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The 'Jigsaw' Approach
Brings Lessons to Life

Sixth-grade teacher Ellen Berg desperately wanted to show her students the true meaning of a fairy tale, but how could she organize an activity that would encourage them to develop their own definition of the term, willingly? A technique called the "jigsaw method" provided the backdrop for the dynamic and engaging lesson that her students still recall! Included: Berg's students' reactions to a teaching method that challenges them to create their own learning and tips for using the jigsaw technique.

Tips for Using the Jigsaw Technique

Teacher Ellen Berg offers three tips to educators who are new to the jigsaw method.

* Prepare, prepare, prepare.
"When you decide to use a jigsaw activity, you need to know what you want the kids to get out of it and then structure the activity so you will get the outcome you want. You want the kids to "discover" a concept on their own, through connections they make themselves. That takes a lot more work than simply asking leading questions with predetermined answers or lecturing to them. The questions need to be open-ended. Usually, students will discover those things you want them to as well as other things you had not even thought of yourself. For me, that is the most exciting part because I am learning to see the topic of study in a new way and learning along with the kids."

* Think through the management of the activity.
"How will groups be put together? How will you be sure that each jigsaw group will have one of each of the home groups? Who is doing what during the activity? How will the class move when it is time to switch groups? Thinking through the organization and being sure there is something for each member of the group to do is essential."

* Do not give up after the first time you try jigsaw.
"Jigsaw is an intricate technique that takes some practice from you and your students before it seems to gel. Since many students, unfortunately, are not used to tasks where they are responsible for their own learning and making their own connections, they may react negatively or become frustrated the first time or two you use this. You must circulate, listen to the groups, and give them a lot of support at first. You aren't giving them the answers, but you are asking them questions that help direct their thinking. After you use jigsaw a few times, you will see your students need you less and less. Stick with it!"

"I never have been someone who relied on or believed in passing out dittos, using the textbook exclusively, or giving long lectures," sixth-grade teacher Ellen Berg told Education World. "My biggest mistake in my early years was not giving my students enough choice in designing our assignments or at least trying to tie it in to their interests and experiences."

Berg teaches communication arts at Turner Middle School, a magnet school with a computer animation and Schools for Thought focus. Though the school possesses a computer lab with cutting-edge software, at least one computer in every classroom, and a PC lab for basic computer instruction, it is not a traditional magnet school.

Turner is located in the inner city of St. Louis, Missouri, and was established in the fall of 1999. At that time, any student who attended one of four magnet cluster schools had the option of remaining in his or her neighborhood school; the additional students were recruited from across the district. The school's student population is primarily African American; 85 to 90 percent of its students receive free or reduced-price lunches.

"I tried literature circles in my first year as well as a reading/writing workshop, but because of my struggles with classroom management skills, I was largely unsuccessful," explained Berg. "I also tried reading novels with students and having them answer questions I made up -- definitely at the top of Bloom's [Taxonomy] -- but I always got those canned answers. No deep learning was taking place with that activity!

"No, I've always known that skill-and-drill lecture-type classrooms were ineffective, but it wasn't until I developed good management skills that I was able to concentrate on how to put together really effective lessons," added Berg.


Berg encountered an approach called the "jigsaw method" as a first-year teacher during a special training session in another school within her district. She was among five teachers who were sent to learn more about the Schools for Thought program and philosophy, and jigsaw was a part of the training. Schools for Thought is an inquiry-based program that involves students in an interdisciplinary theme. Students conduct research in "pods," groups that are responsible for collecting information about a given area of that topic. Students are the ones who generate the questions to be researched after experiencing an "anchor" activity that is designed to bring forth the questions teachers want them to ask.

"I began to use jigsaw more frequently because of my interest in inquiry-based instruction in the language arts classroom," said Berg. "After an Eisenhower-funded teacher trip to Costa Rica for two weeks with other teachers from Missouri to learn inquiry, I knew I wanted to figure out how to apply inquiry to my own content area. When I began to learn about constructivism, that added another piece to the puzzle. The final piece was my participation in a class through the Gateway Writing Institute, where I read Nonfiction Matters, by Stephanie Harvey, and conducted an action research project on inquiry-based instruction in my classroom. As I watched my students take control of their learning, I saw them become more responsible, more involved, and more successful. Since then there's been no looking back."

Jigsaw is a group structure that can be used across all content areas. Students start with a home group. That group is responsible for learning an assigned portion of a task that is prescribed by the teacher. Then the teacher separates students into new groups -- jigsaw groups -- by assigning one member from each home group to a new group. If an activity begins with groups A, B, C, and D, the jigsaw groups have a member from A, B, C, and D. In the jigsaw groups, students share information and complete some sort of project or product.


When Berg wanted her students to grasp the concept of the definition of a fairy tale, she decided that it was the perfect opportunity to incorporate the jigsaw approach.

Berg began by having her students divide into five equal groups. Each group got one fairy tale to read. The stories were "The Ugly Duckling," "Snow White," "Hansel and Gretel," "Jack and the Beanstalk," and "The Three Little Pigs." Each group was responsible for collecting the following information:

  • Who are the characters in the story?
  • Where does the story take place?
  • What are the major events of the story?
  • Are there any magical or supernatural events? If so, what are they?

After the students read, discussed, and recorded the above information, Berg split them into jigsaw groups. One person from each fairy tale assembled in a new group. (She assigns the jigsaw groups because it is difficult for her students to create these new, blended groups quickly.) In their new groups, students were each given three minutes to tell the other group members about the story they had read as well as the information they had collected. After that, the group had to create a poster and give a presentation that addressed two points:

  1. What do all five stories have in common?
  2. Using what you found in common, write your own definition for a fairy tale.

"They started out trying to find simple commonalities like characters, but that did not work," said Berg. "They had to dig deeper to get any real commonalities. For example, some of them pointed out that men were usually the heroes, that there was usually a battle or conflict between good and evil, and that the good guys always won. They touched on ideas that the stories were timeless and could have happened at any time in history. They also said the stories tried to teach a lesson about how you should act -- a moral lesson."

Not until after the presentations did Berg discuss the definition of a fairy tale according to the literature textbook. The students were excited to see that they really had developed a very accurate description of the concept, and they were more open to Berg's mini lesson that followed.

"Other activities I connected to this unit included a compare-contrast essay comparing 'The Three Little Pigs' and The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs [by Jon Scieszka] told from the wolf's point of view," Berg stated. "I also did another jigsaw activity for the final leg of the unit in which students read and compared five different versions of 'Cinderella' and then defined what a 'Cinderella story' was using the commonalities among the stories. Some groups chose to present their information in play form, and they were fantastic!"


When Berg first used the jigsaw structure this year, her students panicked!

"They were not used to the structure, and they were not used to having to think on their own. They were afraid of being wrong," she explained. "However, with my facilitation as well as seeing that I was not looking for right or wrong answers, just well-supported ones, my students began to enjoy the activity.

During my fairy tale unit, I actually had two students argue about a concept -- Do all fairy tales have happy endings? -- complete with tears. My students were engaged in their learning, they cared about what they were learning. It cut down on the discipline problems and the rolling eyes as I gave them their assignments. Students were coming in and asking, 'Are we working on the fairy tale project today? Good!'"

When asked about the jigsaw activity, Berg's student Lisa said, "We read all different kinds of fairy tales. Sometimes Mrs. Berg read fairy tales to us, but we read them on our own too. We read a fairy tale in groups, then we went to a new group. We had to talk about our fairy tales and come up with what was the same about them. Then we had to make up our own definition of a fairy tale. We put all that on a poster and gave a speech to the class about it.

"We got to work together and be creative," she continued. "I like that the ideas came out of my own mind. I like to work with my friends. We get to talk, but we are still working on our project. Working by yourself is boring. Mrs. Berg does lots of group projects where we have to give presentations about what we figure out, and I hope we keep doing more."

Alexandria shared Lisa's enthusiasm for the activity. "This activity was a good one because Mrs. Berg didn't talk to us for a long time," she said. "I got to work in a group instead of working by myself. Working with a group is easier because you can ask others for help if you don't understand, and sometimes you are the one with the answers.

"We worked in groups to make up our own definitions of a fairy tale," Alexandria explained. "Mrs. Berg wouldn't let us use a dictionary. We had to compare our stories to see what they all had in common and then decide what parts would go in the definition. It was interesting to see how fairy tales are all sort of the same but still different."


Berg uses the jigsaw method to cover a large amount of material quickly, to introduce students to different perspectives on a topic, to introduce topics and create interest, and as a research strategy. She feels that the technique has numerous benefits.

"First of all, the students are the ones doing the work; they are making the meaning, so they are doing the learning," the teacher explained. "When designed well, these tasks are challenging and engaging, and my students enjoy wrapping their minds around a problem. Since they are working in groups, no kids have to sink or swim on their own, they have the help of their peers.

"However, since they know they are moving on to a new group where they are the only one with that piece of the information, they rarely sit back and let other group members do all the work," Berg continued. "Every student is essential to the jigsaw group's success, so every group member is held accountable. At the beginning of the year when I first use this activity, I always have a couple in every class who don't do what they need to. I never have to say a word; the reaction and censure of their jigsaw members solves that problem."

Berg feels that the most important plus of jigsaw learning is that the students are creating their own meaning and proving that they really have learned the material. Months after she did a myth unit that included a jigsaw activity in which her students talked about and investigated myths, some of Berg's students were doing a synonym project. They used Medusa as an example of a synonym for ugly. Others went on to write their own myths. To Berg, this was proof that the activity encouraged the class members to develop a fuller understanding of the concept of a myth.

"I do believe this method is especially good for middle school students and high schoolers too," said Berg. "Adolescents love their peers. They are very social, active people, and jigsaw activities feed into their developmental needs. I cannot imagine making my students sit quietly in straight rows all day long!"

Although this method has strong positives for students, Berg recognizes that it isn't a cure-all. "Jigsaw is just one teaching method out of many," she shared. "It will not solve all the ills of public education, but it is one tool that helps our students make their own connections while we observe their thinking. Understanding the way our students think through a problem is as important -- probably more important! -- as what they think the answer is. If we know how students think, we are better able as teachers to correct any misconceptions they may have."

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