Complex Instruction


Strategies to create equitable classrooms

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … established abilities
  • Knowing is … competent action
  • Learner is … a contributor (individual)
  • Learning is … equitable participation
  • Teaching is … facilitator, moderator




Complex Instruction is a group-based teaching approach that focuses on strategies to promote equal-status interactions among learners. Working from the principle that unequal participation leads to unequal opportunities to learn while potentially reinforcing prejudices and stereotypes, Complex Instruction deliberately interrupts hierarchical, role-defining structures of other group-based approaches, such as Cooperative Learning. Academic emphases include conceptual understanding, problem solving, and language development. Social emphases include friendliness and trust.


While it is asserted that Complex Instruction is focused on both academic growth and social development, the discourse places most of its emphasis on the latter. That is, matters such as social competency and group functioning are foregrounded, and relatively little attention is given to such matters as the structures and natures of different subject matters, the role of robust classroom resources, and the nature and importance of teacher disciplinary knowledge. This point is especially evident in the discourse’s own self-descriptions, which highlight that the approach is effective regardless of subject matter. While an important contribution, then, Complex Instruction should not be construed as a model that attends to the complexity of formal education.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Elizabeth Cohen

Status as a Theory of Learning

Complex Instruction is about promoting equitable learning, not about conceptualizing or interpreting learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Complex Instruction is, explicitly, a discourse on teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Complex Instruction has been extensively researched and is supported by a considerable body of research showing that it is associated with positive effects on social competence, personal well-being, and academic achievement – across subject areas, age/grade levels, and cultural settings. It is also well theorized and is explicitly aligned with several prominent Embeddedness Discourses.

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Complex Instruction” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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