Show & Tell: A Video Column / Let's Get Jigsaw Right - ASCD
Skip to main content
ascd logo

November 1, 2018

Show & Tell: A Video Column / Let's Get Jigsaw Right

Will the real jigsaw strategy please step forward?

Instructional Strategies
Show & Tell: A Video Column / Let's Get Jigsaw Right thumbnail

Professional development providers have ruined the jigsaw strategy. Our evidence is based on the number of times we have participated in a professional learning event in which the presenter says something akin to "we're about out of time, but I really wanted you to read this [article, website, or chapter], so we'll jigsaw it." The presenter then assigns a portion of the text to each person (as a whole group or within small groups), asking each to read their assigned part and then share their thinking with the other group members.

This "one-step" approach isn't a jigsaw; it's a divide-and-conquer approach to text. When teachers experience "jigsaw" in this way, they're likely to replicate it incorrectly in their classrooms. Harm may be done as less effective readers share misinformation with the group and everyone's understanding is compromised.

We've also been in sessions in which the presenter uses a two-step process. In this misapplication of jigsaw, participants read their assigned section of the text, then meet with others who have read the same section. This is often called an "expert" group because the facilitator provides prompts that give readers an opportunity to discuss the text and develop a deeper understanding of the content. Once finished, they return to their "home" group and everyone in that group shares about the part of the text they read and discussed. Supposedly, this ensures that everyone in the session understands the whole reading.

This two-step process is better than the one-step "jigsaw," but it's still not a true jigsaw. In this type of activity, learners still don't have the opportunity to discuss how their assigned part fits within the whole text; groups just report on the particular section they read. And the critical thinking that's accomplished through analysis and synthesis doesn't happen.

The Origins of Jigsaw

Jigsaw is a three-step process invented by Elliot Aronson, an award-winning psychologist, and his graduate students. Aronson explains the circumstances in which he developed the technique 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 … 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 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 … my students and I concluded that inter-group hostility was being fueled by the competitive environment of the classroom. 1

So there you have it: Jigsaw wasn't originally developed as a literacy and learning approach. The impetus was to create a cooperative environment in which students would have to rely on one another to be successful. But when done well, jigsaw is worth the time invested because students do, in fact, learn deeply through the method. For example, John Hattie's recent update to his list of influences on student learning indicates that the jigsaw approach has an effect size of 1.20. 2 That's impressive, given that the average effect size in Hattie's database is .40, which equates to a year of learning for a year of school.

The real learning power of this strategy lies in the critical third step, when students reconsider their assigned passage in light of the whole text.

What It Looks Like

In the video accompanying this column, teacher Bryan Dale engages his students in reading an article from the New York Times. They are in the midst of a unit of study about argumentation and have been reading texts in which authors argue their point, provide supporting evidence, and include reasons that connect the evidence with their claim. Mr. Dale uses a jigsaw because he wants students to analyze the claims, evidence, and reasons, knowing that they don't need every detail in the article to do so.

After setting the purpose for learning and reminding students of their task, Mr. Dale assigns students a section of the article. Each student initially has access only to his or her own segment. They read it and then meet with other students who've read the same passage (the expert group). In these groups, students are asked to summarize the information; consider key points they think others need to know; make connections with other texts, their lives, or the world; infer what the author is saying; and critically question the text. Students often re-read the text to clarify any confusing parts.

Through this interaction, students should ensure that all members of their group understand the information and are ready to share it with others. Often, Mr. Dale provides discussion questions or prompts for students to use, such as:

  • One important point in this section is ___ because ___.

  • I think one logical inference we can make from this section is ___. The evidence for this inference is ___.

Students then move from these expert groups back to their home groups (sometimes called jigsaw groups). Each student shares his or her understanding of their respective parts of the text with their home group members who haven't read that passage. Each one teaches her peers about the information in the text as well as what her expert group thought about the text. In general, students who haven't read a given section can ask questions of the student who did read it. Teachers can provide students with discussion prompts or sentence frames, such as:

  • In this part of the reading, the author's main point is ___.

  • What's critical for everyone to know from this part of the text?

In the third phase of the jigsaw, students return to their expert groups and discuss how their passage fits into the whole text, based on their discussions with their home group. At this point, some teachers provide students access to the entire text while others do not; it depends on what the purpose for reading the text is. The point of this third phase is to have students engage in a part-to-whole conversation in which they arrive at a deeper understanding about the text and its implications. Students think about their thinking (metacognition) and synthesize and analyze ideas contained within the complete text. This process requires that students listen carefully to their peers and analyze the ways in which each part contributes to the entire text.

Jigsaw is a valuable tool that gives students opportunities to read and discuss complex texts. Done well, it has the potential to build students' comprehension habits—or teachers' learning. That's something we can all celebrate!

Instructional Strategies

Show & Tell November 2018

3 years ago

End Notes

1 Aronson, E. (2000). Nobody left to hate: Teaching compassion after Columbine. New York: W. H. Freeman.

2 Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York: Routledge.


Want to add your own highlights and notes for this article to access later?