On Teaching: Where Jigsaw Misses the Picture

by Guest Blogger
June 27th, 2008

“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.

In the wake of desegregation, Elliot Aronson developed the jigsaw method with his students in the early 1970s in order to help defuse a potentially explosive situation of culture clashes in the classroom. The primary goal was social: to enable students of diverse backgrounds to work together. The initial results, according to Aronson, showed promise: “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.” Yet there is no mention of jigsaw’s serious drawbacks.

I have been “exposed” to the jigsaw on numerous occasions. Curiously, the leaders always emphasized consensus. While in our “expert” groups, we were supposed to agree on answers to questions like these: What is the main theme of this work? How does it use figurative language? What is its social message? Precisely in those areas that depended on nuanced insight, we were instructed to arrive at identical wording of identical answers. As a result, the subtler ideas were almost always discarded. In the hypothetical case of Gogol, a group member might argue that the plot of “The Overcoat” was far less significant than the language. The group, not having time for that consideration, would settle (passively) for a quick plot summary.

Superficial conclusions mix lethally with false expertise. In the short time allotted to the groupwork, rarely does anyone gain substantial understanding. Yet the “experts” are expected to “teach” things they barely grasp. This results in mayhem and miscommunication. I have seen jigsaw groups flail when the “experts” could not themselves master, let alone teach, the subject at hand. In order for expertise to be real, it must rest on knowledge. Otherwise the title of “expert” demeans expertise and imposes a nightmare of myriad naked emperors on the page. Any gains in self-esteem will be short-lived.

Often the jigsaw does not address the complex relation of the parts to the whole. Aristotle’s treatment of this issue is subtler than the misquotation above. In Metaphysics 1045a (tr. Richard Hope), he writes,

“Now, to return to the problem which has been mentioned concerning definitions and numbers: what is the factor that explains their unity? In the case of all things that have several parts and in which the whole is not like a heap, but is a particular something besides the parts, there is some such uniting factor.”

In other words, Aristotle posits a “uniting factor” separate from the total “heap” of the parts. Let us apply this to the jigsaw. If each group reads a Gogol story, then together they might not necessarily learn about Gogol’s narrative style and overriding themes, unless everyone has read all the stories beforehand. They can compile their findings and still miss Gogol’s essence—for the graphic organizer has no room for subtler points. The fragmentation of the project (into segments and into boxes on the graph) may impede comprehension of the larger picture as well as of the parts themselves. Worst of all, many teachers will refuse to probe for greater understanding, settling instead for a brief “share-out” before the bell rings.

The jigsaw, after all, was never intended to enhance understanding of literature. It was developed for social reasons and is persistently justified on social grounds. In “Assessment of the Use of the Jigsaw Method and Active Learning in Non-Majors, Introductory Biology,” Donald Slish studies the results of this “active” learning in comparison to the “passive” listening to lectures. Such opposition of “active” and “passive” learning is false and destructive; the lecture may at times involve more active learning than the group activity. In a lecture setting, the mind is unconstrained by conversation or pressure to arrive at quick results. One may respond to what one hears; jot down ideas for later; or take off on tangents of the imagination. In a group, one has less room to develop one’s thoughts, but more direct interaction with others. Take your pick—but choose wisely.

The jigsaw method can work well at advanced levels. If all the group members know the subject matter and the project at hand, then the specialized groups may contribute valuable insights. It could also work well for beginners when restricted to straightforward problems and tasks. Where participants lack insight into the topic, they will not gain it through this activity. Instead, they will develop a penchant and tolerance for what Susan Jacoby describes as “junk thought” (The Age of American Unreason, 2008, 211). “The real power of junk thought,” writes Jacoby, “lies in its status as a centrist phenomenon, fueled by the American credo of tolerance that places all opinions on an equal footing and makes little effort to separate fact from opinion.” Even if the teacher instructs the students to support their findings with “evidence,” there is simply no room, in all that hubbub, to assess each finding carefully.

In conclusion, the jigsaw method should be reserved for those situations where it advances thought. Teachers should not use it indiscriminately for the sake of getting the kids “actively” involved. Activity comes in many shapes; even recitation can be active. In “The Relation of School Discipline to Moral Education,” William Torrey Harris writes, “The pupil can, thought the properly conducted recitation, seize the subject of his lesson through many minds. He learns to add to his power of insight the various insights of his fellow pupils” (Forgotten Heroes of American Education, ed. Diane Ravitch and J. Wesley Null, 2006, 358). When choosing the best approach, we should consider not only the students and their levels of preparation, but the subject matter itself. No matter which method we choose, we should offer rich material, guide the students to excellence, and open doors to greater understanding.

Diana Senechal teaches ESL and drama at a Brooklyn, New York middle school and holds a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Yale.


  1. I agree. And this sort of PD fosters a disrespect for the artistic whole.

    I’d also offer a practical problem. This sort of pd diminishes whole class instruction. Young teachers are led to believe that they need similar approaches in all classes at all times. But whole class instruction, done well, is preferable to group learning, done poorly.

    Did you see HBO’s Hard Times and Douglass High? Even when classes were out of control, teachers kept the desks arranged in groups. Even when the group arrangement did no more than facilitate gossip, the teachers did not seem to have the confidence to try more traditional methods.

    I believe that group cooperative learning is the better way. But in a chaotic school or when students can’t handle it, we need to be eclectic.

    I also agree that we’ve backed off from really engaging each other. We need some real debate, not feel-good methods of creating consensus.

    Comment by john thompson — June 27, 2008 @ 12:06 pm

  2. Thanks for putting into words my thoughts as I have, somewhat reluctantly, used graphic organizers with college-prep juniors. Unfortunately, they come in to class expecting that there is always one right answer to every question and have little tolerance for nuances.

    Comment by babbie — June 27, 2008 @ 9:09 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

While the Core Knowledge Foundation wants to hear from readers of this blog, it reserves the right to not post comments online and to edit them for content and appropriateness.