Specifying Behavior with Explicit Roles

Virtual Conference on Soft Skills

Uninvolved students do not learn in any particularly meaningful way, but getting students involved is hard.  Participation points?  Cold calls?

I rely on students’ desire to be involved.  When a student actually does not want to be in the classroom, or is afraid to be involved, I use different approaches than that described here.  Luckily, most students want to involve themselves, and this article is about helping them do that by defining roles for them.

Defining roles for people makes it easier for them to act because it makes a lot of decisions for them already.  Costume parties are easier to participate in when you can crystallize ideas for your outfit on a theme (80′s dance party? Wild west?  Alice in Wonderland, anyone?).  Social dances with defined steps and a “lead” and “follower” are easier to do gracefully because the lead knows he’s responsible for leading and the follower knows he’s, well, supposed to follow!  The definition of the roles takes the responsibility out of some of the participants’ actions, which lowers the risk of engaging.  And we want as many people engaging as we can get!

This year in my math class I experimented with a method I learned about from CPM, and I found it wildly successful.  The idea is to put students into teams, give each team a powerful problem or question to chew on, and to give them the framework they need to chew on it.  The roles I gave and the training I used are below.

The Facilitator

The student assigned the facilitator role is responsible for three things: reading problems or prompts aloud to the team, keeping everyone in the team involved, and keeping discussion going when it stalls out.  This means the facilitator should now allow Tim to space out or Susanne to answer every question without consulting the others.

To train facilitators, I gave my students a list of phrases they could use.  To include people, for example, they could try, “What do you think, Tim?” or, “Can you explain why you think that, Susanne?”  To drive a conversation when it seems like everyone is stuck, they could say, “What have we tried so far?” or “Is there anything we could try a little bit differently?” or “Can we work on a different part of this problem and come back later?”  We literally practiced saying these things as a class, in unison.  You’ll have to decide what method of practice is comfortable for you, but please do not think that students will jump right in to using phrases like this without practice, or that they already possess the skills to facilitate a meeting.  Only a small percentage of adults have a solid grasp on facilitation techniques.

The Resource Manager

The resource manager in a team is the team’s liaison to the outside world.  If the team needs a ruler, the resource manager gets it.  If the team needs to look something up, the resource manager goes to the computer or dictionary.  If the team needs to ask me (the teacher) a question, the resource manager is the one to ask it.  When I teach classes in team formations, I actually refuse to speak to anyone in the team except the resource manager.  The students think I’m joking at first, but I do it for the same reasons I don’t let them sit next to me in study hall.

The resource manager’s role has a subtle but important facet: before the resource manager can use a resource, each member of the group must agree that that resource is needed.  When a team wants to ask me a question, they must agree on it first, and figure out how to word it.  Often, in this process, a team answers its own question, and they all learn how to answer their own questions.  When they can’t answer it, but do come to agreement about what to ask, they all learn how to formulate a question and narrow down the specifics required to make the answer useful.  They know that I’ll make them agree on every single question before I answer it, so coming up with concise questions becomes important.  The resource manager’s role includes orchestrating these discussions.

This role also needs training, and a list of possible phrases.  “Is there a single piece of information that would help us move forward?” or, “What information do we already have?” or, “Before we ask Riley what this symbol means, what are our guesses?”

The Task Manager

The task manager’s primary role is to keep track of time, make sure that the team is spending appropriate amounts of time on different parts of the assignment, and alert the others when it seems like the whole group is moving off task.  This role overlaps with the facilitator quite a bit, but the concreteness of having specific target times is helpful to students and I’ve never felt like this role is redundant.  Especially when the facilitator is busy trying to lead a stuck group, it’s helpful to have a task manager to keep track of more administrative details.

As always, when expecting a certain behavior from students, we should show them what it looks like.  Training task managers can look like a skit, a list of useful phrases, etc.  You can emphasize the task managing you do in your class all the time – instead of saying “please take out your homework,” write a schedule for the period on the board ahead of time and say, “I see that it’s time to take out our homework.”

The Recorder / Reporter

The recorder takes notes and creates minutes, if you will.  The notes can be her own, but the minutes must be presented to the team regularly to be sure that they are fully representative of any agreements the team has come to together.  These minutes are the final permanent product of the team and can be turned in so that I (the teacher) can give in-depth feedback on a team’s mathematical understanding later.

The recorder is also the reporter, who may be asked to give impromptu oral reports of the team’s progress to the entire class.  Occasionally I ask this of a team that is understanding something fast or in more depth than the other teams, or use a quick round of reports as a closure for a class period.

The training for this role is the hardest, I think.  What if you have students that don’t have practice writing summaries?  This year I practiced with the whole class: we would have a ten-minute discussion and then summarize it on the board, making sure we noted all of the important parts and only the important parts.  Still, I was least satisfied with the work I saw from this role throughout the year.


Together, these roles give the students a powerful framework for their behavior during class.  Since every student has responsibilities to every other student, disengaging becomes less desirable and also less acceptable to the students.  In a large class with no specific roles, if Tim zones out it doesn’t really affect anyone else, and Tim doesn’t have an easy way to zone back in.  With groups and specific roles and responsibility, when Tim zones out his teammates notice immediately, and can prompt him with aspects of his role to re-engage right away.  So great!

These roles make me more comfortable with my guilty admission: I don’t care very much if the kids learn math.  I mean, I’ll teach them some math, and when they leave they’re going to see more of its beauty and be equipped to use it in society.  But which is more important, vector addition or working in a team?  Factoring or formulating questions?  Integrating or leading peers?  Obviously, obviously, the math comes second.  It’s just lucky that learning math provides so many opportunities for learning the more important things.

16 thoughts on “Specifying Behavior with Explicit Roles”

    1. I don’t think these roles are age specific. They make sense. Younger kids may be less able to implement them and think about them as they also think about math, the girl they have a crush on, or whatever they have going on at home, and older students may be more able to think about their metaprocesses, but as far as I can tell all social interactions are eased by format and structure. If you try this at a college level, please let us know how it goes – I use it in my work with my employees at camp, and it’s great, and they’re 18-22 (mostly).

  1. Hi Riley,
    Hope you’re enjoying summer camp. Thanks for the post and again THANK YOU for putting this whole thing together.

    A couple of years ago I learned a slightly different implementation of the roles based on their thinking roles. I’ll put a box.net link on the bottom from an article on Science Scope.

    The roles were Prediction Manager, Evidence Collector, Skeptic, and Researcher. Each person had a set of questions they were supposed to ask and a few defined roles. It reminds me somewhat of the reciprocal teaching method for reading.

    http://www.box.net/shared/idacuton71

    1. Interesting – I’d love to run one class with one set of roles and another with… another. Thanks for the info, Jason.

      Summer camp is hard (like everything really wonderful). Today is a day off! Wooohooooo! This is my second day off since June 10th, lol.

  2. Early in my teacher prep program, I was told to assign leadership roles to students with a lot of energy to help keep them focused– they could take attendance, pass out papers, etc. For efficiency, it sounded great, but for meaningfully engaging students, it sounded like a cop-out way to divert the attention of the most troublesome.

    We also learned about assigning roles in groups, but they were more cutesy titles than actual responsibilities. I like how what you have here requires more from students than simply completing rote, predefined tasks; in assigning them roles, you’re not just finding something to keep them busy so they don’t distract others, but something that builds their thinking and social skills AND contributes to the success of the group.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Taking attendance and passing out papers can be meaningful for students who have never had even that much responsibility before, but you’re right that it falls flat with students who are hungering for more responsibility. Those tasks also focus on skills the students need, but not skills they need during conversation, or during a focused learning session.

      This is certainly not busy work! :)

        1. Yeah, the differences are pretty subtle, and it was hard to teach the students the difference. When they get going smoothly, though, it helps to have the focuses split between two different people.

          These roles were invented by CPM, as far as I know, and seem very similar to roles I have seen in other research. I did not create them!

  3. You’ve nicely summed up what I have suspected about this type of group “learning”–it’s not important that students learn math. Becoming good at staff meetings is the goal. Forcing teenagers to depend on peers for their own learning creates many dysfunctional, stressful scenarios. But fans of this approach are too invested to admit it. The teacher abdicates responsibility for teaching to the students, then justifies this by saying teamwork is more important than math so it’s all good.

    1. I was glib, and it makes sense that you’re angry hearing a teacher talk about his subject as if it doesn’t matter. I actually believe that learning math is quite important.

      However, I absolutely do believe that learning to work in a team is more important. It sounds like you think that asking teenagers to depend on their peers for their own benefit is inappropriate in a classroom. Is that true? At what point is it ok for people to depend on their peers?

      I see what you mean about “abdicating reponsibility for teaching.” It looks like I let the book and activities teach the kids, and walk around helping them. I hope you’ll believe that I know every scrap of math in the book and could (in fact, for three years, did!) stand in the front of the class and tell it to them in the traditional format. We “covered” the same amount of material, and my students’ test scores were about the same. So what is your objection? They learned the same amount of math in my classes (and got their shares of 4s and 5s on the AP tests). But one way, they came out of my class loving math and having better social skills.

      I can imagine abusing CPM as a teacher. It was truly liberating, not having to invent lesson plans every day from scratch, create my own materials, photo-copy them, etc. It would be tempting to pass out the CPM books and lean back at the front of the classroom. But I’m telling you I spent way more time in conversation with kids about math than I ever did as a lecturer. It was at least as much work in the classroom. So, I’m offended that you would suggest that I abdicated my responsibility.

      1. I can only speak for the teachers at our school — not you. I’m sure you are a great teacher. But CPM is not a great curriculum. You are comparing it to a DIY approach that asked a lot of you. Of course it would be an improvement for you. But for us it has been horrible. I would dispute the suggestion that working in a team is more important than math…in a math class. In my corporate job, too many people cannot do the simplest tasks. We do not need more incompetent team players who don’t even try to challenge themselves on their own. They are fearful of new tasks. Won’t do anything without training, permission, and five other people to cover their rears. We need more skills and more ingenuity. Often it is the individual who makes all the difference. Groups tend to work slower and lead each other into the ditch.

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