A Brief Synopsis of Complex Instruction

A Primer To Expectation States Theory

Senior Seminar

C. Rathbone 3/10/08

In normal, everyday, regular life, we judge the world around us by they way we’ve been taught to judge the world around us. Every one of us has a normative reference group in our head. This is a group whose behavior and actions in all kinds of situations define for us what is normal and acceptable. This normative reference group also has particular characteristics of appearance and behavior. The fact that this imaginary yet powerful group defines the world as “right” to us means we give it and their judgments particular power and authority and influence. Another word for “power, authority, and influence” is “status.” Status is an attribute we perceive in others that determines how we behave in relationship to those “others.” If we imbue a person with high status, then we place an expectation on them that they will perform in a certain way.

The sociologists who thought up Expectations States Theory (EST) have investigated how power and authority and status play out in laboratory experiments. Often these experiments involved naïve participants placed in situations where their behavior was observed as they interacted with research assistants who assumed different postures to “test” the naïve participants’ reactions. One of the many findings of EST is that we behave differently depending upon how we perceive the people around us; and, the people around us behave in certain ways depending upon how they are treated by those around them. EST reveals a two-way street of expectation and response. The famous studies by Rosenthal were part of this genre of sociological inquiry. Rosenthal randomly assigned students of varying achievement levels to various classrooms. He informed the teachers that certain groups of students were high achievers when in fact achievement was a randomly distributed variable within those groupings. When end of the year achievement tests were administered, the low achievement students did remarkably better. This “Pygmalion Effect” has been replicated many times and is a good example of the power of perceived status and expectation.

Elizabeth G. Cohen is almost singularly responsible for moving the study of expectations states from the laboratory to the classroom. Over the course of thirty years, she and her able group of graduate students, almost all of whom had public school teaching experience, gradually, step-by-step carried out a research program that documented how unequal status in classroom small group work creates differential conditions of achievement outcomes based on a student’s status. Lower status students contribute less in cooperative group work because the higher status children in the group think they have nothing to contribute to the group work. Likewise, higher status students contribute more in cooperative group work because they carry a kind of privilege that comes with high status, the privilege of being looked to for leadership in small group activities. As a result, they often run the groups, get lots of opportunity to process the academic tasks, and learn at higher rates all because others think they know more. They may know more, but they may also not know much about a particular area of investigation even though they are looked to by others to “lead on.”

Cohen’s research traces how unequal status plays out in small group work in schools. She created a set of research-based strategies that as a whole are called Complex Instruction (CI). CI includes several status interventions that interrupt business as usual and create conditions of interaction in small groups that cause higher status children to want to include lower status children in the group work conversation. When this occurs, rates of talking and working together for all children in a group increase, engagement in the task increases, and learning improves.

Cohen’s steps are diagrammed below. What follows is a brief summary of Cohen’s interpretation of EST and her interventions that counter its negative effects.

1. Status Characteristics.

We all carry status characteristics with us. Dress, things we place on our clothing, the kinds of shoes we wear, hairstyling, the backpacks we carry, the people we hang with, all these things ( and so many more ) are signs for others to assign status to us. Status is a normal part of life. It makes no difference really until a task that requires a particular outcome appears. Tasks such as these are the stuff of schools.

2. Task Appears.

Let’s say your teacher assigns a complicated math problem to the class and gives the class an opportunity to choose two other people to work with to solve the problem. Let’s say the teacher also says something like, “The first group to finish correctly is exempted from doing the rest of the homework for the weekend.” What’s the first thing you do?

3. Activation of Expectations.

My hunch is you look around for two other people to work with that will help you successfully complete the task. And you may look for people to work with regardless of whether or not they are your close friends. The naming of a task snaps the general status characteristics that abound in human groups into a particular focus, and people who have academic status (and to some degree high peer status) become valued participants. In EST language, the task activates a set of expectations regarding who is thought to be good math problem solvers and who is not. Suddenly, there’s a status order in the class based on the perception of who will do well and who won’t.

4. Behavior Results.

There’s a shuffle while you and your classmates choose partners. You end up in a group with one friend, also a good mathematician. The other person in the group is not all that familiar to you. You know they often need extra help in math. You and your friend basically work out the problem by yourselves and because your friend is good at what he does, your conversation carries the day and you are able to successfully explain your approach to your class.

5. Status Intervention Treatments.

The above scenario is business as usual before Cohen. If Elizabeth had been your teacher, she’d have done a few things differently. She would have made sure that there were more than one way to do the task; in this case she might have asked your group, now expanded by one, to model your answer using Cuisenaire Rods. She would also have made very clear at the onset of your group work that it was going to take more than just good number sense to do this problem. She certainly would have said that using manipulatives, building models, and putting number problems into everyday situations were other ways to be smart about this task, that everyone has some abilities and not everyone has all the abilities necessary to do good work of this kind. Finally, she would have noted to the group when one of the quieter members started to fiddle around with the rods that constructing a solution using the rods was key to getting an appropriate answer. If she had done these things, you would have been less sure of yourself and more willing to listen to the input from other members of the group. After all, the teacher was still looking for a group solution, a solution you had all helped each other come to.

6. Behavior Results.

If Elizabeth had been your teacher, and if you had been invested in arriving at a solution along with your buddies, the quality of conversation would have risen in the group. There would have been more directed activity (the cards) at arriving at the solution and then arriving at an appropriate representation of that solution. Someone watching you would have seen much more talk from every member of the group, talk that was focused on the problem and talk that carried content learning. Everyone’s thinking would have deepened. If the teacher had tested you in the way you had learned to represent this problem, everyone would have demonstrated higher rates of achievement..

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