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Considering The Role of Roles In PBL

One of the most common features of any PBL project is group work. Even if the product is individual, there should always some form of group work within the project to give students the ability to receive critique and revision, to share research resources and think deeper about what they are learning, and to practice and develop the 21st-century skill of collaboration. Not only should they be able to work as a group during the project, they should also find time to work independently absent any direct instruction by the teacher. This can be a daunting challenge for even experienced classroom practitioners as they may not know how to scaffold a gradual release for their students or may have concerns about specific students in their class being able to work without the derailing an entire group.

One of the easiest ways to structure work is to provide roles for students during project. There are many different ways to construct these roles which should be taken into consideration prior to the launch of your project. Do you want your students to complete tasks based on static, unchanging roles? Do they need the ability to be more dynamic day to day with their roles and instead think of roles as task-based?. Whichever way you structure your groups, they generally fall in one these two categories, and each one has specific advantages;

Static Roles: In this system, students always have the same job or role, so there is very little chance for misunderstanding or confusion even if the student happens to be absent for a day or two or miss the initial phases of the project. Static rules are particularly useful in longer, more investigative projects or for short group discussions where you want discussions and talks to be carried on in a certain way. For example, A science teacher I work with always displays the same group roles for every lab on the board and then mixes them up by divvying out cards playing cards where each suit corresponds to a specific role. These roles include an explainer, a recorder, the timekeeper, and the materials manager and provide a strongly defined foundation for lab work. This such a part of her classroom culture that after the first few attempts they are well aware of what their part in the group task is. As a result, there is very little wandering or off task behavior during her projects.

Dynamic Roles: With this model, group start off each work period by filling out a task list and assigning specific jobs to each person. A teacher can ask for this task list at any time in order to learn exactly who is doing what in each group. At the end of each work period, students sign off that their task has either been completed, or they write down the next step that they need to complete in order to get the assignment the next time they work on it. These task lists are very helpful in providing information for the teacher as to the effectiveness of the group over a long period of time or for the students when they decide to reflect on the project process at the end.

The danger with dynamic groups is that it is the responsibility of the students to divide the projects and work up evenly, and sometimes they may need more coaching and guidance for this to happen before it becomes automatic. Also since each group is free to find their own path to the end product this form of role-creation can result in a chaotic classroom.

There is also a third, or Hybrid option that combines aspects of the other two. Some students will be given static roles that do not change while others will be given dynamic roles where their job or responsibilities change throughout the course of the project. This helps support learners who excel or need an additional challenge while scaffolding for learners who need the more consistent checks that are provided by dynamic grouping. For example, I have my students complete a constitution project where they run their own mock campaign for president where certain students take on a management role. One student actually takes on the role of party chairmen and essentially keeps the rest of the class on task and working by checking in and providing coaching. This student keep their role the entire time while other students move between roles based on the goals of the project. This system works well in the context of the project, but it is important to think about the best way of introducing this model to the class so that those with static roles aren’t seen as superior.

If you’re not sure what approach to roles is best for your project, consider these questions before you launch;

  • What are the different phases of your project?

  • In order for your students to complete your project, what kinds of things will they all need to do?

  • What roles or responsibilities could best encapsulate the steps?

  • Is there one of these roles that is key, or more crucial to completion of the project than the others? (It may be helpful to give groups a heads up about this in case someone is interested in taking more of a leadership role while others would like to just simply be a part of the group work)

  • What 21st-century skills will each role require?

  • Is there a way by the tool for reflection could help you student?

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