Overview of the Technique

The jigsaw classroom is a cooperative learning technique with a three-decade track record of successfully reducing racial conflict and increasing positive educational outcomes. Just as in a jigsaw puzzle, each piece–each student’s part–is essential for the completion and full understanding of the final product. If each student’s part is essential, then each student is essential; and that is precisely what makes this strategy so effective.

Here is how it works: The students in a history class, for example, are divided into small groups of five or six students each. Suppose their task is to learn about World War II. In one jigsaw group, Sara is responsible for researching Hitler’s rise to power in pre-war Germany. Another member of the group, Steven, is assigned to cover concentration camps; Pedro is assigned Britain’s role in the war; Melody is to research the contribution of the Soviet Union; Tyrone will handle Japan’s entry into the war; Clara will read about the development of the atom bomb.

Eventually each student will come back to her or his jigsaw group and will try to present a well-organized report to the group. The situation is specifically structured so that the only access any member has to the other five assignments is by listening closely to the report of the person reciting. Thus, if Tyrone doesn’t like Pedro, or if he thinks Sara is a nerd and tunes her out or makes fun of her, he cannot possibly do well on the test that follows.

To increase the chances that each report will be accurate, the students doing the research do not immediately take it back to their jigsaw group. Instead, they meet first with students who have the identical assignment (one from each jigsaw group). For example, students assigned to the atom bomb topic meet as a team of specialists, gathering information, becoming experts on their topic, and rehearsing their presentations. We call this the “expert” group. It is particularly useful for students who might have initial difficulty learning or organizing their part of the assignment, for it allows them to hear and rehearse with other “experts.”

Once each presenter is up to speed, the jigsaw groups reconvene in their initial heterogeneous configuration. The atom bomb expert in each group teaches the other group members about the development of the atom bomb. Each student in each group educates the whole group about her or his specialty. Students are then tested on what they have learned about World War II from their fellow group member.

What is the benefit of the jigsaw classroom? First and foremost, it is a remarkably efficient way to learn the material. But even more important, the jigsaw process encourages listening, engagement, and empathy by giving each member of the group an essential part to play in the academic activity. Group members must work together as a team to accomplish a common goal; each person depends on all the others. No student can succeed completely unless everyone works well together as a team. This “cooperation by design” facilitates interaction among all students in the class, leading them to value each other as contributors to their common task

History of the Jigsaw
An Account from Professor Aronson

The jigsaw classroom was first used in 1971 in Austin, Texas. My graduate students and I had invented the jigsaw strategy that year, as a matter of absolute necessity to help defuse an explosive situation. The city’s schools had recently been desegregated, and because Austin had always been racially segregated, white youngsters, African-American youngsters, and Hispanic youngsters found themselves in the same classrooms for the first time.

Within a few weeks, long-standing suspicion, fear, and distrust between groups produced an atmosphere of turmoil and hostility. Fist-fights erupted in corridors and schoolyards across the city. The school superintendent called me in to see if we could do anything to help students get along with one another. After observing what was going on in classrooms for a few days, my students and I concluded that inter-group hostility was being fueled by the competitive environment of the classroom.

Let me explain. In every classroom we observed, the students worked individually and competed against each other for grades. Here is a description of a typical fifth grade classroom that we observed:
The teacher stands in front of the class, asks a question, and waits for the children to signal that they know the answer. Most often, six to ten youngsters raise their hands, lifting themselves off their chairs and stretching their arms as high as they can in an effort to attract the teacher’s attention. Several other students sit quietly with their eyes averted, hoping the teacher does not call on them.

When the teacher calls on one of the eager students, there are looks of disappointment on the faces of the other students who had tried to get the teacher’s attention. If the selected student comes up with the right answer, the teacher smiles, nods approvingly, and goes on to the next question. In the meantime, the students who didn’t know the answer breathe a sigh of relief. They have escaped being humiliated this time.

It took only a few days of observation and interviews for us to see what was going on in these classrooms. We realized that we needed to shift the emphasis from a relentlessly competitive atmosphere to a more cooperative one. It was in this context that we invented the jigsaw strategy. Our first intervention was with fifth graders. First we helped several teachers devise a cooperative jigsaw structure for the students to learn about the life of Eleanor Roosevelt. We divided the students into small groups, diversified in terms of race, ethnicity and gender, making each student responsible for a specific part of Roosevelt’s biography. Needless to say, at least one or two of the students in each group were already viewed as “losers” by their classmates.

Carlos was one such student. Carlos was very shy and insecure in his new surroundings. English was his second language. He spoke it quite well, but with a slight accent. Try to imagine his experience: After attending an inadequately funded, substandard neighborhood school consisting entirely of Hispanic students like himself, he was suddenly bussed across town to the middle class area of the city and catapulted into a class with Anglo students who spoke English fluently, seemed to know much more than he did, and who were not reluctant to let him know it.

When we restructured the classroom so that students were now working together in small groups, this was initially terrifying to Carlos. Now he could no longer slink down in his chair and hide in the back of the room. The jigsaw structure made it necessary for him to speak up when it was his turn to recite. Although he had gained a little confidence by rehearsing together with others who were also studying Eleanor Roosevelt’s work with the United Nations, he was still reluctant to speak when it was his turn to teach the students in his jigsaw group. He blushed, stammered, and had difficulty covering the material he had learned. Skilled in the ways of the competitive classroom, the other students were quick to ridicule him.

One of my research assistants heard some members of Carlos’s group make comments such as, “You’re stupid. You don’t know what you’re doing. You can’t even speak English.” Instead of admonishing them to “be nice” or “try to cooperate,” she made one simple but powerful statement. It went something like this: “Talking like that to Carlos might be fun for you to do, but it’s not going to help you learn anything about what Eleanor Roosevelt accomplished at the United Nations–and the exam will be given in about 15 minutes.” In other words, she reminded the students that the situation had changed. The same behavior that might have been useful to them in the past, when they were competing against each other, was now going to cost them something very important: a chance to do well on the exam.

Needless to say, old, dysfunctional habits do not die easily. But they do die. Within a few days of working with jigsaw, Carlos’s group-mates gradually realized that they needed to change their tactics. It was no longer in their own best interest to rattle Carlos; they needed him to perform well in order to do well themselves. In effect, they had to put themselves in Carlos’s shoes in order to find a way to ask questions that didn’t undermine his performance.

After a week or two, most of Carlos’s group-mates developed into skillful interviewers, asking him relevant questions and helping him articulate clear answers. And as Carlos succeeded, his group-mates began to see him in a more positive light. Moreover, Carlos saw himself in a new light, as a competent member of the class who could work with others from different ethnic groups. His self-esteem grew, and as it grew, his performance improved even more. In addition, Carlos began to see his group-mates as friendly and supportive. The ethnic stereoypes that the Anglo kids held about Carlos and that Carlos held about the Anglo kids were in the process of changing dramatically. School became a more humane, exciting place, and absenteeism declined.

Within a few weeks, the success of the jigsaw was obvious. Teachers told us how pleased they were at the change in atmosphere. Visitors expressed amazement at the transformation. Needless to say, this was exciting to my graduate students and me. But as scientists, we needed more objective evidence–and we got it. Because we had randomly introduced the jigsaw intervention into some classrooms and not others, we were able to compare the progress of the jigsaw students with that of students in traditional classrooms. After only eight weeks there were clear differences, even though students spent only a small portion of their time in jigsaw groups. When tested objectively, jigsaw students expressed less prejudice and negative stereotyping, were more self-confident, and reported liking school better than children in traditional classrooms. Moreover, children in jigsaw classes were absent less often than were other students, and they showed greater academic improvement; poorer students in the jigsaw classroom scored significantly higher on objective exams than comparable students in traditional classes, while the good students continued to do as well as the good students in traditional classes.

Jigsaw in 10 Easy Steps

The jigsaw classrom is very simple to use. If you’re a teacher, just follow these steps:

Divide students into 5- or 6-person jigsaw groups. The groups should be diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, race, and ability.

Appoint one student from each group as the leader. Initially, this person should be the most mature student in the group.

Divide the day’s lesson into 5-6 segments. For example, if you want history students to learn about Eleanor Roosevelt, you might divide a short biography of her into stand-alone segments on: (1) Her childhood, (2) Her family life with Franklin and their children, (3) Her life after Franklin contracted polio, (4) Her work in the White House as First Lady, and (5) Her life and work after Franklin’s death.

Assign each student to learn one segment, making sure students have direct access only to their own segment.

Give students time to read over their segment at least twice and become familiar with it. There is no need for them to memorize it.

Form temporary “expert groups” by having one student from each jigsaw group join other students assigned to the same segment. Give students in these expert groups time to discuss the main points of their segment and to rehearse the presentations they will make to their jigsaw group.

Bring the students back into their jigsaw groups.

Ask each student to present her or his segment to the group. Encourage others in the group to ask questions for clarification.

Float from group to group, observing the process. If any group is having trouble (e.g., a member is dominating or disruptive), make an appropriate intervention. Eventually, it’s best for the group leader to handle this task. Leaders can be trained by whispering an instruction on how to intervene, until the leader gets the hang of it.

At the end of the session, give a quiz on the material so that students quickly come to realize that these sessions are not just fun and games but really count.

Tips on Implementation

Compared with traditional teaching methods, the jigsaw classroom has several advantages:
Most teachers find jigsaw easy to learn
Most teachers enjoy working with it
It can be used with other teaching strategies
It works even if only used for an hour per day
It is free for the taking

Too good to be true? Well, yes and no. It would be misleading to suggest that the jigsaw sessions always go smoothly. Occasionally, a dominant student will talk too much or try to control the group. How can we prevent that? Some students are poor readers or slow thinkers and have trouble creating a good report for their group. How can we help them? At the other end of the talent continuum, some students are so gifted that they get bored working with slower students. Is the jigsaw technique effective with them? In some cases, students may never have experienced cooperative learning before. Will the jigsaw technique work with older students who have been trained to compete with one another? All of these problems are real but not fatal.

The Problem of the Dominant Student

Many jigsaw teachers find it useful to appoint one of the students to be the discussion leader for each session, on a rotating basis. It is the leader’s job to call on students in a fair manner and try to spread participation evenly. In addition, students quickly realize that the group runs more effectively if each student is allowed to present her or his material before question and comments are taken. Thus, the self interest of the group eventually reduces the problem of dominance.

The Problem of the Slow Student

Teachers must make sure that students with poor study skills do not present an inferior report to the jigsaw group. If this were to happen, the jigsaw experience might backfire (the situation would be akin to the untalented baseball player dropping a routine fly ball with the bases loaded, earning the wrath of teammates). To deal with this problem, the jigsaw technique relies on “expert” groups. Before presenting a report to their jigsaw groups, each student enters an expert group consisting of other students who have prepared a report on the same topic. In the expert group, students have a chance to discuss their report and modify it based on the suggestions of other members of their expert group. This system works very well. In the early stages, teachers may want to monitor the expert groups carefully, just to make sure that each student ends with an accurate report to bring to her or his jigsaw group. Most teachers find that once the expert groups get the hang of it, close monitoring becomes unnecessary.

The Problem of Bright Students Becoming Bored

Boredom can be a problem in any classroom, regardless of the learning technique being used. Research suggests, however, that there is less boredom in jigsaw classrooms than in traditional classrooms. Youngsters in jigsaw classes report liking school better, and this is true for the bright students as well as the slower students. After all, being in the position of a teacher can be an exciting change of pace for all students. If bright students are encouraged to develop the mind set of “teacher,” the learning experience can be transformed from a boring task into an exciting challenge. Not only does such a challenge produce psychological benefits, but the learning is frequently more thorough.

The Problem of Students Who Have Been Trained to Compete

Research suggests that jigsaw has its strongest effect if introduced in elementary school. When children have been exposed to jigsaw in their early years, little more than a “booster shot” (one hour per day) of jigsaw in middle school and high school is required to maintain the benefits of cooperative learning. But what if jigsaw has not been used in elementary school? Admittedly, it is an uphill battle to introduce cooperative learning to 16-year olds who have never before experienced it. Old habits are not easy to break. But they can be broken, and it is never too late to begin. Experience has shown that although it generally takes a bit longer, most high school students participating in jigsaw for the first time display a remarkable ability to benefit from the cooperative structure.

In Conclusion

Some teachers may feel that they have already tried a cooperative learning approach because they have occasionally placed their students in small groups, instructing them to cooperate. Yet cooperative learning requires more than seating youngsters around a table and telling them to share, work together, and be nice to one another. Such loose, unstructured situations do not contain the crucial elements and safeguards that make the jigsaw and other structured cooperative strategies work so well.

For additional information, see Elliot Aronson’s Jigsaw Basics


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