Primary Secondary

The Jigsaw Classroom

Classrooms are puzzling places that can leave you in pieces. There is certainly plenty to pick up at the end of the day.

But some teachers thrive on putting the pieces together and so do their pupils using the jigsaw classroom technique.

The jigsaw classroom isn’t about giving groups of children a 1000 piece jigsaw each and challenged to complete a picture by the end of the lesson.

But it does involve completing a learning puzzle where everyone makes a valuable contribution and everyone plays a key part. This is a teaching method that focuses on student cooperation and encourages teamwork and a collective mindset to work together to accomplish a common goal. It is a multifunctional structure of cooperative learning.

The jigsaw method was developed by psychologist Elliot Aronson in the 1970s. He was interested in reducing racial tensions between groups of pupils in a class and this method was found to be extremely effective  where black, Hispanic, and white students had recently been integrated.

As a group work strategy, this method is useful to promote communication between participants and is suitable right across the curriculum.

Mind the Gap

Sometimes classrooms can be too competitive which doesn’t always foster the best relationships between pupils.

The idea of a jigsaw classroom is to organise students into expert groups where every member of the group is equally important. They are each assigned a topic, problem, skill or concept to find out more about and individual students are given the opportunity to specialise in one aspect, master the topic and teach everyone else. They become on expert on a single topic that is a crucial part of a larger puzzle.

Jigsaw activities are a specific type of information gap activity that work well in any class because they promote interactive, collaborative group work and provide an opportunity for purposeful communication.

For example, if students in a jigsaw classroom were working on a project about the life cycle of a plant, a classroom of 25 children might be organised into five diverse groups of five children each.

Within each group, a different child would be given the responsibility of researching and learning about a different specific topic: Chloe might learn about germination, William might learn about shoots and roots, Nishen might learn about flowering, Kalpa would look at fruiting and Freddie at the end of the life cycle.

Together they are dependent on each other to find out what they can and each student takes turns teaching what they have learned to their group members. It is an efficient way to learn material and encourages listening, engagement and empathy.

Jigsaw is therefore a strategy that provides students with an opportunity to actively help each other build comprehension and present their piece of the puzzle to the group. No person can succeed completely unless everyone works well together as a team.

Jigsaw activities are an effective way of breaking down learning into chunks, making understanding and retention more manageable and memorable.  They nurture inclusion because each student has a specific role and takes personal responsibility for this. Students then teach each other and bring their puzzle pieces together to get a fuller picture and understanding.

When expert groups are given the same topic to explore then they can learn from each other as it will be unlikely that each group had the same discussion. This can help boost perspective taking skills too and a deeper appreciation of other views.

Piecing it all together

A jigsaw session could be done in just one lesson but if there is a large amount of content to explore then this is a technique suited to doing as an activity across a whole day or perhaps several days.

According to The Jigsaw Classroom, there are 10 steps to follow:

  1. Divide students into 5- or 6-person jigsaw groups.
  2. Appoint one student from each group as the leader.
  3. Divide the day’s lesson into 5-6 segments.
  4. Assign each student to learn one segment.
  5. Give students time to read over their segment at least twice and become familiar with it.
  6. Form temporary “expert groups” by having one student from each jigsaw group join other students assigned to the same segment.
  7. Bring the students back into their jigsaw groups.
  8. Ask each student to present her or his segment to the group.
  9. Float from group to group, observing the process.
  10. At the end of the session, give a quiz on the material.

Clearly, teachers don’t just stand back on the perimeter of a classroom and watch because we can’t  assume that individual groups will head in the right direction without some guidance. Teachers therefore need to keep an active eye on each participant and each group and nudge appropriately.

Monitoring each pupil’s participation within the groups provides teachers with valuable information about what they know, don’t know and partly know and what level of sophistication they are working at.

Students will need to think about how they will teach their team-mates. Encourage them to think about how they will do this, e.g. ask students to ask themselves, “Will I need diagrams?”, “What keywords and definitions should I explain?”, “What questions will I ask my team to assess if they have understood?”

At the end of a jigsaw session you may want to follow-up by asking students to write or talk about what they have learned working as a group. This can be an opportunity to debrief, consolidate information, ask questions about points of confusion and to reflect on new understanding. Groups can also share what they have learned by creating a poster.

And finally…

Jigsaw activities support everyone because they encourage collaborative learning and help develop speaking and listening skills across the class.

They help students learn cooperation and to share the responsibility for each other’s learning. Jigsawing is therefore useful for promoting critical thinking, social skills and problem-solving. The information gap process can prompt deeper learning and help students in learning a large variety of information by sharing the load.

The Jigsaw Classroom is an efficient way for all students to become engaged in their learning, share information with other groups, and be individually accountable for their learning.

Why not give it a try and give everyone a piece of the action?


By John Dabell

John Dabell is an experienced teacher, former school inspector for Ofsted, project manager, writer and editor: @John_Dabell


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