Roles for Supporting Meaningful Group Work

A couple people have asked me recently for the structure I use to support group work in my history class, so I’d figure I’d share it here for all.  I would only ask that if you use them, you let me know how things go, and especially any changes you make.  But first, some context:

As a progressive educator, I was trained to value group work. However, for much of the beginning of my career, I had inconsistent success. Some tasks would go well; others would just result in students copying information from each other. Last year, I spent a lot of time thinking about what makes group work successful and what would make it unsuccessful. After attending a workshop at a conference on group work in math classes (I always find value in getting outside of my content areas to be able to encounter new paradigms to bring back to humanities), I came to the conclusion that in history classes, there were two types of “group-worthy” tasks:

  1. When students have a complex problem to solve with multiple entry points, various potential strategies to deal with it, and multiple correct or acceptable solutions. These might include situations where students engage with ethical dilemmas (should Truman have made the decision to drop the Atomic Bomb?), important historical decisions (what should the ANC have done in response to the Sharpevlle Massacre?), or where students create something (create a society to thrive in the desert).
  2. When students have a large amount of content to learn, and are responsible for different parts and then teaching the rest of the group or class, in what I’ve always refered to as a “jigsaw.” [One could argue that this is really just individual work that is shared with a group.]

The second type of group work is easy to support: students just need clearly identified responsibilities, clear guidelines for the project, and an accountable audience. The first type, however, requires further structure, since everyone in the group is working towards a shared solution. Along with my planning team, and greatly indebted to the roles used in Literature Circles, we developed the following group roles in order to give students clear responsibilities and roles when solving problems in groups:

In order to make these successful, we had to first teach and model them for students. We then gave students the opportunity to try them for the first time in a low-stakes situation with a simple task (imagine you are starting a civilization on Mars and can take 5 non-essential items with you, what 5 items would you take). Finally, we had the students rotate through all five roles during a simulation where students developed civilziations that would survive and flourish on an earth-like foreign planet. Part of students’ grades for the project was how well they fulfilled their roles, which was determinied by self, peer, and teacher evaluations. Putting so much effort into establishing and practicing the roles at the beginning of the year has enabled us to bust them out as needed for the rest of the year.


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