Complex Instruction and Cognitive Development

Adapted from: Working for Equity in Heterogeneous Classrooms: Sociological Theory in Practice, eds. Elizabeth G. Cohen and Rachel A. Lotan. NY: Teachers College Press, c1997.

Rachel Ben-Ari

Gliker (1982) argued that Greek philosophy began in the port cities, at the crossroads of cultures, where the Greeks asked interesting and original questions as they compared their cultural practices with those of other peoples. Similarly, the meeting of children of different backgrounds and abilities in the classroom can provoke students to ask interesting and original questions. This assumption that individual differences constitute a valuable resource for intellectual growth underlies the discussion of complex instruction in this chapter.


In recent years, increased heterogeneity in the characteristics of student populations from kindergarten through university corresponds to the diverse cultural, social, and socioeconomic backgrounds of students, as well as to their different levels of academic achievement. How to provide high-quality education to this diverse student population is the challenge presently facing the educational establishment in many countries.

Some people fear that responding effectively to this challenge is an unreachable goal. Their fears stem, in part, from the belief that providing quality education in a heterogeneous classroom is a zero-sum process by which the teacher deftly maneuvers among the different educational needs of the students–needs that cannot be met simultaneously. Everyday reality in many classrooms, where teachers are unable to fit the level and the pace of instruction to the wide range of previous academic achievement, seems to lend credence to this fear. Many parents worry that students who have been academically successful are no longer intellectually challenged, thereby jeopardizing their future academic success. Furthermore, parents argue that weak students, who cannot keep up with rigorous academic requirements and who need special attention, continue to fall further behind. The conclusion seems inevitable that heterogeneity of the school population makes it difficult, if not impossible, to realize the students’ intellectual potential. According to such reasoning, academic heterogeneity of the student population will water down the curriculum, disturb the effective functioning of the school, impede the intellectual performance of individuals, and undermine the pursuit of excellence.

One of the consequences of such public consternation is the demand for homogeneous grouping: ability groups within the same classroom at the elementary level, or inter- and intraschool tracking at the secondary level. In these homogeneous settings, differences among students, considered obstacles to quality education and intellectual progress, are minimized as much as possible. In contrast, complex instruction is predicated on the contention that intellectual heterogeneity is a potentially positive opportunity, which, when realized, leads to progress for all students and for the school as a whole, as well as to the attainment of intellectual and academic excellence.

However, abolishing homogeneous ability groupings or untracking and forming heterogeneous classrooms is not enough to solve the problem. Adequate educational conditions are necessary in order to turn human diversity into pedagogical advantage and a resource for intellectual growth and development. Through restructuring the learning situation, complex instruction establishes the necessary conditions for the cognitive development of students: social interaction and individual autonomy.


Since the beginning of this century, researchers have advanced models of the contribution of social interaction to cognitive development. Mead (1934) was the first theorist to recognize the origins of cognitive development in the social interactions of infants. Mead argued that before the infant develops symbolic conceptualization, it engages in a “conversation of gestures” with the mother or the caretaker. This primal dialogue becomes the basis for cognition. The three major theories of how social interaction becomes relevant to learning in heterogeneous classrooms and how it contributes to cognitive development are Vygotzky’s (1978) self-regulation, Piaget’s (1954) socio-cognitive conflict, and Bandura’s (1977) social learning.


Vygotzky (1978) places the origins of cognition in social interaction. He argues that the acquisition of cognitive skills occurs when children solve problems as they interact with adults or more knowledgeable peers. First as they observe adults and more advanced peers and then as they actively participate in increasingly complex tasks, children become adept at independent problem solving. This process is the transition from other-regulation to self-regulation. According to Vygotzky, talk is the most important mediator in cognitive development. In the transition from the expert giving instructions and providing guidance to final self-regulation, through a stage of inner speech, the child achieves competent functioning. Inner speech decreases over time as the child internalizes the social message and turns it into thought.

Successful self-regulation is contingent upon the existence of a zone of proximal development. Vygotzky created this concept to account for the distance between the child’s ability to problem solve individually and his or her potential ability to problem solve with adult or expert guidance.

From this point of view, the optimal learning situation includes the novice, still unable to solve problems independently, and the more advanced peer or adult. The latter uses problem-solving behaviors, experiments with new approaches, and, by assigning responsibility for certain aspects of the task to the novice, encourages him or her to develop cognitive skills. When an adult or a more advanced peer facilitates the functioning of the novice so that his or her functioning is at a higher level than that achieved individually, the process is called “scaffolding.” Scaffolding alleviates some of the cognitive burden experienced by the novice and occurs in two ways: First, the adult or the more capable expert assumes responsibility for parts of the problem; second, by supervising the novice’s behaviors to see if they fit the task, the expert exerts metacognitive control. Through such metacognitive control, the novice becomes increasingly aware of the mental processes required by the task, thereby activating and practicing them as necessary (Vygotzky, 1962). As the novice develops more and more advanced problem-solving skills, he or she needs less help and is able to solve problems independently (Newman, Griffin, & Cole, 1989).

Vygotzky argues that higher-order, psychological functions develop through social interaction. Adults and more knowledgeable peers broker and foster the novice’s development. They manage the environment and demonstrate how to interact with it, explain and give meaning to actions and experiences, call attention to the relevant dimensions of behavior, and illustrate problem-solving strategies. The acquisition of a new skill is not only added knowledge and improved functioning, but also a passage from a dialectic on the outside to an internal world. In other words, new skills help the individual handle the environment.

Socio-Cognitive Conflict

Piaget (1926, 1968) considers social interaction a central and critical component of cognitive development. He argues that social accommodation is essential for cognitive development during the passage from the preoperational to the concrete, operational stage. As children at the preoperational phase become less egocentric, they recognize the differences and disagreements between their own ideas and those of their peers. They use this intellectual conflict to shape and reshape their thoughts and ideas to reach a more advanced level of cognition.

The encounters among peers make it possible for different ideas to emerge and for conto surface. This conflict has external, social aspects and internal, cognitive ones. Cognitive conflict leads to intellectual disequilibrium and to a search for resolution (Doise & Mugny, 1984). Such conflict does not necessarily mean confrontation or opposition, but rather a situation in which the child is open to change and is ready to give up previously held opinions and perspectives and to adopt new ones (Perret-Clermont, 1980). Socio-cognitive conflict occurs when children who are working on a problem together are at different cognitive levels. They approach a problem from different cognitive stances or perspectives, and use different strategies. As children disagree, discuss, explain, and persuade one another, new positions, new ideas, and deeper thinking emerge.

Researchers have documented the relationship between rate of discussion, including agreements and mutual persuasion, and cognitive processes. Light and Glachan (1985) found that children who argued about the appropriate solution to a problem developed more rational processes than children who did not argue or whose discussions focused on issues of power in the group. Bearison, Magzaman, and Filardo (in Rogoff, 1990) studied pairs of children, ages 5-7, who worked collaboratively on spatial problems; they found a relationship between socio-cognitive conflict and changes in relevant cognitive ability.

Social Learning

Social learning theory emphasizes the importance of modeling in cognitive development. According to this theory, children acquire skills through observing and imitating. Unlike the theories of learning discussed above, social learning does not rely on interaction or reciprocity among participants. Children can learn from observing others, who might not be aware that their behavior influenced someone else.

That children learn from watching the behavior of others does not necessarily mean that they will replicate that behavior. Numerous factors affect the performance of a watched behavior: expected consequences (reinforcement or punishment), personal characteristics of the imitator, and personal characteristics of the one imitated, to name a few.

Children prefer to imitate models who are socially accepted. This finding leads to the assumption that social reinforcement leads to imitation (Bandura, 1977). Cognitive ability is an additional factor that makes children become accepted models for imitation. In support of Bandura’s argument, Morrison and Kuhn (1983) found that at age 3 children already imitate competent peers and that the inclination to do so increases with age. Children tend to perform behaviors that have been gained as a result of social learning, even without outside reinforcement. A mechanism of self-regulation or self-reinforcement supports imitation as soon as the children reach a certain level of competence.

Social learning, then, requires relatively little, if any, reciprocity. That is why this approach is particularly useful in early childhood, when the child still lacks the social and cognitive skills for collaboration and cooperation.


Children’s cognitive development benefits from interaction. Interaction supports multiple perspectives, reveals differences, raises conflict, and forces children to confront complex situations. This confrontation is central to children’s cognitive advancement, and teachers should capitalize on this event when it occurs. In order to capitalize on this interaction, it is important to eliminate factors that could potentially delay, limit, or prevent encounters of students with their peers. Adult authority (in this case, the teacher’s) could be one such impediment to these encounters.

In support of this claim, Rogoff (1990) argues that children act differently in situations in which adults are in charge compared with situations without adult supervision. Without adult supervision, children are more playful, inquisitive, and divergent in their thinking, and less intent on completing the task. Such playful inquisitiveness is particularly useful for fresh and creative problem solving.

Researchers (Perret-Clermont & Schubauer-Leoni, 1981; Tudge & Rogoff, 1989) consider learning through peer interaction a promising educational approach. Peer interaction motivates students to discover, search, and exchange ideas, and to provide respectful feedback to one another. Kruger and Tomasello (1986) found that children tend to give rationales and to justify with their peers more than with adults. In peer conversations, children improve their logical, analytical abilities and their problem-solving skills (Light & Glachan, 1983). Kruger (in Rogoff, 1990) found that children who discussed moral dilemmas among themselves showed superior moral development in comparison with children who discussed such dilemmas with their mothers. These findings echo the study by French (cited in Rogoff, 1990), who found that the conversations between the children and their mothers were dominated by the mothers and were based on the mothers’ opinions,

whereas there were more opportunities for mutual involvement in the children’s conversations among themselves.

Subbotskii (1987) conducted research in kindergartens where adults, who avoided being authoritative and interfering, imitated child-like behavior: They showed confusion and lack of self-assurance, and made blatant mistakes. In these situations, the children’s behavior was more creative, and they acted with greater freedom and independence. This and other (see Rogoff, 1990) research shows that shared decision making among children, under conditions of independence and autonomy, is an important factor in social interaction and is critical to the children’s cognitive development. Under such conditions, children are able to pay attention to the arguments of their peers, act in collaboration, and play roles that further problem solving. When children are without direct adult supervision, they can manipulate the rules, explore alternative strategies, and engage in true investigations.

Thus, peer learning without direction and supervision from an “all-knowing adult” creates conditions that are favorable to cognitive development. The responsibility and the need to initiate discussion, to understand, to explain, to confront, and to share with others who are also looking for answers, awaken thinking and investigation. Cognitive development occurs when students have opportunities for relatively independent problem solving, without close guidance and precise directives. In this case, learning is an active process, whereby children can devise solutions, manipulate the environment, pose questions, look for answers, and compare their findings with those of their peers.

To support these processes during instructional time, teachers need to allow children to struggle with the task on their own. Furthermore, teachers can foster cognitive development not only by minimizing supervision and involvement, and by granting independence when children are on task, but also through planned interventions. Teachers need to ask questions that stimulate thinking, raise intellectual conflicts, and assign complex problems. That such stimuli increase interaction and further cognitive development when they are accompanied by minimal teacher supervision and by the teacher legitimizing peer interaction, is the prediction of this study.

Interaction and Autonomy in Complex Instruction

Interaction is the cornerstone for enhancing learning in complex instruction: The instructional goal is to maximize interaction among students in small groups and to minimize direct instruction by the teacher. An analysis of the interaction in CI shows that it includes the conditions for the three learning processes described earlier.

When in heterogeneous groups, the interaction is among children with different ability levels or who are at different levels of cognitive development. In these situations, some children act as experts who have knowledge and skills not yet acquired by others. In such asymmetrical interaction, the experts help the novices and further their cprogress. Webb (1989) showed that this process also furthers the learning of the experts. Interaction among same-age students also creates the symmetrical interaction that Piaget talks about. On the one hand, the connection among same-age students who are working collaboratively on a task and who are supposed to come to an agreement, creates a common denominator for the group; on the other hand, conflict can arise when there are no common understandings and no agreement can be reached. To resolve this conflict, students need to discuss various solutions, argue about ways to develop solutions, and persuade one another all activities that require the use of cognitive processes that foster development.

Social learning is also apparent in CI settings as a highly valued and central norm. Because of its emphasis on peer interaction, complex instruction is different from many other pedagogical approaches that rely exclusively on the student’s individual effort and progress. In CI, modeling is a legitimate way to develop new learning skills and problem-solving strategies. Learning through imitation and transfer from student to student is encouraged in the context of collaborative work, shared deliberations, and mutual assistance. Furthermore, complex instruction supports normative social influences and lateral transmission of values among students. Students less academically successful adopt values that are important for academic success because of their exposure to the values of more academically successful students.

In CI, the teacher is no longer the central figure in the classroom and the sole source of knowledge, feedback, and control. These functions are delegated to the students. The teacher is relieved of having to constantly supervise the students; once the cooperative norms have been internalized, groups are able to work practically without interference. The teacher tries to refrain from interrupting the students’ work, but encourages them to support one another as they work on the task. Time can then be devoted to deepening student learning by bringing forth new ideas and by encouraging students to experiment and to be creative and flexible in conceptual and social problem-solving situations. The teacher probes students about their thinking processes, their problem-solving strategies, and their conclusions. She gives the message that there is not necessarily a single solution to a problem, a single opinion that is right or wrong, or a single way to complete the task.

The activity cards, which do not contain detailed and overspecified instructions, but rather general guidelines for completing the task, create some open space in which students can interact. The uncertainty embedded in the activity cards elicits interaction among the students as they clarify and discuss, hypothesize, search for possibilities, and choose successful working strategies. Complex instruction then creates the necessary conditions for the cognitive development of students: social interaction and autonomy of the learner.

Cognitive Development in Complex Instruction

In a study conducted in Israel, my research assistants and I evaluated the effectiveness of CI in facilitating the cognitive development of students. Based on the theoretical framework presented above, we tested a model that related the quantity and quality of interaction among students, the teacher’s pedagogical practices, and students’ cognitive development. Trained observers conducted systematic observations in Cl classrooms. Using a slightly modified version of the Teacher Observation Instrument (see Appendix B), they recorded frequencies of teacher behaviors and then divided them into two larger categories: “supervisory behaviors” and “behaviors that develop student thinking.” The category called “supervisory behaviors” included teachers explicitly facilitating, directing, or helping with student work; providing information; disciplining; and hovering over groups. The second category of behaviors included those teaching behaviors that support the development of student cognitive functioning: stimulating and extending students’ thinking, encouraging students to approach problems in new and unusual ways, and talking about multiple intellectual abilities. The distinction between routine and nonroutine behaviors made in Chapters 14 and 13 of this volume parallels these two categories.

Observers used a version of the Whole Class Instrument (see Appendix A) to measure the following aspects of student-student interaction: number of students in verbal interaction (talking and manipulating materials together), number of students in nonverbal interaction (manipulating together, without talking), and number of students not in interaction (working individually, reading, or writing).

We administered the MAN test (Glantz, 1974) to measure the students’ cognitive abilities. This test includes subtests that measure different domains of thinking, such as defining, categorizing, classifying, formulating conclusions, and understanding relationships. Our model predicted relationships between teaching behaviors, student interaction, and change in cognitive ability. In contrast to explanations of cognitive development in terms of the individual characteristics of students, this model is based in the situated and contextual character of cognitive development; that is, cognitive development is affected by the social context in which it occurs. We defined the classroom as the social context and conducted the statistical procedures at the classroom, rather than the individual, level. The social context of learning was indicated by two variables: race and category of student interaction and teacher’s pedagogical practices. We tested the effect of these variables on the cognitive development of students as measured by the MAN test. Students’ cognitive skills were assessed at the beginning of the academic year (before the implementation of Cl) and at the end of the year. The differences between the pre- and posttest scores on the MAN were the indicators of cognitive development over time.

Our first prediction related to the relationship between interaction and cognitive development. Based on the theoretical framework and the empirical

findings reviewed earlier, we predicted that interaction among students would lead to cognitive development; that is, there would be a positive relationship

between level of student interaction and the progress on the cognitive test.

The second prediction of the model deals with the relationship between the teachers’ pedagogical practices and cognitive development. Based on the theoretical discussion above, one can expect an indirect effect of the teacher’s behaviors on the students’ cognitive development, a relationship mediated by student interaction. We predicted, then, that the more the teacher’s behaviors increase the level of student interaction, the stronger the gains of the students. Our data set permits testing of the alternative and more conventional hypothesis of a direct effect of teacher behavior on student cognitive development.

When the teacher supervises and dictates student behavior through direct instruction, gives information, and interferes with student problem solving, student interaction decreases. When the teacher is the only legitimate source of information and assistance, students will prefer to listen to him because of his role and status. When the teacher is unable to delegate authority, students turn to the teacher for assistance and the peer interaction becomes watered down. We predicted that when the teacher uses direct supervision, students will interact less and manipulate materials, without talking, more.

In contrast, when the teacher does not interfere with the students’ problem-solving process, but rather delegates authority, and makes it clear that groups have to complete the task independently, students will use each other as resources. In these situations, interactions become more meaningful and more effective. Furthermore, the teacher can support peer interaction not only through what she does not do, but also through what she does. teacher who encourages students to think at a high level, to experiment, and to challenge themselves and their peers gives students more opportunities to interact. Thus, we predicted that the more the teacher uses behaviors that develop thinking, the more the students will interact.

Setting and Sample

This study was conducted in Israel, in 36 heterogeneous classrooms in six schools where Cl was introduced. The sample included 1,017 students, 503 boys and 514 girls, in Grades 3-5. These students represented a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds as well as previous academic achievement. Following the model developed at Stanford, the teachers in the sample participated in a 2-week summer workshop conducted at the Institute for the Advancement of Social Integration of the Bar-llan University. Also following the Stanford model, the teachers received systematic feedback throughout the academic year from experienced Cl trainers.


We predicted that the teacher’s influence on cognitive development would be indirect, mediated by students’ interaction. The teacher variables were our two categories of teacher behaviors: routine supervisory behaviors, and behaviors that develop and support student thinking. The three student variables were verbal interaction, such as talking and working together; nonverbal interaction, as in working together without talking; and no interaction, in which we recorded students reading or writing individually or working alone. Change in cognitive abilities, as measured by the MAN test, was the dependent variable.

Table 13.1 presents the descriptive statistics of the variables of this study. The teachers in this sample, unlike the average Cl teacher in the United States (see Table 14.1), exhibited a relatively low rate of supervisory behaviors, and a relatively high rate of behaviors intended to develop thinking skills. The average percentage of students in verbal interaction was also high by American standards.

Table 13.1: Means, Standard Deviations, and Ranges of Teachers’ Behaviors and Students’ Activities

Teachers’ Behaviors
Developing Thinking8.742.225.10-13.56
Students’ Interactions (in percentages)
Verbal Interaction42.6213.8812.50-66.47
Nonverbal Interaction13.766.043.75-28.72
No Interaction13.456.361.56-29.17

Table 13.2: Interitem Correlations of the Variables of the Study (n=36)

Teachers’ Behaviors  
1. Supervision1.00.05-.33.44*-.18-.02
2. Developing Thinking1.00.45*-.02-.14.20
Students’ Interactions (in percentages)
3. Verbal Interactions-.42*-.25-.14.38*
4. Nonverbal Interactions1.00.29*-.07
5. No Interaction1.00-.20
6. Cognitive Growth1.00

Table 13.2 presents the interitem correlations of all variables, at the classroom level.

The only variable significantly correlated with the change in cognitive abilities was the average percentage of students involved in verbal interaction (r = .38, p < .05). Verbal interaction was also significantly positively related to teacher behaviors that develop thinking (r = .45, p < .05), and negatively (although not significantly) related to the teacher’s supervisory behaviors (r =-.33).


This study shows that advancing cognitive development of students in hetrogeneous classrooms is possible when necessary processes are in place.

The conceptual basis of complex instruction includes those processes–social interaction and learner autonomy–that lead to cognitive development. Because of the natural variations in the actual implementation of complex instruction by the teachers in the sample, we could examine the effect of the quality of implementation on the cognitive development of students. In those classrooms where the quality of implementation was higher, the gains in cognitive development were higher as well. The quality of implementation was indicated by the use of teacher behaviors that develop and support student thinking and by the level of student interaction.

However, not all interaction was beneficial for the cognitive development of students. The data show that the benefits of social interaction arise only from the verbal interactions: in the discussions, in persuasion, and in experimentation, where students make use of high-level cognitive processes and therefore stimulate their development. Verbal interaction is a useful context for the development and use of cognitive skills, in contrast to non-verbal interaction or individual activity without any interaction. Therefore, the more teachers foster verbal interaction, the greater the cognitive gains of students.

The teacher’s behaviors are important in promoting student interaction, as he can enhance or, alternatively, dampen the interaction. The teacher can support interaction through asking meaningful questions, stimulating thinking, and posing intellectual challenges. When the teacher is not the sole source of information, students will turn to one another for information and assistance.

When the teacher intervenes in the groups, she short-circuits the thinking process for the students and eliminates the need for verbal interaction. When it is the teacher who resolves the uncertainty, solves the problem, or helps the students get out of dilemma, there is no need for the students to turn to one another to solve the task. Indeed, the data showed a positive relationship between supervisory behaviors and nonverbal interaction, and a negative relationship between these behaviors and verbal interaction.

These findings about Cl classrooms demonstrate that heterogeneity of the student population, rather than being an impediment for cognitive development, is a positive factor for the development of thinking. Heterogeneity creates variability and differences that lead to intellectual tension and a socio-cognitive conflict. This conflict or tension is resolved through verbal interaction, which in turn leads to the development of thinking.

The implications for teaching and learning in complex instruction and the development of thinking are twofold. First, because of the importance of verbal interaction, groupwork time needs to be maximized. Interaction is also enhanced by appropriate learning tasks that challenge the students’ thinking and require them to be resources for one another. Second, because teacher behavior can enhance or inhibit verbal interaction, teachers who use CI need to learn how to redefine their role, to understand that the hub of teaching and learning is in the student groups, and to recognize the importance and the value of verbal interaction and its effects on cognitive development. Only when teachers internalize these beliefs will they be able to aid their students in fully realizing the potential of interaction.

  • About Lookstein

    The Lookstein Center is dedicated to providing critical supports for Jewish educators as they learn, teach, and lead in the twenty-first century to ensure an engaged and educated Jewish community.

  • Become a member

    Membership packages are available for individuals, schools, and organizations.

    Learn More

  • Connect on Facebook

  • Contact us

    The Lookstein Center
    Bar Ilan University
    Ramat Gan 5290002, Israel
    Phone: +972-3-531-8199
    US Number: +1-646-568-9737
    Fax :+972-3-535-1912