Delineating Group Roles

NOTE: This is the fifth in a series of posts about Complex Instruction

When teachers take their first forays into groupwork, the first organizational decision that most make is in delineating group roles. I was no different. Understanding the implications of status on group dynamics, however, is when I finally felt like I wasn’t causing more problems than I was solving by grouping students in my classroom. Having roles for groupwork, though, is still important.

I personally found the standard Leader, Reader, Resource Monitor, etc roles to be a little dry for my taste, so I tried to spice up the titles a little and went with Emperor, Ambassador, Designer, and Spy. I used to call my Designer role ‘Scribe’, but I felt like ‘Scribe’ has connotations of labor whereas the Designer label feels more creative. A student suggested a couple of years ago that I switch the name to ‘Architect’, but I think more students can connect to the name ‘Designer’–especially at my school.

A couple of years ago, one of my colleagues had a CSI theme in her room and gave her roles names like Lead Detective, Forensics Expert, and Investigator. Another colleague who teaches middle schoolers is really into superheroes and gave superhero names to her roles. I like that these connected their classes to an interest of theirs. Their are many ideas for group roles on Pinterest, though I would caution teachers to realize that the names they use for their group roles are orders of magnitude less important than the other elements of Complex Instruction.

Here are the duties of each of my roles:

The ♣ Emperor ♣ is in charge of:

  • Making official decisions
  • Reading* materials to the rest of the group
  • Coordinating presentations
  • Filling in for absent group members

The Ambassador ♦ is in charge of:

  • Making sure that everyone in the group participates and understands the activity
  • Checking for understanding
  • Facilitating discussions

The ♥ Designer ♥ is in charge of:

  • Acquiring & returning materials
  • Making diagrams and drawings
  • Making sure that everyone at the group writes the work in their own notebook

The Spy ♠ is in charge of:

  • Making sure the group finishes the activity on time
  • Asking questions to the teacher (The Spy is only allowed to ask a question if no one at the group knows the answer)
  • Using HINT sheets

*When reading to the rest of the group, the Emperor has 4 options: they can read it aloud themselves, they can ask another group member to read it aloud (they may decline), they can popcorn read it, or they can ask everyone to read it silently by themselves.

My favorite role/duty I’ve come across is that of Devil’s Advocate, which the University of Waterloo has just nailed:

  • Remains on guard against “groupthink” scenarios (i.e., when the pressure to reach the group goal is so great that the individual members surrender their own opinions to avoid conflict and view issues solely from the group’s perspective).
  • Ensures that all arguments have been heard, and looks for holes in the group’s decision-making process, in case there is something overlooked.
  • Keeps his or her mind open to problems, possibilities, and opposing ideas.
  • Serves as a quality-control person who double-checks every detail to make sure errors have not been made and searches for aspects of the work that need more attention. Keeps an eye out for mistakes, especially those that may fall between the responsibilities of two group members.

Typical phrases:

  • “Let’s give Mike’s idea a chance.”
  • “OK, we’ve decided to go with plan C, but I noticed that we still haven’t dealt with the same problem that plan A didn’t address. What can we do to solve this?”



One thought on “Delineating Group Roles

  1. The critical element I appreciate and will try to also modify to my own class are the roles of each member. If you are getting each member to know their role and participate and challenge themselves…along with ideas that they don’t agree with… to me they have started on the right road to creating and launching a successful idea. Thank you for sharing what has worked for you. The Devil’s Advocate idea is where I want to go. That is truly getting my kids to think for themselves and valuing each others perspective.


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