cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Rooting Out Blind Spots in the Language of Group Roles in Complex Instruction-based Group Work

There are a number of blind spots in the original roles and norms from Complex Instruction (CI) that amount to a form of self-sabotage in practice. These have always bugged me.

It seems to me that if you are using CI to address status problems, then you need to ruthlessly root out any unconscious status implications from the language you use for roles and norms. In both the short term and in the longer term, these can severely undermine the effectiveness of any status treatments you may try to implement.

The most self-sabotaging label in my experience is that of “Team Captain.” Two things bother me about this label. The first is that the word “Captain” implies a social hierarchy within the group that is antithetical to the goal of developing shared responsibility and accountability. The other is that, when used in conjunction with the word “Team,” the word “Captain” cannot help but imply competition within the classroom rather than collaboration. For these reasons, I have banished these words from my vocabulary for roles.

Having managed many, many groups and projects in the corporate world, I have always been concerned that the language of Complex Instruction roles is so imprecise. In my experience, imprecise language about roles leads to a lack of clarity in response to expectations. It also leads to charter conflict and “turf wars.”

Here’s how I have tweaked the language of group roles for my classroom this year to make them more precise and more equitable.

Keep the group pointed in the direction of reaching a shared understanding:

  • read instructions aloud
  • enforce norms
  • resolve conflicts, find compromises
  • substitute for absent group members
  • lead the process of filling out the group self-assessment questionnaire to turn in

Keep the process of collaboration running smoothly:

  • get the work off to a fast start
  • watch progress & the time
  • make sure everyone participates (turn-taking)
  • assign sub-roles
  • make sure the group meets its deadline

Get what your group needs:

  • get & return all needed supplies
  • organize the group to ask a group question (make sure that anyone in the group can state the shared question)
  • call the teacher over for group questions
  • organize clean-up

Manage group production of notes and deliverables:

  • take notes for the group
  • make sure everybody takes good personal notes
  • organize production of high-quality group deliverables to turn in

As part of the infrastructure for group metacognition and self-monitoring, I am going to implement a group self-assessment questionnaire this year. Right from the start, I want to be deliberate in training students and groups to think reflectively about how they are participating individually and how their participation is being perceived by others as well. I also want them to actively perceive and reflect on what others have done that they could try themselves in the future.

I think of this as part of a larger process of assigning competence in the classroom community.

Here’s my draft of a Collaboration Self-Assessment questionnaire. We’ll test-drive this at the Group Work Working Group morning session at Twitter Math Camp 14.

   Collaboration Self-Assessment Questionnaire


  1. Love this! Thanks for taking the time to think so in depth about this and then sharing your ideas.

    1. Thanks for reading and responding, Sherrie! I appreciate your support.

      - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

  2. I'm curious what you think assigning specific roles accomplishes that a more general CI approach where each member of the group is responsible for navigating, facilitating, sharing resources and recording/reporting would not. I used to use group roles, but have always felt the tension with them feeling artificial. Would love to hear your thoughts on how they benefit your classroom.

    1. My experience with roles in the high-tech business world showed me that having clearly defined roles can make a giant difference in whether or not teams achieve effective collaboration. Any time people end up stepping on each other's toes, they become more vigilant and guarded — and that is at odds with the goal of getting people collaborating in an open and relaxed flow state.

      Roles that are crisply defined — with the group's common goal in mind — are a thing of beauty. Effective facilitation is a work of art. So are effective navigation, financial and supply chain management, PR and communications, product development, engineering on a team, and note-taking/record-keeping. Clear boundaries free individuals to enter a shared, collaborative space which, to me, is the hallmark of exploratory talk. That is where I want to get my groups in their group work this year — or at least, to help them get closer to this state of flow.

      My experience with the original CI roles has been anything BUT this kind of clarity. The definitions of the original CI roles are kind of flabby, and in practice, they end up serving as an arbitrary tool for enforcing student compliance, even by highly effective CI practitioners. And this is at odds with my beliefs about fostering and respecting student autonomy.

      It seems to me that, if the goal is to create a social and emotional space where exploratory talk is prized above all else and is used to create a shared understandingand an environment of mutual respect, then everything else in the structure needs to support that goal.

      I believe that roles can become a powerful tool for increasing students' ability to adapt to new situations (both mathematically and socially), and I believe that that kind of adaptive expertise can free students to engage more deeply in exploratory talk and to take greater risks with their learning. I also think that having a straightforward framework for group self-monitoring will help students develop metacognitive awareness of their own growing strengths as collaborative math learners.

      I hope that helps!

      - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

  3. I have never been able to pull off the normal group role assignments with my students, and I think you may have articulated why I've had such a hard time with them. I am going to be more deliberate this year about teaching students how to work in a group, and the roles that you have listed sound more doable than the norm. Thanks so much for sharing. I'll look forward to hearing about TMC reflections on your work together.

    1. Thank you for sharing these thoughts, Jennifer. Given how much I have already gotten from your Geometry blogging, I am happy to be able to share something of value back! :)

      - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

  4. I am a student research assistant at Montana Tech of the University of Montana. Technology has created exciting ways to connect with others and form professional learning networks. As a part of an active member of a social media community made up of teachers, I wanted to contact you to ask you to participate in a study our research group is conducting.

    Research shows that face-to-face professional networks provide much needed professional and personal support to teachers. You and the community you belong to are providing these types of support using social media. We are interested in learning more about your experiences using social media to connect with other teachers and your opinions about online professional networks.

    The purpose of our study is to learn how professional learning networks created through social media are similar or different than face-to-face networks and what you feel are advantages of using social media to connect with other teachers. Our hope is that the results of this study will inform how professional networks for teachers are designed in the future. If you are interested in participating, please send an email to me at I will send you a link to a short online survey and will set up time for a short skype interview.

    If you have any questions you would like to ask about the study, please do not hesitate to contact me.


    Kaitlyn Rudy
    Research Assistant
    Department of Mathematical Sciences
    Montana Tech of the University of Montana

  5. Elizabeth, I like your student roles you've put together very much! I created some cards to print and laminate for the students in my class. I used your exact wording and I hope you approve of my creation. Thanks for sharing!