Thoughts on ‘Jigsaws’ & Meaningful Group Work
Some Background: Wikipedia’s article on Jigsaws, which I skimmed and found the section on Benefits and Steps in Implementation to be similar to what I’ve seen in other literature that I’ve read that is a bit more legitimate than Wikipedia.
Why I’m Making a Big Deal about Jigsaws: Fischer & Frey are two authors I was introduced to in preservice pedagogy classes and I’ve applied a lot of their structures/advice in my classroom. I’ve read their books on Improving Literacy and Productive Group Work, both of which are good food-for-thought books and both discuss the Jigsaw strategy. It’s something I hear consistently in relation to Marzano’s research on what increases student achievement especially in the realm of cooperative learning. When I hear teachers-of-teachers (ie: teacher mentors or education professors at universities) give advice to newish teachers (like me) on trying to increase achievement/engagement in their classroom, they always recommend some form of a Jigsaw. In essence, I have in my head that a Jigsaw is the holy grail of cooperative learning – there’s engagement, there’s student ownership, there’s synthesis, there’s debate/discussion, there’s group dynamics/social skills at work. Maybe that’s just me and my impression, but because of that, I’ve been trying to see if I could pull it off in my class one of these days and see if it lives up to this pedestal I’ve put it on.
Thoughts on Jigsaw as an introduction: I’ve always had a few issues with the traditional Jigsaw that I’ve been trying to overcome. In my mind, a traditional Jigsaw is used to break a broader topic into smaller pieces (ie: overall topic: Abraham Lincoln. Smaller topics: his youth, his presidency, his time in congress, etc). In breaking this topic down, students break off into ‘expert groups’ and create a summary of their particular piece of the puzzle. Then they all come back to their home groups and discuss what each person learned. Thus, each person can come to a conclusion about the bigger piece by synthesizing all the information about the smaller pieces. Then, when the teacher summarizes and clarifies the next day/later that period, each student is already well prepared for what the teacher will say because they’ve already been introduced to many of the ideas from their own research and from listening to their peers. This is a Jigsaw used to introduce a topic.
I’ve been trying for a long time to find a way to incorporate a Jigsaw into my math classroom but I’ve never really been able to find the right spot. One of the biggest roadblocks I’ve come up against is that math is very procedural – it doesn’t easily break up into disjoint groups that can be studied independently and then brought back together. Instead, math breaks up into steps that can be studied and understood in a sequence – but, trying to understand step #3 without knowing what happens in steps 1 and 2 is useless. Math is also very hands on – students learn more from actually doing the problems instead of watching someone else do them. This jigsaw doesn’t really work in either of these situations – but, on further reflection, I don’t really think it’s designed to. Trying to use a jigsaw to introduce something that is mostly procedural is using the wrong tool for the job. Maybe this is why it’s taken me so long to find a good place for it – a lot of first semester was spent working on algebra and arithmetic skills which took a lot of procedural practice. This could also explain why when I did try something jigsaw-esque, it was usually underwhelming.
Even as I think of ways to use a Jigsaw to introduce a topic, there’s still a reciprocal teaching aspect that I’m not completely comfortable with. In an ideal jigsaw, every student returns to their home group and contributes something to the discussion. That something they contribute is unique because their expert group is the only group who talked about that particular topic. They have a special piece of the puzzle to contribute and it’s their job to ‘teach’ (at a very very basic level) the rest of their group about this missing piece. But what if that person can’t contribute? What if they zoned out in their expert group – didn’t understand – has poor social skills and has trouble communicating. It seems like the whole group suffers in this situation. Actually, in reflecting on some of my early experiments with groupwork first semester, this was the biggest problem I encountered – trying to divide the responsibility and having some students who couldn’t step up the the plate. Several of my students complained about the group structure I was creating and they were right – they were confused about the material because some students weren’t pulling their weight.
Now that some time has passed since some of my failed attempts at groupwork first semester, I realize one reason these students couldn’t contribute is because their math skills were so low – problems with their multiplication tables or integer operations or basic algebra. I suppose an appropriate analogy would be if you designed a Jigsaw that required reading and discussing a portion of a text, then realized that 1/3 of your population was practically illiterate. Another battle I realized I was fighting is that some students have just been trained to shut off in a math class – a type of learned helplessness and lack of confidence that makes it so they will take n0 risks in my class. It’s something I don’t hear about when I read about cooperative learning, so I wonder if this intense of a negative stigma is unique to high school math and therefore not always addressed when talking about ways to implement cooperative learning. I’ve been fighting both of these – low skills and anti-math sentiments – and it’s a battle that has taken me 6 months to overcome with some students. Looking back, I had inadvertently put some students way over their heads without realizing it. To put sole responsibility on them to learn even part of concept was unfair both to them and their group members.
I guess the thing I’m mostly reflecting on is my perception that a Jigsaw is designed to introduce a concept and how that perception has led to several failed group activities (well – maybe ‘failed’ is a harsh word. More accurately, the gnawing feeling that I could have achieved the same amount of learning in 1/3 of the time and 1/2 the frustration). I couldn’t figure out how to use a jigsaw to introduce something procedural. I couldn’t figure out how to solve the remedial-student problem. I can’t figure out how to perform that summary/discussion role that is key at the end of a jigsaw without it turning into me just reteaching the material and me wondering ‘Why didn’t I just do this in the first place?’.
Paradigm Shift – Jigsaws at the end of a unit: I just posted about a group activity I did which I called Expert Groups. It was one of the most successful group activities I’ve done all year, both in popular group metrics (face-to-face interactions, positive interdependence, individual and group accountability) and in actual learning/productivity. As I wrote that last post I was trying to think about what made it so successful and here’s what I came up with:
It came at the end of a unit: This solves my struggling-student problem (well, in an ideal world it does). By the end of a unit, most of my students are comfortable enough with the material that they should be able to do it independently and, if I’ve done my job correctly, they should have some confidence in the fact that they’re doing it correctly. This is a polar opposite to what happens with a Jigsaw as an introduction – students are still unsure of themselves from their low skills/low confidence that they don’t want to take any risks. I think my buy-in was much better because of the confidence boost they had been getting throughout the whole unit rather than that unsureness they feel at the beginning of a unit. Also, this is also a statement about the best place for a jigsaw in your whole curriculum – I think it was a mistake to try so many group-heavy activities so early in the year when students were still so unsure and in need of remedial help.
There were 4 experts instead of 1: This solves my ‘if one student zones out, the group suffers’ problem. I definitely went around and tried to check in with each group and I’m confident most students understood their own problem, but there were still some students who would have trouble communicating it (sometimes due to legitimate communication issues for which they have an IEP). Having 4 experts let students approach whichever expert they wanted so they weren’t out of luck of one person wasn’t comfortable explaining it.
Each problem was an extension: This solves my ‘procedural’ problem. Well, actually, it solves another problem I usually wrestle with regarding group-work: Why is this something that should be done as a group instead of something that could be done individually? I’ve tried some group activities where, when I was done, I realized there wasn’t really any purpose to the group aspect of it – the problems were mostly procedural and could be done by most students individually. The only thing the group aspect provided was forcing some students to ‘tutor’ the other members of their groups, which my smarter students started to resent. With the Expert Group activity, each group had a real-world problem that required a setup before you could actually solve the problem. This setup was different for every problem and was sometimes a little tricky (such as figuring out the similar triangles for surveying a river). Anyway – each problem was an application of the procedural content we’d been learning, and that application is what made each problem unique and worth having an expert for.
Some Final Thoughts: When I first started writing about this, I was super excited – ‘Yah! I pulled it off! Alright!’ The more I think about it, the more I think all I did was steal Kate Nowak’s Speed Dating structure and just made 4 experts instead of 1. I’m still struggling with thinking up a meaningful group structure to introduce something in my geometry classes. The hardest questions to topple are ‘What makes this something that requires a group?’ and ‘Is this really the most efficient way to introduce this concept?’. I almost think the two are mutually exclusive – if I make something that requires a group, it’s probably not the most efficient way to introduce a topic; and if it’s an efficient way to introduce a topic, it probably doesn’t require a group. But maybe that’s where math and group work are different from all the Jigsaw examples I read about – If I think about it, the places where group work can really shine is with encouraging habits of mine or standards for mathematical practice, which are extensions of things we’ve already been talking about. I guess I’d rather have them struggle together in an exercise that builds their problem-solving skills rather than an exercise that introduces new knowledge and has the potential to create false intuition.
Despite my comment above about group work not being great for introducing a topic, there is evidence in the blogotwittersphere of the opposite here and here. Although, in re-reading these, I’m not sure if the ‘group’ aspect is being utilized as much as I had thought. This isn’t a criticism of the activities – I love both of them and I think they’re an amazing way to introduce new concepts – it just reinforces my question about group-necessity and efficiency. They are very efficient and create a deep understanding of the content, but a group is not required to do the heavy-lifting. These last few sentences have been more for me and my own reflections than for anything else.
So, maybe this whole post is just a reaction to my perceptions to cooperative learning as a preservice teacher (which I was a year ago) and how they’ve been challenged and shifted as I’ve tried to implement them in my first year.
Would love lots and lots of thoughts.
Update: Read Jason’s comment because it’s amazing: https://mathymcmatherson.wordpress.com/2012/03/19/thoughts-on-jigsaws-meaningful-group-work/#comment-256