Icons of Depth
& Complexity

Icons of Depth and Complexity, developed by Sandra Kaplan and Bette Gould, is a framework that helps take students deeper into an area of study; extend learning; develop creative thinking; and promote deeper engagement and achievement by students. The icons are visual cues to each way of approaching thinking.

The purpose is to guide learners to extend their understanding of an area of study. The framework is useful for all students - who can argue with helping to encourage critical thinking! But it's also an ideal approach for extending the depth and complexity of material for students who have mastered your standards and need challenging. You can give struggling students a chance to catch up to grade level standards while adding enrichment for others.

Once you have that in place, create a strong task statement. The statement should let the student know what skill is being addressed and why (purpose), know what a good product would look like (success criteria), and if it aligned with the standards for your course. See GiftedGuru's article and Ian Byrd's examples (they also co-authored a book about the topic).

How do you introduce these concepts? Pick one or two icons and go through these steps:

  1. Define - Ethics. Talk about that it means having a dilemma, a concern. That it's being confronted by an issue. When it's not clear, it's not black or white - it has shades of grey.

  2. Relate to Previous Knowledge - Relate it to previous experience. What stories have we read where there's a problem or concern?

  3. Apply New Knowledge - We are going to take what we know about ethics, and use it to answer this question. What are the ethical issues that apply to what we're learning now?

  4. Integrate to the real World - So what does this mean to you, as you look, as you work, as you live in the real world? What kind of ethical dilemmas are we confronting in terms of current events? Where are there ethical issues in their own world?

Byrd's article has some excellent advice for introducing the icons to your students and combining them in meaningful ways.

There are 11 icons, shown below, representing areas of thinking prompts that let students explore topics in a new way. You can choose one of the prompts first, then choose activities to fit them; or choose activities and then the kind of thinking you want students to use when they approach the activity.

They may be given in conjunction with a variety of different assignments and assessments. If you use Google Classroom, you can use these prompts with the Question assignment.

The 11 Icons of Depth and Complexity

Icons are used to represent different areas that students can use to look at content or ideas. There are 11 lenses that can help extend their thinking and learning on a variety of topics. Below I've used emojis, as advocated by Ian Byrd.


Students gain a greater expertise in the content by uncovering more details and building new knowledge of a topic. They can be encouraged to adopt different perspectives or find patterns in connections.

  1. πŸ‘„ Language of the Discipline - What vocabulary is associated with the content? What key words, phrases, signs and symbols, slang, abbreviations, or figures of speech do students need to know to work with the content? What skills and tasks are specific to the discipline or area of study? What tools are used? What methods are used? What is the service provided? What products are made? What is the benefit to society? Example: in math, we need to know sum, difference, equation. USE: Add to vocabulary lists, anchor charts, KWL charts, introducing a new topic.

  2. 🌼 Details - Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? Elaborate. Identify attributes and distinguishing traits. Think of a flower - what parts make up the whole? Details can include parts, factors, attributes, traits, and variables. Example: In math, each part of an equation.

  3. πŸ₯ Patterns - What are repeating or reoccurring elements or events? What are the order of events? What comes next? Why do you think that? Patterns are predictable, repetitive, and ordered. Example: in math, numbers following a sequence.

  4. ❓ Unanswered Questions - What ideas or information is missing or unclear? What words don't you understand? What areas can still be explored or proven? What conclusions are ambiguous or need more evidence?

  5. 🚦 Rules - What is the structure? What is the order? What hierarchy or principles are visible. How is this classified? What rules affect it or apply to your topic? Example: in math, the order of operations dictates the way an equation is solved.

  6. βš– Ethics - Identify the values or moral principles. Are the behaviors or actions good or bad? Right or wrong? Pros and cons? Who decides it? Who believes it? Are there different points of view? Determine elements that reflect prejudice and discrimination. What are the problems or conflicts and are there solutions?

  7. 🏠 Big Ideas - What is the theme? Identify the "Big Idea" principle, rule, theory, or general statement that summarizes information or draws a conclusion based on facts and ideas.

  8. πŸ“‰ Trends - What are the patterns of change over time? What factors caused events to occur? Social, political, economic, geographic, for example? What are the causes and effects? What are influencing factors?


Complexity - students are challenged to find relationships between concepts and connections across disciplines.

  1. πŸ“š Across the Disciplines - What common themes connect topics? How is one topic like the other? Examples: math and art; music and history; science and literature. How would a computer be used by a scientist? Artist? Historian? Author?

  2. πŸ•ž Change over Time - What was it like in the past? What is it like in the present? What might it look like in the future? What caused the change? How did it change or remain the same?

  3. πŸ‘“ Multiple Perspectives - Students consider topics or ideas from multiple perspectives. What are different perspectives related to the topic?. What are opposite viewpoints? Who agrees and disagrees? Who believes what and why do they believe it? What are the advantages of diversity?

The Content Imperatives

Also designed by Sandra Kaplan, these are 5 tools that can be used to go deeper into content, differentiate, and increase complexity. See this Byrdseed.com article for details.


Hanson-Smith, Kari. Introduction to the Iconic Prompts for Depth & Complexity. Scaramento City USD, www.scusd.edu/sites/main/files/file-attachments/icons_for_dandc.pdf.

Lisa van Gemert - Shares downloads to integrate into lesson planning and classroom - https://www.giftedguru.com/free-downloads/

Ian Byrd- https://www.byrdseed.com/category/differentiating/depth-and-complexity-icons/

Icon images are available at https://www.jtayloreducation.com/free-downloadable-icons/

Dr. Sandra Kaplan Explaining Concept

Kaplan Depth & Complexity Model Icons