Why a Seminar on Depth and Complexity?
A few years ago, I was teaching a course on classroom strategies for the gifted, and I came across the book “Sparks of Genius: The 13 Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People” by Robert and Michelle Root-Bernstein. Having been a public school teacher for 25 years prior to working as a university professor, I was struck by this sentence from that book: “Everyone thinks. But not everyone thinks equally well.” That sentence made me think about the way we invite gifted kids to engage in their learning. The brain is a pattern-maker, and the majority of the time those patterns help us navigate the world in a highly efficient manner. But, sometimes those patterns lead us astray and/or prevent us from looking deeper. I knew that the repetitive manner in which students are asked to summarize what they have read by answering questions related to the main characters, setting, problems, and solutions, creates a mental pattern in which they are often oblivious to other important concepts such as ethical issues, multiple perspectives, and change across time being presented by the author. I set out looking for a model I could teach aspiring educators so that they students would have a broader set of lenses through which to view the literature they read and the social studies, science, and other subjects they studied. I found that model in The Dimensions of Depth and Complexity.
The Story Behind the Dimensions of Depth and Complexity
In 1994, Dr. Sandra Kaplan (USC) and Bette Gould, a classroom teacher, collaborated on a California Department of Education document that represented a unique approach to curriculum differentiation for gifted students. Their work was informed by reviewing Advanced Placement curriculum, California Golden State Exam requirements, and theories about the accelerated needs of gifted. In addition, the designers of the Dimensions of Depth and Complexity focused on the nature of the academic disciplines studied in school. In 2005, the Dimensions of Depth and Complexity were integrated as a California G.A.T.E. standard. These Dimensions were originally designed to create learning experiences that nurtured excellence and developed expert-practice among gifted students, but they are now also used in many heterogeneous classrooms of diverse learners, gifted and non-gifted.
The Dimensions of Depth and Complexity – An Overview
I have posted a visual listing of the “concrete starting points for thinking” related to each of the dimensions of depth and complexity. That handout provides you with “entry points” to engage your child in thinking about the eleven dimensions. The first eight dimensions invite the learner’s thinking to go deeper and deeper:
LANGUAGE OF THE DISCIPLINE
When we talk about the Language of the Discipline, we are referring to the words that are significant to that particular discipline, so that a biologist would use discipline-related words that would be different from the words of the anthropologist or the artist. Language of the Discipline also refers to the jargon, the tools, the signs & symbols, and other aspects of the unique disciplines. When you are talking with your children about a piece of literature they are reading, you might talk about the specific word choice the author has purposefully chosen.
This dimension is not new to your children. Elementary-aged children are asked to retell details from stories they have read. I will suggest that we need to model for our children how to pull out the important detail (rather than telling us everything they’ve read), and we need to encourage our children to see the details in many aspects of their lives outside of reading. By learning to see, hear, taste, smell, feel, imagine, etc. the details, we are broadening our children’s ability to be aware, creative, and intuitive.
Our brains are natural pattern-makers, and there are ways we can encourage our children to notice and effectively utilize those patterns. Here are some questions you might ask your children when focusing on patterns:
Rules is a dimension that is learned early on by children as they navigate the world and they hear the word “NO” when they are not following a rule. In fact, the book “No, David!” might be a cute one to read to a primary-age child when introducing the concept of rules. The author, David Shannon, claims the book was first written when he was a little boy and those were the only words he could spell. We need to expand the notion of rules with our children so that they see the rules we follow in every discipline, including sports, mathematics, science, poetry, etc., and the different cultural rules that may exist within the United States as well as internationally.
There are many effective ways to nurture your child’s awareness of trends. You might highlight the styles of clothing, transportation, technology, or other “trendy” topics related to something they are reading or studying. You might have your child pay attention to patterns as a way to forecast or predict a trend. Listed below, you will find books and websites to help you focus on the meaning and importance of finding trends.
Some gifted children are under the impression they are supposed to know everything about a topic they’re studying. We need to be sure to impress upon our children that they are merely scratching the surface and that there are many disciplines where people spend their careers searching for the answer to life’s big questions.
In 1944, the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to Isidor Rabi for developing a resonance method for recording the magnetic properties of atomic nuclei. He believes his mother was the driving force behind him becoming a scientist, and he is quoted as saying: “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending to. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: So? Did you learn anything today? But not my mother. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That difference — asking good questions — made me become a scientist.”
It is imperative that we help our gifted children identify and analyze ethical issues. These can be found in the stories they read, in almost any subject they are studying, in the daily newspaper, and even in their everyday lives and interactions with peers. We can stimulate thinking about ethical issues by highlighting controversies, biases, prejudices, propaganda, and even the topic of “wisdom.”
Being able to identify the themes, laws, and theories is an important skill for our children to learn. One issue faced by many gifted students is the inability to summarize those main ideas. They often want to retell what they have learned and aren’t sure how to whittle down the information into the big ideas. Here are some resources to help you guide your child to identification and summarization of the big ideas.
The last three dimensions invite the learner to think in more complex ways:
RELATE OVER TIME
As your child is reading a book, you might look at how the characters, problems, settings, or other aspects of the story change from the beginning to the end. You might encourage your child to compare two stories written in different times (Cam Jansen, the girl detective with Nancy Drew). Being able to relate to material across time is a far more complex way of thinking than simply looking at how things are at the present moment. Relating over time helps your child develop a deeper understanding of the historical significance of events, as well as the implications of current innovations. For those of us who remember a rotary phone, I remember some of the first mobile phones that were so large and had to be held in its own large carrying case. Bringing your child back in time might also help your child in forward thinking about what innovation might be necessary in the future.
We do our children a disservice when we don’t push them to see things from another perspective, whether that be in the visual/spatial sense or in the understanding how other people view the same topic. I remember working with a 3rd grade boy during one of the presidential elections, and he had a very derogatory comment to make about the candidates from the opposing party. It was obvious that he knew very little about those candidates and their true views. He was just parroting what his parents had to say. If we can be a model of restraint when discussing such important and polarizing topics we will be teaching our children to view what they read about and learn about from many perspectives. I had a very different experience recently when I heard about a boy who chose to do a biography about President Nixon. I knew his parents did not agree with many of the political actions of President Nixon, however, they took him to the Nixon Library so he could include some primary resource materials for his report.
Although in education we tend to break learning down into discrete subject learning such as math, reading, language arts, history, science, etc., true learning is most often multidisciplinary. This is another great lens through which your child can gain a more complex understanding of books they are reading and information they are learning. You might want to point out that although the story “Silly Billy” is about a young boy dealing with his fears, it is also about Guatemalan worry dolls. The biography of Wilma Rudolph do a great job of informing about so many issue: her struggle with polio (and later cancer), her family’s struggle with racism, her winning Olympic gold medals in track, and establishment of a foundation to help future generations of children.
Resources related to the Dimensions of Depth and Complexity are sold by J Taylor Education at https://www.jtayloreducation.com/.
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
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