trends can be studied in all subjects - trends in prices of food, clothing in various cultures, trends in student math scores, changes in a story's setting over time, etc...
Thinking Skills: Prioritize, Predictions, Cause/Effect, Make Connections, Formulate Questions, Hypothesize


  • Moral principles and dilemmas, rights and wrongs, controversies, pros and cons
  • Examples: What are the pros and cons of animal testing? What moral dilemmas exist in in Goldilocks and the Three Bears?
Thinking Skills: Determine Bias, Formulate Opinions, Judge with Criteria, Moralize, Debate, Identify Conflict

Big Idea

  • An overarching statement that best describes a topic, study or discipline, the primary theme or main idea
  • Examples of big ideas - power, systems, change, conflict
Thinking Skills: Make Generalizations, Draw Conclusions, Prove with Evidence

Unanswered Questions

  • What is still not understood about this topic? How is the information incomplete or lacking explanation? What are you left wondering? Are there any unresolved issues or missing parts?

Thinking Skills: Recognizing Ambiguity, Formulate Questions, Distinguish Fact from Opinion. Recognize Fallacies, Identify Missing Information

Three Icons Representing COMPLEXITY - making connections and relationships, associations across disciplines

Multiple Perspectives

  • Differing roles or ideas, opposing viewpoints, biases, pros and cons
  • How is the situation viewed differently by people/characters?
  • How would the topic/story be different from another perspective?

Thinking Skills: Argumentation, Determine Bias, Classify, Evaluate Pros/Cons, Identify Viewpoints

Changes Over Time

  • Changes among past, present, future and/or within a time period
  • How are ideas and text releated over time (past, present, future) or within a time period?
  • How has time affected events/information?
  • How or why do things change or remain the same?
Thinking Skills: Sequence, Prioritize Order, Prediction, Create Timelines, Compare/Contrast, Identify Relationships

Across Disciplines

  • Common elements among similar topics from different disciplines, the relationship of a concept between disciplines, connections to real world events and personal experiences
Thinking Skills: Determine Relationships, Make Connections, Synthesize and Create, Evaluate/Assess, Compare/Contrast

Sandra Kaplan Explains How to Introduce the Icons in 4:48 - Watch! It's SHORT!!

Introduction to the Prompts of Depth and Complexity - Project Linking Learning

Four Steps to Introducing the Icons

  1. Give the icon a definitive meaning and definition.
  2. Relate to previous knowledge.
  3. Apply to new knowledge.
  4. Relate to the real world and personal experience - current events.