Do you like jigsaw approaches to teaching?

  • 06 August, 2022
  • 13 Comments

Teacher question:

What do you think of the jigsaw method for organizing the reading in a science or social studies class? I teach 5th grade in a suburban school.

Shanahan response:

Jigsaw is a cooperative learning activity developed in the 1970s (Aronson, et al., 1978). Basically, the approach is to divide the curricular topic (e.g., dinosaurs, Morocco, amphibians) into subtopics, to divide these portions among individuals/partners/small groups. Each student/group is to become the “expert” on that subtopic. These newly minted experts then put their knowledge to work, perhaps by contributing to a class project (e.g., designing a diorama) or by bringing their classmates up to date through peer teaching. I’ve observed instances of it that have appeared to be motivational – though I did wonder if what was so pleasing was the reduction of work (jigsaw does away with the need for everyone to study everything).

In any event, research into its effects on learning have produced mixed results, with some studies finding it outperforms business as usual teaching methods (Hattie, 2017) – and others concluding that there were no apparent learning benefits (Crone & Portillo, 2013; Law, 2011; Moreno, 2009; Moskowitz, et al., 1983, 1985; Stanczak, et al., 2022). Unfortunately, most studies were with older students (university level), and it has not done as well with younger students. In other words, limited support for jigsaw’s contribution to academic learning at secondary level, and nothing convincing at the elementary level.

Even if you disregard studies with no effects (or negative effects), there is a serious problem with the evidence. Jigsaw approaches seem to be more effective with the learning of social studies and literature content and less effective with STEM subjects, especially math (Stanczak, et al., 2022).

Why no mention of its effects on learning to read? Because that hasn’t been studied – even with regard to its effects of jigsaw on how well students can read the texts in a particular subject area).

That gap is a provocative one since what is usually being jigsawed is the texts. Students either read different texts or different parts of the same texts.

I’m dubious about literacy payoffs.  

Here’s why:

The teacher assembles a text set with a range of resources, some easy, some hard. Likewise, she divides the class into heterogeneous groups in reading ability. When the reading assignments get divvied up (by teacher assignment, peer choice, or individual choice) the lowest readers tend to end up with the easiest and least meaty texts – an approach that does nothing to help them advance. Unfortunately, that approach makes some sense since students will receive little teacher support and no explicit instruction guiding their reading.

Of course, that means that the strongest readers are likely to gain the greatest amount of knowledge and will have the best chance to take on complex text. The lower readers will gain some knowledge from what the better readers tell them, but that won’t improve their reading ability.

These days our ideas of research have broadened to include not just text sources but videos, audiotapes, photographs, political cartoons and so on. That’s a good thing, but it exacerbates the problem noted: the low readers can watch the videos while the better students try to make sense of the more detailed information in the challenging texts.

The purpose of text sets should be to expose students to a multiplicity of sources rather than to differentiate instruction. All students – especially those struggling with reading – should be guided to read the whole collection of texts – or at least those documents should be rationed out so that amounts of reading and degrees of reading challenge offer legitimate learning opportunities to everyone.

Based on existing research, I can’t recommend jigsaw approaches despite their possible value in social studies.  

My concerns are with the reading side of things. I don’t like methods that reduce the amount of reading, that assign reading rather than offering instructional support for strengthening literacy skills, and that give unequal access to challenge texts.

Maybe, if you build your text sets and assign them in ways that allow the lower performing readers to confront more challenging texts – and if you support these readings with explicit guidance, then jigsaw may make sense… but that’s a lot of maybes.

References

Aronson, E., Blaney, N., Stephan, C., Sikes, J., & Snapp, M. (1978). The jigsaw classroom. Sage.

Crone, T. S., & Portillo, M. C. (2013). Jigsaw variations and attitudes about learning and the self in cognitive psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 40(3), 246–251. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628313487451

Hattie, J. (2017). 256 influences related to achievement. Visible Learning. https://visible-learning.org/hattie-ranking-influences-effect-sizes-learning-achievement/

Law, Y.-K. (2011). The effects of cooperative learning on enhancing Hong Kong fifth graders’ achievement goals, autonomous motivation and reading proficiency. Journal of Research in Reading, 34(4), 402–425. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9817.2010.01445.x

Moreno, R. (2009). Constructing knowledge with an agent-based instructional program: A comparison of cooperative and individual meaning making. Learning and Instruction, 19(5), 433–444. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2009.02.018

Moskowitz, J. M., Malvin, J. H., Schaeffer, G. A., & Schaps, E. (1985). Evaluation of jigsaw, a cooperative learning technique. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 10(2), 104–112. https://doi.org/10.1016/0361-476X(85)90011-6

Stanczak, A., Darnon, C., Robert, A., Demolliens, M., Sanrey, C., Bressoux, P., Huguet, P., Buchs, C., Butera, F., & PROFAN Consortium. (2022). Do jigsaw classrooms improve learning outcomes? Five experiments and an internal meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 114(6), 1461-1476.

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Penny
Aug 06, 2022 04:56 PM

First, I agree with regard to K-6 students (my expertise). I believe for studnets to learn to read well they need to have their eyes on text, as much as possible. Even at the foundational level when students are learning to decode and encode. I do have a question. I am a first year instructional coach and in every coach training I have participated, Jigsaw has been used. What are your thoughts about the appropriateness for this strategy for adults?

Timothy Shanahan
Aug 06, 2022 05:03 PM

Penny--
There definitely is research showing that one can transmit information effectively to college students using that approach. I would think it would be reasonable for that purpose with that kind of audience.

tim

Andrew Biemiller
Aug 06, 2022 08:57 PM

Hello Tim, I have been suspicious of "jigsaw" instruction as somewhat contrived. Do the students really learn--and improve their learning--from jigsaws? Don Meichenbaum and I are convinced of the need for creative/constructive activities in which students apply learned skills and work with others. Having teams of students address a problem together can contribute to their ability to solve problems. (But in my experience at college level, teams of two or three were more effective than larger groups. We also found less advanced students became better problem-solvers after assisting younger students with skills that the older students had but the younger ones didn't (3rd and 4th grade students assisting second grade students).
Andrew Biemiller

Andrew Biemiller
Aug 06, 2022 08:57 PM

Hello Tim, I have been suspicious of "jigsaw" instruction as somewhat contrived. Do the students really learn--and improve their learning--from jigsaws? Don Meichenbaum and I are convinced of the need for creative/constructive activities in which students apply learned skills and work with others. Having teams of students address a problem together can contribute to their ability to solve problems. (But in my experience at college level, teams of two or three were more effective than larger groups. We also found less advanced students became better problem-solvers after assisting younger students with skills that the older students had but the younger ones didn't (3rd and 4th grade students assisting second grade students).
Andrew Biemiller

Betsy Reilly
Aug 07, 2022 12:07 AM

I would actually like to hear more about how you provide collaboration and structure experiences that scaffold struggling readers with challenging texts.

David Coker
Aug 07, 2022 12:31 AM

Lol. Like many teachers, I was taught this. Total disaster. Even in high school. College? Maybe.

Schoo,s love fads, especially if the teacher doesn't teach and there are groups.

Sylvia Beeton
Aug 07, 2022 12:20 PM

I have used Jigsaw in non literacy classes with mixed ability groups. The idea being that the better readers model to the poorer readers and help them to read the passages. Everyone has to be active in the session. I also provide questions not on the text itself but on how the text is treated/understood. eg Why have you underlined that part? Circle 5 words you find difficult to read - work as a group to read these words and find out what they mean. I like Jigsaw because it is active learning and presenting as each group needs to present their findings at the end of a lesson or the following way. It does not, however, suit everyone and there will always be children who are not taking part.

Sandra
Aug 08, 2022 03:53 AM

It's a routine that seems to be working well in this classroom: https://www.readingrockets.org/strategies/jigsaw
Here, it seems to be a means of building background knowledge, not necessarily a reading fluency focus.
You could have students choral reading or supporting each reading through a single passage in their group (not necessarily a simple passage).

Timothy Shanahan
Aug 08, 2022 02:28 PM

Sandra--

That source is a mix of a bunch of activities -- some with research support (or that are similar enough to those with research support) and those unlikely to work very well. If the goal is to improve reading, jigsaw is not a great idea.

tim

Timothy Shanahan
Aug 08, 2022 02:32 PM

Sylvia--

Your low readers would do much better with explicit teaching and guidance from you than from the hope that they will pick something up from the modeling of the better readers. Not a good idea to lose those bottom kids for an activity that seems enjoyable.

tim

Timothy Shanahan
Aug 08, 2022 02:34 PM

Betsy--

I can't do that with every blog entry. There are other blog entries on that -- but there are also articles and powerpoints on that topic in my publications section. Good luck.

tim

tom
Aug 08, 2022 03:40 PM

I've used the jigsaw method a few times with my high school IB-TOK classes. I did not continue the practice because I found the input effort (complexity of preparation) did not produce enough positive impact for all my students. I certainly wouldn't use include it in my strategies in elementary for the reasons outlined. I cannot get past the nagging thought that as knowledge and vocabulary are so crucial to learning and comprehension it's hard to ensure everybody gets access to the right knowledge and vocabulary if you differentiate the texts too much. My instinct is that it would important to think about where in a sequences of learning about a topic a class engages in learning through the jigsaw method. If I was to use it now, I'd probably do so at the end of a unit when I was confident students already had picked up sufficient background knowledge to make access to the concepts in the text less steep of a challenge. I'm happy to be corrected if somebody has stronger experience.

Timothy Shanahan
Aug 08, 2022 05:30 PM

Tom--

Thanks for the thoughtful advice.

tim

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Do you like jigsaw approaches to teaching?

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