“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
–Aristotle, Metaphysics, severely misquoted
Imagine yourself at a PD for ESL and ELA teachers. The desks have been arranged in groups of four. You may sit in any group you like, at the outset; but be aware that your grouping will change over the course of the morning.
The workshop leader informs the teachers that they will be participating in a “jigsaw” activity. In this activity, they will be reading abridged versions of four stories by Nikolai Gogol: “The Nose,” “The Overcoat,” “Nevsky Prospect,” and “The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich.” In just a few minutes, they will move to their new groups: A, B, C, or D. Each group will read a specific story and discuss questions of plot, character, central conflict, and comic device. Having arrived at complete consensus, each group member will enter the answers (using identical wording) on his or her copy of a graphic organizer (chart). Having completed the chart and become “experts” on the story, the teachers will return to their original groups and report their “findings.” Supposedly, everyone will benefit by learning about four Gogol stories over the course of 1-2 hours. They will then feel inspired to use this strategy with their own students, so that everyone may learn the art of rapid misreading.
Why would I bother to complain about the jigsaw method, of all things? Don’t we have greater problems at hand: school violence, neglect of gifted children, teacher attrition, poorly written standardized tests, high dropout rates? I agree: jigsaw in itself is no cause for alarm and may have good uses. I object not to the jigsaw itself, but to its misapplication, characterized by (a) superficial consensus, (b) false expertise, (c) disregard for the whole of a given work or topic, and (d) use of groupwork for groupwork’s sake, as an alternative to so-called “passive learning.” These conditions suggest a deep distrust of subject matter and an apotheosis of social activity in the classroom.
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