History of the Jigsaw An Account from Professor Aronson

The jigsaw classroom was first used in 1971 in Austin, Texas. My graduate students and I had invented the jigsaw strategy that year, as a matter of absolute necessity to help defuse an explosive situation. The city's schools had recently been desegregated, and because Austin had always been racially segregated, white youngsters, African-American youngsters, and Hispanic youngsters found themselves in the same classrooms for the first time.

Within a few weeks, long-standing suspicion, fear, and distrust between groups produced an atmosphere of turmoil and hostility. Fist-fights erupted in corridors and schoolyards across the city. The school superintendent called me in to see if we could do anything to help students get along with one another. After observing what was going on in classrooms for a few days, my students and I concluded that inter-group hostility was being fueled by the competitive environment of the classroom.

Let me explain. In every classroom we observed, the students worked individually and competed against each other for grades. Here is a description of a typical fifth grade classroom that we observed:

The teacher stands in front of the class, asks a question, and waits for the children to signal that they know the answer. Most often, six to ten youngsters raise their hands, lifting themselves off their chairs and stretching their arms as high as they can in an effort to attract the teacher's attention. Several other students sit quietly with their eyes averted, hoping the teacher does not call on them.

When the teacher calls on one of the eager students, there are looks of disappointment on the faces of the other students who had tried to get the teacher's attention. If the selected student comes up with the right answer, the teacher smiles, nods approvingly, and goes on to the next question. In the meantime, the students who didn't know the answer breathe a sigh of relief. They have escaped being humiliated this time.

It took only a few days of observation and interviews for us to see what was going on in these classrooms. We realized that we needed to shift the emphasis from a relentlessly competitive atmosphere to a more cooperative one. It was in this context that we invented the jigsaw strategy. Our first intervention was with fifth graders. First we helped several teachers devise a cooperative jigsaw structure for the students to learn about the life of Eleanor Roosevelt. We divided the students into small groups, diversified in terms of race, ethnicity and gender, making each student responsible for a specific part of Roosevelt's biography. Needless to say, at least one or two of the students in each group were already viewed as "losers" by their classmates.

Carlos was one such student. Carlos was very shy and insecure in his new surroundings. English was his second language. He spoke it quite well, but with a slight accent. Try to imagine his experience: After attending an inadequately funded, substandard neighborhood school consisting entirely of Hispanic students like himself, he was suddenly bussed across town to the middle class area of the city and catapulted into a class with Anglo students who spoke English fluently, seemed to know much more than he did, and who were not reluctant to let him know it.

When we restructured the classroom so that students were now working together in small groups, this was initially terrifying to Carlos. Now he could no longer slink down in his chair and hide in the back of the room. The jigsaw structure made it necessary for him to speak up when it was his turn to recite. Although he had gained a little confidence by rehearsing together with others who were also studying Eleanor Roosevelt's work with the United Nations, he was still reluctant to speak when it was his turn to teach the students in his jigsaw group. He blushed, stammered, and had difficulty covering the material he had learned. Skilled in the ways of the competitive classroom, the other students were quick to ridicule him.

One of my research assistants heard some members of Carlos's group make comments such as, "You're stupid. You don't know what you're doing. You can't even speak English." Instead of admonishing them to "be nice" or "try to cooperate," she made one simple but powerful statement. It went something like this: "Talking like that to Carlos might be fun for you to do, but it's not going to help you learn anything about what Eleanor Roosevelt accomplished at the United Nations--and the exam will be given in about 15 minutes." In other words, she reminded the students that the situation had changed. The same behavior that might have been useful to them in the past, when they were competing against each other, was now going to cost them something very important: a chance to do well on the exam.

Needless to say, old, dysfunctional habits do not die easily. But they do die. Within a few days of working with jigsaw, Carlos's group-mates gradually realized that they needed to change their tactics. It was no longer in their own best interest to rattle Carlos; they needed him to perform well in order to do well themselves. In effect, they had to put themselves in Carlos's shoes in order to find a way to ask questions that didn't undermine his performance.

After a week or two, most of Carlos's group-mates developed into skillful interviewers, asking him relevant questions and helping him articulate clear answers. And as Carlos succeeded, his group-mates began to see him in a more positive light. Moreover, Carlos saw himself in a new light, as a competent member of the class who could work with others from different ethnic groups. His self-esteem grew, and as it grew, his performance improved even more. In addition, Carlos began to see his group-mates as friendly and supportive. The ethnic stereoypes that the Anglo kids held about Carlos and that Carlos held about the Anglo kids were in the process of changing dramatically. School became a more humane, exciting place, and absenteeism declined.

Letter from Carlos Many Years Later 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. Needless to say, this was exciting to my graduate students and me. But as scientists, we needed more objective evidence--and we got it. Because we had randomly introduced the jigsaw intervention into some classrooms and not others, we were able to compare the progress of the jigsaw students with that of students in traditional classrooms. After only eight weeks there were clear differences, even though students spent only a small portion of their time in jigsaw groups. When tested objectively, jigsaw students expressed less prejudice and negative stereotyping, were more self-confident, and reported liking school better than children in traditional classrooms. Moreover, children in jigsaw classes were absent less often than were other students, and they showed greater academic improvement; poorer students in the jigsaw classroom scored significantly higher on objective exams than comparable students in traditional classes, while the good students continued to do as well as the good students in traditional classes.


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