What is the jigsaw classroom technique?

Written by: John Dabell | Published:
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Created in response to racial turmoil in Texas, the jigsaw classroom is an evidence-based approach to building relationships and fostering cooperative learning. John Dabell explains

Teaching students to get along with each other is not a major problem in some classrooms and schools. Of course there are disagreements and minor squabbles but nothing that cannot be handled. Some learning environments are bliss.

Then there are schools filled with tension and anxiety where significant numbers of students do not get along. Relationships can be strained, uncomfortable and there is a whiff of volatility in the air.

Some student relationships are so bad, teachers are constantly fire-fighting and often dealing with situations way beyond the scope of their training. Behaviour becomes such an issue that it drives decent teachers out of the profession and everyone loses.

When some students display out and out hostility for each other, appropriate interventions are crucial. Prejudice, hatred, racism, violence – they can all grow rapidly and deepen daily. None of these belong in a school but they will come into the school environment from surrounding communities.

School is a social environment and student learning is dependent on positive relationships. A large chunk of our time is devoted to building student relationships through a culture of mutual respect, modelled and taught by us. We work hard at it.

We remind students of the importance of empathy and diversity and we give them the opportunities to work together to work-out their differences. But sometimes this can fall short and even backfire.

We cannot force students to like each other and be friends or even be friendly towards one another. Tolerance and understanding is hard to magic up and needs a sensitive approach, not crisis-management.

Sometimes we just need to withdraw and let them get on with it. That might sound reckless and an open invitation for disaster but it can be done. We can still be involved but in a different way – as a chief facilitator.

You get the picture

Picking up the pieces of fractured relationships can be approached by making your classroom a jigsaw classroom.

Developed in the early 1970s by American social psychologist Elliot Aronson and his students at the University of Texas and the University of California, the jigsaw classroom is a research-based cooperative learning technique for defusing inter-group tension and promoting self-esteem. It is “cooperation by design” and was created in response to the racial turmoil caused by school desegregation in Austin, Texas.

The jigsaw classroom has an impressive track record of successfully reducing racial conflict and increasing positive educational outcomes such as improved test performance, reduced absenteeism, and greater liking for school (Aronson & Patnoe, 1997).

The idea behind the jigsaw classroom is to foster cooperation not competition and it encourages students to work together as a team and be interdependent – each individual student has something unique to contribute to their group’s outcome.

As The Jigsaw Classroom website says: “If each student’s part is essential, then each student is essential; and that is precisely what makes this strategy so effective.”

Each child is assigned to an expert group that is responsible for one part of each day’s lesson. Each group then teaches each other group, which encourages cooperation, friendship and group success.

There are 10 steps in this technique. They are as follows.

  1. Divide students into five or six-person “jigsaw groups”.
  2. Appoint one student from each group as the leader.
  3. Divide the day’s lesson into five to six segments.
  4. Assign each student to learn one segment.
  5. Give students time to read over their segment at least twice and become familiar with it.
  6. Form temporary “expert groups” by having one student from each jigsaw group join other students assigned to the same segment.
  7. Bring the students back into their jigsaw groups.
  8. Ask each student to present her or his segment to the group.
  9. Float from group-to-group, observing the process.
  10. At the end of the session, give a quiz on the material.

Described as a “socio-emotional powerhouse” (Gonzalez, 2015), the jigsaw method requires students to learn from each other (rather than from the teacher) and so learning cannot succeed without students getting along. The expectation is that all group members participate equally.

For a task to be successful, everyone must take part, swapping pieces and learning from each other.

As no one else in the group is doing the same job, each student experiences a higher sense of ownership and accountability to the members of their group.

When learning together like this, students usually begin to listen to, respect, and like one another. It improves learning conversations and social interactions. It builds cooperation as students begin to pay attention to each other, ask questions, help each other and teach each other. A jigsaw puzzle forms a picture as all the many separate pieces fit together and all the separate jobs students perform contribute to the whole.

Shared responsibility is a big responsibility and students learn to see the efforts of everyone as equal and gain the benefit of learning from those different from themselves. Is the jigsaw classroom the solution to eradicating animosities and dislikes? Of course not, but this is a powerful approach that has been tried and tested.

The benefits

The jigsaw approach builds the sorts of skills that dovetail with 21st century life:

  • It helps build comprehension.
  • It encourages cooperative learning and team-work among students.
  • It helps improve communication and problem-solving skills.
  • It stretches students’ critical thinking skills.
  • It helps students contribute, stay on task and share.
  • It helps students give and accept feedback and encourages listening, engagement, and empathy.
  • It promotes and advances intercultural and global understanding.
  • It promotes an understanding of issues relating to social behaviour and community responsibility.
  • It means students learn from each other, rather than from the teacher.
  • It gives some students a feeling of greater competence (Hänze & Berger, 2007).
  • It creates a supportive and motivating environment.

Jigsaw might very well be something to use as a behaviour strategy, but even if behaviour is not your issue this is an efficient way for students to become engaged in their learning, learn a lot of material quickly, share information with others and be individually accountable for their learning. It helps students look at the same information differently.

Jigsaw lessons are not supposed to be one-offs, but something integrated into the structure of students’ everyday learning. This can be applied across all subjects and no part of the curriculum should be left untouched.

The most successful jigsaw lessons I have facilitated were over a number of weeks and involved studying the Holocaust. Students got to understand just where hatred can go.
This approach really does help put the pieces together and I believe that the jigsaw classroom is as relevant now as what it was in 1971.

  • John Dabell is a teacher, teacher trainer and writer. He has been teaching for 25 years and is the author of 10 books. He also trained as an Ofsted inspector. Visit www.johndabell.com and read his previous best practice articles for SecEd via http://bit.ly/2gBiaXv

Further information & research

  • The Jigsaw Classroom is a website dedicated to supporting teachers with the jigsaw techniques. Visit www.jigsaw.org
  • Jigsaw in 10 easy steps, The Jigsaw Classroom : www.jigsaw.org/#steps
  • Four things you don’t know about the Jigsaw Method, Jennifer Gonzalez, Cult of Pedagogy, April 2015: www.cultofpedagogy.com/jigsaw-teaching-strategy
  • The Jigsaw Method, YouTube video, Jennifer Gonzalez, editor-in-chief, Cult of Pedagogy, April 2015: http://bit.ly/2Goql7g
  • See the Teaching Channel website for a useful video on how to use the jigsaw method using texts: www.teachingchannel.org/video/jigsaw-method
  • The Jigsaw Classroom: Building cooperation in the classroom (second edition), Aronson & Patnoe, Addison Wesley Longman, 1997.
  • Cooperative learning, motivational effects, and student characteristics: An experimental study comparing cooperative learning and direct instruction in 12th grade physics classes, Hänze & Berger, February 2007, Learning and Instruction, Vol 17, Iss 1: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2006.11.004
  • Pieces of the Puzzle: The jigsaw method, Clarke, 1994 (in Handbook of Cooperative Learning Methods, Sharan (ed), Greenwood Press).
  • Cooperative Learning: Theory, research and practice (second edition), Slavin, Allyn & Bacon, 1995.
  • Reading Strategies and Practices, Tierney, Allyn & Bacon, 1995.


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