Collaborative Group Roles – How I Became a Fan

As the title suggests, I was not always a fan of group roles.  I didn’t buy into the concept and often thought, I can see it working for other teachers but not for me.  I’ve changed my tune.  Here’s my journey…

Some Background History…

  • I’ve always believed in having students work in pairs and/or groups
  • As a new teacher (back in the 90’s), cooperative learning was getting a lot of attention.
  • Groups of 3 became my favorite.  The desks created a cozy learning area.
  • I attempted to use group roles but failed, due to
    • Wishy washy roles such as:  The Encourager.
    • Lack of vision to incorporate group roles on both a daily and long term basis
  • Even though I didn’t use group roles, my students still worked well together and groups were productive.Screen Shot 2016-03-13 at 9.06.13 AM
  • I found success using Kagan’s structures such as Numbered Heads/Prep your Rep  and Inside/Outside Circle but knew, deep down, the collaborative aspect could be elevated.
  • As the years progressed, I started a family.  Becoming a parent gave me a new perspective on teaching, which
    lead me create a classroom culture based on growth mindset strategies. Student confidence in math increased but the collaborative piece needed more attention.
  • In 2014, a colleague (Mari) and I attended a workshop on
    Complex Instruction at CMC in Palm Springs, CA.  Mari and I were impressed with the design of the collaborative group structure and wanted to share this design with our teachers.
  • The design consisted of 4 roles: Facilitator, Recorder, Material Ma


    nager and Harmonizer.

  • My only reservation was the Harmonizer.  Like the Encourager, the Harmonizer describes a personality trait.  In my opinion, requiring a shy student to become a group cheerleader or peacemaker seemed forced and unauthentic.


This is what I’ve been waiting for!


Karon & Saige

At the beginning of the 2015 -2016 school year, our coaching team welcomed a new member, Karon Woolsey.  Her previous school, Sunnymead Middle School, received a grant which required the entire math department to implement a collaborative group structure.


When she described the roles, I was hooked.  The four roles are: Captain, Recorder, Material Manager (Go-Getter) and Discussion Starter.  No Encourager.  No Harmonizer. All roles revolved around actions. Yess! This is what I’ve been waiting for!!

Karon arranged a day where the Math TOAs visited Sunnymead Middle School to observe the collaborative group roles in action. To sum up the visitation in 1 word, POWERFUL.  I was blown away with the collaborative skills the middle school students displayed.

Next step:  Organize another visit.  This time bring teachers and administration to observe.  Three months later the visit occurred.  Over 2 days, 4 administrators and 17 teachers observed Sunnymead’s collaborative groups roles.

After the Observation:  As of this writing (3 weeks after the visit), 10 teachers, from the 2 schools I work at, have started incorporating collaborative group roles.  Some teachers ran with the idea and started on their own.  For others, the teacher and I introduced the roles together.


Kicking off Collaborative Group Roles

Teacher Prep:

  1.  Create a folder for each team.Screen Shot 2016-03-14 at 9.58.54 PM
    1. 5 classes of 9 groups = 45 folders.
    2. Each class gets a different color
    3. Find a location to store the folders.
    4. Determine the contents of the folder.  We put
      1. Group Score Sheet
      2. Description of each role
      3. A list of questions to help students start and maintain discussions.
  2. The program I observed consists of many parts.  My teachers are starting with a few pieces and will add more as their level of comfort increases.  I created a base form, which has been slowly transforming.
  3. Create groups of 4.
    1. Since class size is not always a multiple of 4, you can have a mix of 4 person and 3 person groups.
    2. Another suggestion is to have 1 group of 5.
  4. Give each group a Group Number.
  5. Pick roles ahead of time.
  6. Get popsicle sticks or tongue depressors to act as celebration points.


Introducing the Roles


  1. Students sitting in a group will now become a team
  2. They will given time to decide upon a team name.
  3. Each person will have a role
  4. Teams will earn celebration points
  5. Teams can lose celebration points
  6. Teams with the most celebration points will win prizes through their time together.
  7. Teams will change after a period of time (Teacher choice)
  8. Roles will change after a period of time (Teacher choice)


Describing Group Roles

  1. Assign Captains.Screen Shot 2016-03-14 at 9.59.08 PM
  2. Ask all Captains to stand.  This will be their first chance to earn celebration points.
    1. Why stand?
      1. Standing makes the process more formal
      2. It’s great way to practice public speaking (which most students dislike)
      3. Their bravery is celebrated.
  3. Present Powerpoint with Group Role descriptions.  Ask each Captain to read one responsibility.
    1. Student says:
      1. The Captain represents the team. or
      2. As a Captain, I will represent the team.
    2. The list is repeated until all Captains have had a chance to speak
  4. Once they state a responsibility, The Captain receives their team folder and a celebration point (popsicle stick).
  5. Ask all Captains to open folder and write their name under the Captain spot.
  6. Repeat steps 1 – 5 with each role, Recorder, Materials Manager & Discussion Starter.
  7. For a 3 person team, The Captain is also The Discussion Starter.
  8. For a 5 person team, The 5th person becomes the 2nd Discussion Starter.


Celebration Points

  1. Prior to assigning roles, it’s important to review your class expectations.  Teams can earn and lose celebration points depending on behavior.
  2. At the end of the introduction process, each group should have 4 celebration points.
  3. Not all groups did.  Why?  Because they weren’t following class expectations.
    1. If a group is talking while a peer is stating their responsibility, then quietly walk by, take away a celebration point and give a non-verbal sign to be quiet.
    2. If a student is called on and another laughs, quietly take a stick and comment on your reason why.
  4. Students don’t want to lose celebration points.
  5. Yes, celebration points = extrinsic motivation.  There’s an aspect of training that’s required and the points expedite that process.
    1. Example 1For the student who’s always getting in trouble, he/she can get recognized for all their little actions which support their group.  The acknowledgement causes a positive change in the student’s attitude and engagement.
    2. Example 2:  Celebration points can help students learn how to support together.
      1. Teacher asks a group member a question but the student can’t answer it.
      2. Teacher:  Team help out your team member.  I’ll be back to check in on you. Students get to work helping their team member.
      3. Teacher returns.  Re-asks the question. Student answers correctly. Celebration points are given.  Teacher comments: Team, nice job supporting each other.  To the student, Nice job persevering.
      4. Win- win situation.
    3. Example 3:  Celebration points can help students learn how to work together. In one class, a group was arguing.  Blame was flying everywhere.  I walked over, grabbed a stick and quietly said, “Please find a way to work together.”  Long story short – They did and they were acknowledged for their efforts.
    4. Example 4:  Some students love a competition.  I witnessed one student who pushed classroom boundaries for 2 years sit quietly with his hands folded waiting for instructions. Another student, who often fools around, was encouraging his group to complete their work. Both students enjoy a competition and used their influence in a positive manner.
    5. Example 5:  Students are more willing to help each other. Both teachers and I have witnessed this positive change in students.
    6. I believe the more students internalize how to effectively work together the greater chance collaboration will become a norm and learning will become intrinsically motivated


Team Building Activity

  1. Once the roles are assigned and discuss, I suggest to transition to a team building activity.  This allows the groups to start bonding.
  2. Activity:  Screen Shot 2016-03-13 at 8.05.08 PM
    1. Each Material Manager was given a long piece of string that was tied with a knot
    2. Groups were to create shapes with the string.
    3. All group members had to be holding the string.
    4. Once ready to be checked, The Captain either raised his/her hand.
    5. If the team met the requirements, they received a celebration point and moved on to the next shape.
    6. Examples of Shapes:  Rectangle, Hexagon, Octagon, Square based pyramid, Rectangular Prism
    7. I learned of this activity at the Complex Instruction workshop in 2014
  3. Another Activity (Thanks to Pinterest)
    1. Each groups receives a rubber band with 4 strings attached and 6 cups.
    2. The team has to build a pyramid.
    3. Students can only hold the string.
    4. Screen Shot 2016-03-14 at 9.00.30 PM

Group Work is “Stressful”

Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 5.50.08 PM


After the team building activity, Allan, expanded the group role discussion.  He asked his students to brainstorm pros and cons about working as a team.  By doing so, he opened the door for an honest discussion of group work.  .

His students went straight to work listing their likes and dislikes. The class transitioned from small group discussion to whole group discussion and teams shared their responses.  Allan addressed each positive point and each concern. The classroom mood, while sharing out, was one of relief. Students felt their apprehensions about group work were validated.

Capture     Screen Shot 2016-03-14 at 9.00.52 PM

Allan is explicitly teaching  his students how to work together.  Therefore, their final brainstorming task was to generate strategies that would turn their negatives into positives. Groups then shared their strategies.

Screen Shot 2016-03-14 at 9.01.22 PM   Capture2.JPG


The teachers and I are at the beginning stages of implementing the collaborative group roles. Depending on the teacher, the length of implementation is between 1 – 3 weeks. We have a lot to learn.  The positive student reaction encourages us to continue with this collaborative approach.


About jgvadnais

Instructional Technology Coach. Desmos Fellow. Google Level 1 Certified. SoCal transplant. New Englander at heart. Lover of yoga, dogs, green smoothies and coffee creamer
This entry was posted in building relationships, Collaborative Group Roles, math, math coach, Math Education, mathematics, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Collaborative Group Roles – How I Became a Fan

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