The jigsaw classroom technique can transform competitive classrooms in which many students are struggling into cooperative classrooms in which once-struggling students show dramatic academic and social improvements.
In the early 1970s, in the wake of the civil rights movement, educators were faced with a social dilemma that had no obvious solution. All over the country, well-intentioned efforts to desegregate America’s public schools were leading to serious problems. Ethnic minority children, most of whom had previously attended severely under-funded schools, found themselves in classrooms composed predominantly of more privileged White children. This created a situation in which students from affluent backgrounds often shone brilliantly while students from impoverished backgrounds often struggled. Of course, this difficult situation seemed to confirm age-old stereotypes: that Blacks and Latinos are stupid or lazy and that Whites are pushy and overly competitive. The end result was strained relations between children from different ethnic groups and widening gaps in the academic achievement of Whites and minorities.
Drawing on classic psychological research on how to reduce tensions between competing groups (e.g., see Allport, 1954; Sherif, 1958; see also Pettigrew, 1998), Elliot Aronson and colleagues realized that one of the major reasons for this problem was the competitive nature of the typical classroom. In a typical classroom, students work on assignments individually, and teachers often call on students to see who can publicly demonstrate his or her knowledge. Anyone who has ever been called to the board to solve a long division problem – only to get confused about dividends and divisors – knows that public failure can be devastating. The snide remarks that children often make when their peers fail do little to remedy this situation. But what if students could be taught to work together in the classroom – as cooperating members of a cohesive team? Could a cooperative learning environment turn things around for struggling students? When this is done properly, the answer appears to be a resounding yes.
In response to real educational dilemmas, Aronson and colleagues developed and implemented the jigsaw classroom technique in Austin, Texas, in 1971. The jigsaw technique is so named because each child in a jigsaw classroom has to become an expert on a single topic that is a crucial part of a larger academic puzzle. For example, if the children in a jigsaw classroom were working on a project about World War II, a classroom of 30 children might be broken down into five diverse groups of six children each. Within each group, a different child would be given the responsibility of researching and learning about a different specific topic: Khanh might learn about Hitler’s rise to power, Tracy might learn about the U.S. entry into the war, Mauricio might learn about the development of the atomic bomb, etc. To be sure that each group member learned his or her material well, the students from different groups who had the same assignment would be instructed to compare notes and share information. Then students would be brought together in their primary groups, and each student would present his or her “piece of the puzzle” to the other group members. Of course, teachers play the important role of keeping the students involved and derailing any tensions that may emerge. For example, suppose Mauricio struggled as he tried to present his information about the atomic bomb. If Tracy were to make fun of him, the teacher would quickly remind Tracy that while it may make her feel good to make fun of her teammate, she is hurting herself and her group – because everyone will be expected to know all about the atomic bomb on the upcoming quiz.
When properly carried out, the jigsaw classroom technique can transform competitive classrooms in which many students are struggling into cooperative classrooms in which once-struggling students show dramatic academic and social improvements (and in which students who were already doing well continue to shine). Students in jigsaw classrooms also come to like each other more, as students begin to form cross-ethnic friendships and discard ethnic and cultural stereotypes. Finally, jigsaw classrooms decrease absenteeism, and they even seem to increase children’s level of empathy (i.e., children’s ability to put themselves in other people’s shoes). The jigsaw technique thus has the potential to improve education dramatically in a multi-cultural world by revolutionizing the way children learn.
Since its demonstration in the 1970s, the jigsaw classroom has been used in hundreds of classrooms settings across the nation, ranging from the elementary schools where it was first developed to high school and college classrooms (e.g., see Aronson, Blaney, Stephan, Rosenfield, & Sikes, 1977; Perkins & Saris, 2001; Slavin, 1980). Researchers know that the technique is effective, incidentally, because it has been carefully studied using solid research techniques. For example, in many cases, students in different classrooms who are covering the same material are randomly assigned to receive either traditional instruction (no intervention) or instruction by means of the jigsaw technique. Studies in real classrooms have consistently revealed enhanced academic performance, reductions in stereotypes and prejudice, and improved social relations.
Aronson is not the only researcher to explore the merits of cooperative learning techniques. Shortly after Aronson and colleagues began to document the power of the jigsaw classroom, Robert Slavin, Elizabeth Cohen and others began to document the power of other kinds of cooperative learning programs (see Cohen & Lotan, 1995; Slavin, 1980; Slavin, Hurley, & Chamberlain, 2003). As of this writing, some kind of systematic cooperative learning technique had been applied in about 1500 schools across the country, and the technique appears to be picking up steam. Perhaps the only big question that remains about cooperative learning techniques such as the jigsaw classroom is why these techniques have not been implemented even more broadly than they already have.