How identifying the different roles we play can help groups work better together

Who are you?

This may seem an obvious question, but now try getting a pencil and writing down ten different responses to that question before you read on….

…If you look at your list, you might have listed your gender or ethnicity, and there may be some adjectives such as kind or artistic. You’re likely to see a set of roles that you play: teacher, manager, parent, son or daughter.

We all play different roles in different groups, and the classroom is no exception.

You are likely to take on different roles within your role of being a teacher: facilitator, critic, guide… But what about the roles your students take within the group?

Group theory (see, for example, Communicating in small groups: Beebe and Masterson) divides roles into three different types:

Task roles: roles that help a group carry out a task

Some examples

Initiator- contributor: proposes new or different ideas or approaches

Information seeker: asks for facts or clarification

Opinion seeker: Asks for values and opinions

Elaborator: provides examples

Orienter: attempts to summarise and keeps the group focused on the task

Maintenance roles: roles that help the group work smoothly together

Some examples

Encourager: Offers praise and acceptance

Harmoniser: mediates disagreements

Compromiser: attempts to resolve conflicts

Individual roles: these tend to be counter-productive to the group as a whole

Some examples

Aggressor: puts other people down

Blocker: negative, stubborn and difficult

Dominator: tries to take over the group

It is tempting to use these roles to start labelling your favourite (or least favourite students), but in fact, roles change all the time, and people can play many different roles. The point of exploring different roles is not to stereotype people or make them feel they should be carrying out a particular role, but to help the members of a group or class be aware of how they are all working together, and how that interaction could be improved.

Activities to raise awareness of group roles

The first two ideas are both ways for students to track interaction within a small group. This can be very useful for getting an overview of how the group is working.

  1. Put the students into groups of five or six. One person observes while the others carry out a speaking task. The observer draws circles on a piece of paper to represent each member of the group. They then listen and draw arrows each time someone speaks.  If one person speaks directly to another, draw an arrow between them. If someone speaks to the group as a whole draw an arrow away from the group. If someone is speaking for more than a few sentences at a time more than one arrow can be drawn.

At the end of the task, the observer should feedback to the group on what they observed, and the whole group can discuss the findings:

–          What do you notice about the lines of communication?

–          Were the lines of communication an effective way of carrying out the task? Why/why not?

–          Was everyone happy with the way they participated?

–          What things could the group change in the future?

This task is taken from Conversation: Nolasco and Arthur.

2 A similar, but perhaps more entertaining idea, comes from Classroom Dynamics: Jill Hadfield. Rather than having an observer, the group has a ball of wool or string. The person starting the speaking task holds the end, and then passes the ball to the next person to speak. This continues until the task has finished (I’d suggest quite a short task!). The pattern of interaction will be very clear at the end, demonstrated by the web of wool or string. Or possibly the students will actually start to change the pattern of interaction as they see that they are either taking over a bit too much, or not contributing very much.

After this kind of activity, you could go a step further and actually start to look at the different kind of roles students are taking. This needs to be done carefully though, to avoid singling people out for criticism.

Jill Hadfield suggests two activities which could both be handled sensitively:

1 Using a self-evaluation questionnaire. There is a photocopiable one in Classroom Dynamics, which includes questions such as:

–          Did you contribute any ideas?

–          Did you encourage anyone else to contribute any ideas?

–          Is there any way you could help the discussion to go better….by making a suggestion etc.

She suggests carrying out a speaking task, then asking students to complete the questionnaire individually and privately, then carrying out a second speaking task and finally discussing if and how the second speaking task was an improvement on the first one. (From personal experience I can tell you that this process can be completely transformational.)

2 Observing group roles. In this activity, students carry out a speaking task and are observed. The observer ticks how many times various things (such as contributing an idea, interrupting, evaluating someone else’s idea, not talking in English) happen- but does not note down who did these things.  The group then looks at the results and decides which things are happening too often, and which not often enough. There isn’t necessarily a value judgement to these things. Contributing ideas is something we want to see happen, but if that’s ALL that’s happening, the group will not be working very smoothly! They then choose three things they should do more often and three things they should do less often.

Incidentally, although the observer in these tasks is not taking part, this can be a useful role for certain students. Students who tend to be very dominant can benefit from having to sit back and listen, and students who struggle to get a word in can benefit from having a clear role and being asked to feedback on what they observed.

6 Comments

Filed under Differentiation, Speaking, Teaching methodology, Working with groups

6 responses to “How identifying the different roles we play can help groups work better together

  1. Rachael,

    Good post – and a great idea. These types of activities really “extend” LEARNers – and get more out of the tasks they work on 😉

    An interesting question is how we “form” groups – is it better to let students select their own groups, stay with the same group over time, decide on the roles that “fit” them as a group?

    Super image – BTW 😉

    T..

    • Yes, that is a very interesting question. My personal feeling is that because we take on different roles in different contexts, it may be a good idea to mix things up a bit. For example, I am quite good at completer finisher type things, but don’t like getting stuck in situations where everyone else is being wildly creative and I don’t get the chance to be because I’m too busy completer finishing!

  2. Hi Rachael,

    Thanks very much for another fascinating blog post. Group theory is something that is always on the fringes of what I’m thinking about, and this might push me to actually take some steps to deal with it. The students that I work with are really shy, and so group tasks are always a bit of an effort. I really love the wool idea (I think I might pick up a copy of classroom dynamics) as a way of tracking who does what in a group.

    I also wonder whether it might be useful to look at group structure, and actually get students to assign each other roles before they start the task. Although this might seem a bit too heavy-handed, these kinds of skills don’t really seem to be present in Korean students, so it could give them a bit of a boost in their work outside of English.

    Alex

  3. Jane

    I am a family relationships support worker and interested in looking at the dynamics of the sibling relationship and wonder if anyone out there has an idea of an experiential exercise that could demonstrate the horizontal nature (that of sibling to sibling) rather than the more usual vertical nature (parent/sibling).

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