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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Foundations Series: What is Dimensions? - Cognitive Complexity/Demand

Well, it's the end of June. Most students are out and about enjoying the summer break, as are many teachers. As well they should be. You all have earned a break after another long and challenging year, but hopefully a rewarding one. But knowing educators as I do, you're never really completely done or unplugged. So, I am here for you, to help you keep those neurons firing. And what better topic than curriculum alignment! Here we go.

Last month, I began to unpack the alignment dimension of topical/conceptual knowledge. I defined topical/conceptual knowledge as "the subjects, information, and ideas that students are supposed to learn," (Niebling, Roach, Rahn-Blakeslee, 2008) otherwise know as stuff kids need to learn. I know, not exactly fancy. But I think it gets the job done. This month, I am going to unpack the second dimension in the alignment framework I use, known as cognitive complexity/demand. I define cognitive complexity/demand as

what students are expected to do with the topical/conceptual knowledge. (Niebling, Roach, Rahn-Blakeslee, 2008)

The idea is this: during the schooling process, we don't just try to plug topics and concepts into students' heads to live there unused. We want our students to do something mentally (i.e., cognitively) with those topics and concepts. Oftentimes, we generically describe the "do something mentally" process as understanding. Now, understanding is a loaded concept; it could mean just about anything. My goal isn't to unpack this concept, but rather to use it as an example as to how we can be as objective as possible in dealing with cognitive complexity.

In the field of alignment, it is common practice to use a cognitive complexity/demand framework as a lens to examine the intended, enacted, assessed, and/or learned curriculum. One of the end products of such an examination is to determine or explain the type of mental activities called for in the curriculum. Or, to take it a step further, cognitive complexity/demand frameworks can help us examine the degree of alignment along this dimension between two different curricular elements (e.g., enacted to intended).

What are some examples of cognitive complexity/demand frameworks?

Great question! I thought you'd never ask. I use three different cognitive complexity/demand frameworks in my curriculum alignment work: (a) Bloom's Revised Cognitive Taxonomy, (b) Webb's Depth of Knowledge Framework, and (c) the Surveys of Enacted Curriculum Cognitive Demand framework. I'll explain each of these very briefly. The titles for each bullet point below are also links to more information about that taxonomy/framework.

Bloom's Revised Cognitive Taxonomy (RCT): Almost every educator has heard of "Bloom's." It comes up in almost every teacher preparation program. It's now called the Revised Taxonomy because, well, they revised it. There is a knowledge taxonomy as well as a cognitive taxonomy. The cognitive taxonomy is content neutral, and includes the following levels: Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, Create. It is organized, for the most part, from less to more sophisticated thinking, though there is overlap between the different levels. Furthermore, it is not assumed that a student must master skills at the lower levels to be able to engage in the higher-leveled thinking skills. Finally, when examining any curricular element, multiple levels may be assigned (e.g,. to a single standard or test item).

Surveys of Enacted Curriculum (SEC) Cognitive Demand Framework: The SEC cognitive demand framework is similar to Bloom's RCT, in that is generally organized from less to more complex. Furthermore, multiple levels can be assigned to a curricular element  (e.g,. to a single standard or test item). Unlike Bloom's RCT, the SEC is content-specific, with frameworks for English/Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, and Social Studies. For example, the framework for Mathematics is as follows: Memorize Facts, Definitions, Formulas; Perform Procedures; Demonstrate Understanding of Mathematical Ideas; Conjecture, Analyze, Generalize, Prove; and Solve Non-routine Problems/Make Connections.

Webb's Depth of Knowledge (DOK) Framework: Webb's DOK framework shares one primary similarity with the SEC: it is content specific. There are DOK frameworks for Reading and Writing, Mathematics, Science, and Social Studies. The generic labels for DOK levels are Recall, Skills/Concepts, Strategic Thinking, and Extended Thinking. Unlike both Bloom's RCT and the SEC, typical application of the DOK framework involves assigning one DOK level for each component of a curricular element  (e.g,. to a single standard or test item). There are exceptions to this practice. For example, in many cases, multiple DOK levels have been assigned to the Common Core State Standards in English/Language Arts and Mathematics.
Ok, that was a lot, and I really only scratched the surface. Cognitive complexity/demand is, well, complex. This post is already getting long, and I haven't even provided examples of using each of these approaches to cognitive complexity. I'm afraid I'll have to save that for another time. Hopefully the links can provide you with some additional helpful information. Let's dig into some research, shall we?

What does research say about cognitive complexity/demand?

To understand what research has to say about cognitive complexity/demand, it's important to know that this concept is also studied in the context of "rigor" and "higher-order thinking skills." This matters, because research in these related areas can provide us information on the role of cognitive complexity/demand when it comes to student learning. Some of what we know about cognitive complexity/demand and alignment is fairly broad, and certainly correlational. For example, international studies such as the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) have pointed to practices in countries where students outperform U.S. students that could ultimately help improve student learning in the United States. Included in these high-performing countries are a focus on fewer topics/concepts, and working with students to support deeper (i.e., more cognitively complex) thinking.

A more direct approach to examining the role of cognitive complexity/demand and alignment was taken by Adam Gamoran and his colleagues back in 1997. In this study they examined the enacted to assessed curriculum relationship to see how that impacted growth in student achievement. What they found was that as enacted to assessed curriculum alignment increased, so to did student achievement growth. Interestingly, this relationship was found only when cognitive complexity/demand was included in the alignment examination, while looking at just topical/conceptual knowledge alignment did not. Although correlational and not causal, this study was well designed and executed, and the results were compelling. In this study, alignment accounted for over 40% of student score variance at the classroom level. That means, out of all the things they studied plus the error that happens in every study, over 40% of what explained student scores was alignment. That's a pretty big amount. 

Unfortunately, the profound results of this study have not been replicated to the same extent since then when it comes to cognitive complexity/demand, though I'm hopeful that the work being done by Alexander Kurz and Steve Elliott with the My instructional Learning Objectives Guidance System (MyiLOGS) and my work with the Iowa Curriculum Alignment Toolkit (I-CAT), as well as continued work with the SEC will yield similar results in the future.

What are the practical implications?

In my mind, there are several very practical implications of cognitive complexity/demand. But what is practical for me isn't necessarily practical for most everyone else. With that said, there are a few biggies worth mentioning here:

  1. Leaning about cognitive complexity/demand: You should learn about cognitive complexity/demand frameworks, as well as how to use them. It's not magic, and the work can be challenging and at times frustrating. But if you start to get it, my guess is that you will start to think about your instruction and assessment in a different way, and hopefully help you implement not only a more rigorous enacted curriculum, but a tighter-aligned enacted curriculum as well.
  2. Designing and delivering instruction: Whether you use a published set of textbooks/materials or develop your own, it's not good enough to look at the standards or state test and say that some part of your instructional materials "matches" them. That's not even good enough for topical/conceptual knowledge. Typically, in my experience, cognitive complexity/demand doesn't even enter this situation, but it needs to. Use a cognitive complexity/demand framework in addition to your standards to help you select or design instructional materials. How you ultimately deliver those materials is your enacted curriculum. What sort of cognitive processes did your students engage in?
  3. Designing and delivering assessment: I'll make this one easy. Everything I just said in #1 applies to designing and delivering assessment.
Final thoughts

If nothing else, I hope you remember this: it's all about student thinking, and frameworks help us capture the type of thinking found in the different curricular elements. We've got a pretty compelling research foundation for the importance of cognitive complexity/demand, though that research is primarily correlational. I also think that cognitive complexity/demand is really the bridge between what we teach and how we teach it.

That's it for this month gang. Check back next month when I dig into the next alignment dimension, emphasis. Until then, follow me on Twitter. Thanks for reading!


Gamoran, A., Porter, A. C., Smithson, J. L., & White, P. A. (1997). Upgrading high school mathematics instruction: Improving learning opportunities for low-achieving, low-income youth. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 19, 325-338.

Niebling, B.C., Roach, A.T., Rahn-Blakeslee, A. (2008). Best practices in curriculum, instruction, and enacted curriculum. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology 5 (Vol. 4), 1059-1072. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.