Roles and Complex Instruction: Getting the School Year Started

small group work by susan sermoneta

small group work by susan sermoneta

This past week, I have started preparing for a new school year and reflecting on some of the classroom structures I want to refine. While I’ve studied complex instruction during my M.Ed, I am still very new to implementing it in the classroom so I thought I would throw out some ideas here about group work structures that I’m thinking about implementing. Particularly, I’m wondering about some of the specific aspects of these structures and whether they may have impact on positive outcomes I’m trying to achieve. In this post, I will particularly discuss the administration of roles in group work and complex instruction. Please post suggestions or thoughts below in the comments.

First, I’ve been reading Smarter Together with interest, and have decided to implement their suggested roles for group work: Facilitator, Inclusion Manager, Recorder/Reporter, and the Resource Manager.

  • The facilitator’s role will be to encourage the completion of the task by getting the group off to a quick start, and checking if all of the group members understand what is going on along the way.
  • The inclusion manager will oversee the behavior in groups, keeping people on task, keeping discussion focused on the task at hand, and ensuring students play their roles.
  • The recorder/reporter will make sure data is being recorded and will present group findings at the end of the class.
  • The resource manager will obtain and put back resources that are needed for each task, supervise clean-up of the group’s table, and will bring group questions to the teacher.

I’m keen to use this structure as these roles and the responsibilities are not completely separated. There is enough overlap to avoid confusion among students regarding what each is supposed to do, yet the responsibilities are structured so that students remain interdependent throughout the task ahead of them. I’m planning to rotate these roles to give each student a chance to fulfill different group work responsibilities and build different skills needed in group work – and so students each have access to all the roles. I won’t rotate mechanically but rather plan to use a developmental framework developed during the Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills project coordinated by Patrick Griffin, Esther Care, and others at the University of Melbourne. I hope to use this developmental framework to help me decide when to place students in particular roles, and what kinds of interventions are needed to help them build collaborative problem solving skills. It’s my first time through trying this out after their MOOC this summer, and so wish me luck!

Which way for happiness? by Andrea Marutti

Which way for happiness? by Andrea Marutti

Last year, I struggled with deciding when to rotate groups and their members. Some of the literature I read suggested randomly choosing members for groups and reshuffling (again, randomly) groups and members after every two weeks, enforcing the fact that students couldn’t just change groups and had to learn to work with those they were paired with. However, I found that the group folders – where students put their collaborative work for reference at a later time – broke down as a system since students might have been part of two or three groups during an entire unit of study. My feeling this year is that I will only randomly choose group members after a unit of study has been completed and each of the groups has gone through that complete journey together. I wonder, though, whether this will cause conflict for students if they end up in groups with someone they don’t work well with. It remains to be seen what issues come up and I welcome any ideas about this.

A second wondering I have is how to teach my students about these roles and structures when all of them have the added challenge of being EAL/ELL learners to varying degrees? Specifically, I am thinking about the plethora of information that I will need them to take in and act on: roles and their responsibilities, norms for behavior when working in groups, language they should use to perform each role effectively, language they should use in general when working through a math problem (making observations, analysis, etc.), and the language of the developmental framework so they can understand how to develop their collaborative skills. When I consider as well the other classroom administrative vocabulary that come along with teaching in the MYP and communicating changes for Next Chapter, the challenge becomes so much more daunting. Of course, I don’t expect them to “get it” right away, but I don’t want to throw so much at them that they just turn away from it completely. I plan to put posters up, and refer to them often as I roll through activities at the start of the year particularly directed at helping to make these roles and group work behaviours explicit.

For all learners, skills to promote successful collaboration are essential to learn for many aspects of living in the world. For EAL/ELL learners, collaborative activities can create the need for them to practice vocabulary and promote language acquisition at the same time. However, I am keenly aware that piling too many challenges on students creates the danger of doing many things a satisfactory level instead of doing a few things well. Still, one can’t develop a system that works in their classroom without some thoughtful experimentation!

Research in Our Classroom

Structure, Photo by p medved

Structure, Photo by p medved

I have been questioning lately what methods I can use to understand my students better – not just their work, but their experience of mathematics in my classroom and of the subject in general. I’m taking a uniquely structured (I mean this as a good thing!) research methodology class with Dr. Susan Gerofsky and Dr. Cynthia Nicol here at the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy at UBC (In fact, it can only be characterized as “standard” insofar as it is a course requirement for my program). Our exploration of research methods has been helpful both in learning methods that one can use for academic research and in reflecting on ways I will be able to investigate my practice when I return to the classroom.

I’ve been used to some pretty standard ways of “getting to know” students. We give them assessments to perform – a variety of types of tasks from tests to open-ended, long-term projects – to give us a sense of their understanding of the concepts of the course they’re taking. Throughout the year we might give them written surveys telling us a bit about how they’re feeling about our teaching or about the course’s progress or our teaching subject in general. We likely give formative checks for understanding through observation, a quick chat, an “exit card“, or visible thinking routines. Regardless of how much information that can be gained from some of these standard and non-standard ways of collecting data, might there be something missing? Might there be something to be gained from collecting information through a different medium – and from involving them in the information gathering process?

Freedom, Photo by Josef Grunig

Freedom, Photo by Josef Grunig

In Donal O. Donoghue‘s (2007) article on boys’ masculinity in places outside the classroom, Donoghue uses photography and a/r/tography methodology to create meaning with boys aged 10 and 11 rather than to use them to discover and make truth claims (as most research does in treating research “subjects” as if they are being used to gain knowledge about something). According to Donoghue (2007), “doing research in and through art offers opportunities to capture and represent that which is not always linguistic – that which can be more profitably represented and understood through nonverbal forms of communication” (p. 63). My conflict with this type of research is that I see both sides. I see that it offers a different way to view a sensitive topic – using non-verbal “data” (i.e.: photographs) through the view of 10 and 11 year olds – a  view that has the potential to reveal something never before explored. However, I can see also the risk of  photographs to be open to a much wider scope of interpretation than written data might be. So, based on what this method offers us – and does not offer us – Donoghue’s (2007) words make me both optimistic and nervous: “how we do and represent research is inseparable from what gets communicated” (p. 64).

Comparing our work with interviewing methods for research purposes, and reflecting on similarities and differences with the use of photography as detailed by Donoghue (2007), I notice more similarities between them. As with interviewing, photography has the potential for inviting the participant into the research process, and offers non-verbal representation (interviewing does this through gesture and tone of voice). Both need to be examined within the social and cultural contexts in which the product (speech, photograph, art, etc.) is produced. However, which is liable to produce more accurate interpretation? For example, are we more likely to get an accurate view of what a child thinks of our subject if we ask them to tell us, or if we ask them to take a picture that represents how they feel and discuss the photo choice with us? The old cliché about pictures and words comes to mind, but beyond that, one could argue that reading and re-reading a script made from an interview can continue to create just as many new meanings as can having a look and a second/third/fourth look at a photo. The difference between interviewing and photography that I can see is that interviewing offers the potential for a much more fixed, rigourous process, whereas the use of photography, to a large extent, is itself a commitment to embrace a research method that involves the participant much more in the process.

Regardless of these structural aspects, there might be something to the use of photographs to find out more about students’ thinking. Consider school culture. When you ask a student to write down feedback, like in a survey, this structured written form is similar to what students experience in other parts of school and there may be strong psychological aspects at play governing their answers. However, exit cards are casual and quick, often on 3×5 cards which is not specifically how class tasks are done – which may cause them to open up a bit further. So, if you ask students to send you a digital photo with a description as a way of answering a question (of course, if this is logistically possible in your context), this could provide you with different information that you would have otherwise received using a different format.


Donoghue, D. O. (2007). “James always hangs out here”: making space for place in studying masculinities at school. Visual Studies, 22(1), 62–73. doi:10.1080/14725860601167218

Math and Place-Based Education

A scene from Central Vietnam, Photo by Rob DeAbreu

A scene from Central Vietnam, Photo by Rob DeAbreu

Place-based education (PBE) is based on the fundamental idea that places are pedagogical – they teach us about the world and how our lives fit into the spaces we occupy. It began with community education and community-as-classroom – the idea that students could learn by paying closer attention to their community and doing work within it. The idea has since expanded to investigate the learning that happens in field-trips or long-term projects outside of the classroom, to examine the pedagogy of places of all sizes and locations, and to explore the meanings that different people attach to place. One can argue, that – to an extent – there is an activism component against the current state of the education system, which – in most cases – assumes that the school (and the classroom) is the place where learning occurs.

For Dr. David Gruenewald (2003) – who now goes by the name David Greenwood – place-based education (PBE) is in large part a response to standards, testing, and accountability, the threefold education reform movement of the last two to three decades (though grounded in some much older ideologies). As mathematics is the gatekeeper discipline to many careers and university programs – whether with a mathematics component or not – it is a discipline that, it could be argued, is the target of PBE’s response. With this in mind, it is no surprise that Gruenewald/Greenwood (in Green, 2005) expressed his skepticism about the possibilities of developing place-conscious mathematics. However, is mathematics – the very tool incorrectly used to assess students, and thus misunderstood by so many – the ideal vehicle to drive PBE’s response to misguided education reform?

Classroom, by evmaiden

Classroom, by evmaiden

Much has been written about cultural border-crossing in science education – challenges that students come to when negotiating between their life-world and the culture of the discipline of science (Aikenhead & Jegede, 1999; Jegede & Aikenhead, 1999; Jegede, 1995). Similar arguments have been made by Boaler (1993, 1998) and Schoenfeld (1989) that a similar struggle, manifesting in difficulties in knowledge transference, goes on in mathematics education. PBE acknowledges the divide between students’ life world, and the culture of school and mathematics, and Gruenewald/Greenwood (in Green, 2005) cites it as a result of the disconnected place – the school and the classroom – that students are meant to learn in each day. So, PBE can contribute to mathematics education, and mathematics can contribute to the activist elements of PBE. I disagree with Gruenewald’s challenge that place-conscious math can’t exist.  Gruenewald/Greenwood (2003) himself says, “people make places and places make people” (p. 621). PBE embraces our agency to leverage the power of place in our lives and learning just as it acknowledges the influence that place has over our identity. While learning must take place in a physical classroom in most schools, with all the aspects of schools that this entails (timed periods, separate subjects, etc.), it does not mean that we should give up trying to transcend the barriers and isolation that schools can create. In the interview, Gruenewald/Greenwood (in Green, 2005) points out that in the process of “aligning” curriculum and standards, curriculum is treated as a means to an end (to meet the standards) and is forever altered. How do we mediate the two? If we can’t, what changes can we make to enable schools to connect students better with the outside world?

Technology is a given, by Scott McLeod

Technology is a given, by Scott McLeod

One could argue that the infusion of technology in our classrooms further removes us from our world – because technology forces us to perceive our world through a screen and interact with it through a machine. There are others who would argue that technology connects us – like I am connecting with you right now having made my ideas available for comment, or like many professionals and friends connect using Twitter and other social media.  In a different way, a framework like ethnomathematics is one way to enact PBE in mathematics – by inviting students to be aware of other places and cultures that surround us. Perhaps by being inspired by the mathematics embedded in others’ and our own cultural practices, students can transcend the classroom space and acquire the learning that we seek for them. Regardless of what solution is suggested, however, can we transcend place? Or does the fact that students are located in a classroom during the day completely undermine the ability to enact PBE? And, if we can transcend place – that is, if the place they are in (school and classroom) recedes from consciousness as teachers attempt to enact PBE – does this mean that we have enacted PBE successfully or failed to enact it?

I have more questions than answers about this at the moment. One of the purposes of PBE is to catalyze a dialogue about place and education, so perhaps finding “ways” to make it “work” isn’t really the point!


Gruenewald, D. (2003). Foundations of place: A multidisciplinary framework for place-­‐conscious education. American Educational Research Journal, 40, 3, 619-­‐654.

Green, C. (2005). Selecting the Clay: Theorizing place-­‐based mathematics education in the rural context (Interview with David Gruenewald). Rural Mathematics Educator. ACCLAIM.

Smith, G. (2002). Going local. Educational Leadership, September 30-­‐33.

Boaler, J. (1993) The role of contexts in the mathematics classroom: Do they make mathematics more ‘real’? For the learning of Mathematics, 13(2), 12-­‐17.

Boaler, J. (1998). Open and closed mathematics: Student experiences and understandings. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 29, 41-­‐62.

Schoenfeld, A. H. (1989). Explorations of Students’ Mathematical Beliefs and Behavior. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 20(4), 338–355.

Aikenhead, G. S., & Jegede, O. J. (1999). Cross‐cultural science education: A cognitive explanation of a cultural phenomenon. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 36(3), 269–287.

Jegede, O. J. (1995). Collateral Learning and the Eco-Cultural Paradigm in Science and Mathematics Education in Africa. Studies in Science Education, 25, 97–137.

Jegede, O. J., & Aikenhead, G. S. (1999). Transcending cultural borders: Implications for science teaching. Research in Science & Technological Education, 17(1), 45–66. doi:10.1080/0263514990170104

Categories of Research in Education

Photo: Balance, by BCth

Photo: Balance, by BCth

Humans characterize things as a way of gaining a better understanding. Research methodologies are no different. However, as Lawrence Sipe and Susan Constable (1996) point out in their article summarizing research paradigms, we need to beware the oversimplification that characterizations can bring – not so easy when what we naturally like to do as humans is categorize things, especially as we are coming to grips with them. We can’t stop characterizing altogether, but Sipe and Constable rightly point out that categorizations may imply a dichotomy (either THIS way or THAT way) or assume a univocality (neat word, eh?) – that there is only one way to look at a concept. The consequence in research, and anything else in life for that matter, is that unique characteristics get lost.

Sipe and Constable are specifically referring to the categorization of research as either “qualitative” or “quantitative” – but of course, one might use both these strategies to triangulate data, or a more reflective research method that doesn’t really fit into either of these categories. Then we run into the problem that these categorizations mean something slightly (or perhaps drastically!) different depending on the field you’re in. So here we see an example of where categorizations, especially long standing ones, fail us.

One aspect of the article that made me stop was Sipe and Constable’s (1996) point that characterization of a research methodology does NOT imply the use of a particular method. Surely some methods would lend themselves to be used by those utilizing certain research methodologies. For example, a clinical interview method might be used by someone prescribing to a qualitative methodology. However, one would not say uniformly that using one research methodology (i.e.: qualitative) means that the researcher is necessarily using a particular method (i.e.: interview). This makes perfect sense, but is not something I had thought of before reading this article. Quite a few of our guest presenters in my Research Methodology in Education course use multiple methods, each of which supports the use of the other!

Another place that made me stop was the characterization of the relationship between researcher and researched given by Sipe and Constable (1996). I have read enough educational research to know about clinical interviews and the various ways this is done to understand students and teachers and others in the educational research process. However, the characteristics given in the article highlight the importance for me in deciding whether or not the research subject should be informed about the research process or not, and to what extent the researcher her/himself lets themselves be analyzed as part of the research process. While some could argue that research data is confounded if the researcher becomes part of the research, there are other schools of thought – A/R/Tography and Currère as examples – where the subject matter is enhanced by the exploration and questioning of the researcher’s worldview (deconstructivist – see article). If we truly respect reflective practice in our teachers, then surely why not reflective practice in our educational research? I can see, of course, the difficulty this may cause for those in the context of copyright laws and BREB ethics approval applications that demonstrate the serious, disciplined side to research. However, I can see now the arguments that could be given for different forms of educational research and how heated the debate could become!

Power in Leadership

This semester, I am taking a survey course in educational leadership – Leadership in Educational Organizations – through the Department of Educational Studies here at UBC, which is taught by Dr. Mark Aquash. It has been good so far to explore issues in leadership and see how the research can aid decision making and actions taken in leadership positions. We read and responded to an article called The Seven Principles of Sustainable Leadership, by Andy Hargreaves and Dean Fink, and I wanted to share my thoughts.

In the article on Sustainable Leadership, by Hargreaves and Fink (2004), I most identified with the principle “Sustainable Leadership Spreads.” At my previous school, UNIS Hanoi, I was the grade level coordinator for sixth grade and had the opportunity to experience how difficult it really is to “spread” leadership around. While a school can offer a position where there is a need, this is just the first step. Some saw my position as one of simple busy work, while I saw it as an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the students transitioning from elementary school to middle school. I never thought of it before, but a position could mean different things to different people, which could have any number of consequences! As the position evolved, more decision-making capacity was given to the “middle managers” like grade level coordinators, department heads, and the like at the school. This was an improvement as it “spread” leadership to more than just the administration team, allowing more teachers to have more input. In addition, the school “spread” leadership in different ways by providing opportunities throughout the year to present an element of one’s classroom practice, usually with educational technologies, in workshops set up in various forms, led by Clint Hamada and Michelle Matias. In this way, the school provided both long and short-term opportunities for its teachers to demonstrate leadership in their respective fields, which has positive effects for staff morale and collegiality.

I like the fact that C.M. Shields‘ article, “Hopscotch, Jump Rope, or Boxing” (2005), acknowledges the existence of power and the differences between men and women.  Often it’s so cumbersome to acknowledge these things due to peoples sensitivities, and some of the dangers inherent in stereotypes. I wonder, as a leader, how you can ensure that you are spreading power fairly among men and women – or among other categorizations of groups. I guess the first question is – is it your power to spread in the first place? Dr. Helen Timperley says that leadership is inevitably distributed, a point that I like. But that is a whole other discussion!

I felt the concept Shields mentions that the work at the university itself was gendered was the idea I most connected with in her article – but I think that’s due to a recent class I took with Dr. William Pinar. Shields’ article talks of a few of the women leaders in the university observing that the care for others and other elements of the jobs done in their universities were themselves gendered. I agree with Dr. Pinar that the teaching profession is gendered – whether there are a majority of women teaching at our schools or not, the caregiving role of teachers has for centuries been seen as feminine.  But Dr. Pinar goes further to state how he feels the teaching profession is treated with contempt and mistrust – and that the gendered state of the teaching profession is the reason why teachers are not given the same professional courtesy as, say, doctors, lawyers or engineers (have a look at one or two of his many books – they make an enlightening read).

Shields’ article only touched on this briefly, but I would be curious to know if the work of professors in higher education is gendered in a similar way – and how this affects the “spread” of leadership in this sector.  I’m also interested to see how the gendered status of the teaching profession affects the work of administrators.  Are administrators gendered feminine too since they work in this gendered profession, or do administrators transcend this gendered role since they are “in charge”, and is this status seen in public eyes as “male” and thus given the status it deserves?  And, whatever the answer is, how does this affect the “spread” of leadership.

There’s no simple answer to this question, but one worth considering. As you can see, these articles brought out a scatter of thoughts!


Hargreaves, A., & Fink, D. (2004). The seven principles of sustainable leadership. EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP, 61(7), 8–13.

Shields, C. M. (2005). Hopscotch, Jump-Rope, or Boxing: Understanding Power in Educational Leadership. International Studies in Educational Administration, 33(2), 76–85. Retrieved from

Timperley, H. S. (2005). Distributed leadership: Developing theory from practice. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 37(4), 395-420. doi: 10.1080/00220270500038545