Jigsawing is an almost universal practice, and one that most parents
will recognize immediately.
It's the common practice of taking a subject, dividing it up into
small pieces, and then assigning every child in the class to one
of these pieces. The child is expected to "research" and do a project about
about their piece of the jigsaw puzzle. Here are some examples:
Topic: Learn the U.S. states
Implemented: Each child is assigned a state
Example: Matt, you take Nebraska
Topic: Nations of the World
Implemented: Each child gets one country
Example: Alex, you get Ghana
Topic: U.S. History
Implemented: Each child gets one historic person
Example: Kristy, you be Sacajewea. Can you make a costume?
Topic: The periodic table of the elements
Implemented: Each child studies one element
Example: Mason, you research bismuth
Obviously, this is constructivist
project-based learning at its "finest".
takes the teacher "off-stage" relying on the child to "construct" his own
(For more on excesses of project learning, see our page
on Projects vs. Learning.)
But the constructivist creed doesn't necessarily mean dividing up the
content -- having everyone in the class make a "creative" model of
an atom is an example (though that does run the risks of the "Crayola
A major concern is whether or how often this divvying up leads to
a grossly Swiss-cheese education, with huge holes in those cheeses.
The problem is the conflict between state standards,
which are generally weak (as in Illinois), and how this myopic jigsaw
focus dilutes it down to homeopathic-like wateriness for an individual student.
Instead of mastering a foundation of U.S. and world history,
a particular child learns only about Tennessee, Korea and Teddy Roosevelt.
Kelsey's never heard of the Missouri Compromise, the Magna Carta, or
James Madison -- because Jimmy did those.
Meanwhile, the school counts the whole topic in the standards as "completed."
Here's one report:
One of the worse examples of jigsaw I've seen was in a tiny Catholic school,
where a 4th grade class had only four students total! Each of
these kids was assigned one state to "research". That leaves
46 states that were ignored. I felt truly sorry for the girl who
spent a huge amount of time in not learning about all 50 states,
but rather only about North Dakota. She even constructed an enormous
papier mache ear of corn to show North Dakota's main crop -- which is
pretty bizarre since North Dakota's main crop far and away is wheat (I checked).
Totally wrong, massively wasteful of time and energy,
and totally missing the forest for a handful of trees.
But it looked cute, and I'm sure the parents loved it.
Parents and Jigsawing
The lure of jigsawing is that it often produces projects that look so darn cute!
In many schools, kids dress up as their assigned character and write a short report
on that one person. Some schools do "bottle people" where they decorate a pop bottle
to look like their person. Many schools express jigsaws as posters,
which fill classroom space with lively but disconnected displays.
(See our report on Postermania for more examples of that.)
Here is one reply to an article in a Boston newspaper which praised
a jigsaw project in one school there:
What you described happening at your child's school is very similar
to what they do at my child's school. ... Most of the parents just love it.
It's just so sweet and
entertaining. And it sure LOOKS like education, since the kids are
saying so many knowledgable interesting things about their
But, try this: In your article you say that these kids portrayed these historic figures ...
Meredith ... |
John Adams |
International Red Cross
astronomer Maria Mitchell
Now try asking Molly about John Adams. Or ask Nathan about famous
astronomers. Or ask Alexandra about Tecumseh. Or ask any of them
about important persons in whatever historical era they are studying
(assuming they do get around to studying some specific era) who is
not one of the characters represented in the class.
My guess is that you will see is that the kids' learning is a mile
deep and an inch wide. I wonder if that young lady who studied
astronomer Maria Mitchell knows anything at all about Johann Kepler,
or Tycho Brahe.
Modern progressivist education is just great at having kids do
time-consuming "research" projects, but who wind up with brains
nearly as empty as when they started.
Students and Jigsawing
When students get to pick their own "piece" of the jigsaw, they quickly
figure out ways to beat the system. Here's one parent's report:
[Let me tell you about] my son's experience
with the same type of history assignment in his Montessori School
(He did a similar assignment for two years in a row.) By the second year,
he and his pals decided that the easiest way to complete this type of
assignment with its overwhelming lack of structure, was to pick one
of the least significant countries on the face of the earth. To my
husband's and my horror, we found out that he would be spending a
month researching and writing about Iceland ... which he did.
Teachers and Jigsawing
Of course, there are many superb teachers, and many teachers with
terrific educational backgrounds. But there are also others who are
not as well-rounded. These weak teachers often are especially fond of
jigsaw projects, as this report suggests:
Another factor added to the mix of why jigsawing so rarely works is
the education level of some teachers. Since some of today's teachers
are typically some of the poorest students in college (how many times
I've seen their D and C grades which turn into A's and B's once they
start taking education courses), they don't have the skills to guide
students into selecting significant historical topics....they don't
know enough to determine what is significant and what is anecdotal.
Many of the younger teachers can't even identify these countries on a
Jigsawing also has implications for a teacher's workload.
Here's a report:
When I was taking grad level administration courses, almost all of
them used this type of jigsaw strategy for the majority of classwork.
We jaded students always figured that using this type of learning
made the teacher's life extremely easy since almost every week was
spent listening to "pieces" of the puzzle that other people in class
had researched. A teacher who wants to be lazy and let his/her class
teach themselves, can easily use this method and minimize lesson
planning and preparation for himself.
Jigsawing also offers a handy escape hatch for teachers who are
desperately trying to cope with the kinds of headbanging impossibilities
that run rampant in many constructivist programs, particularly
fuzzy "new-new" math programs. Here is one teacher,
writing in an online discussion group devoted to one such program:
We, the 1st grade teachers, are having a hard time fitting in the
DPP's [constructivist exercises]. We realize they
are very important and should not be passed
over. However, it seems like they are not 5 min drills but a 15-20
min lesson in itself. So many of them suggest to use supplies that
it takes MORE time to get these ready along with the lesson. Any
suggestions on how to do this?
A "helpful" math "specialist" later wrote,
... kids could jigsaw DPP's. 5 groups of
kids each discuss a different DPP and then (they move back into groups
with members from each DPP group ) and share their problem with the other
kids. This would be a powerful way to go over assigned homework with
Yes, jigsawing used this way is indeed "powerful." It gives teachers the
power to get the blasted things out of her classroom, and transfer the
headache to parents, who will stay up late with their kids trying futilely to make
sense of these loosey-goosey assignments. Then, back at the classroom, no one
child is expected to actually know all of the details,
but only needs to stare vacantly as a roomful of
little kids are taught math methods by each other, instead of by a real teacher.
The kids wind up with no basics,
no standard methods, and no understanding. Powerful!
Jigsaws and Groups
Jigsawing's problems are compounded when meshed with another fad, namely,
small group projects, a.k.a. "collaborative learning."
Here is a
portion of one report,
that touches on that, in discussing math programs:
The "team-math" approach employs a technique called "jigsawing" -- whereby
Susie, Johnny and Sally are each given one part of the problem to work on.
Then the group agrees, by arbitrary consensus, on an overall solution.
This kind of "math" destroys a student's independent, cognitive development.
The result is that your child will not know how to build a bridge or calculate
the tip on a restaurant bill -- but he will forever be obedient to the
demands of any assertive clique.
The Jigsaw That Swallowed the School
Combine jigsawing with contrived "crosscurricular ties" and you can easily wind up
with huge blocks of time stolen from substantive learning:
My son went through a nightmare of jigsawing
last year. Each child was assigned one country. My son
got lucky -- he got "England". Jeez, at least that's better than the
kids who got Denmark or Korea.
It was a multicurricular, crosscurricular extravaganza. They spent
FOUR CLASS PERIODS -- ABOUT THREE HOURS -- PER DAY for a total of
SEVENTEEN WEEKS working on this thing. The social studies class was
devoted to "research" in the library on "your" country. The two
language arts class periods were devoted to outlining, drafting,
editing and doing final versions of the text. The "technology" class
period was devoted to more "research" and typing. Of course, of
course, of course, COPIOUS amounts of time were devoted to the
And what did my son get out of this? Well, each child was supposed
to write something about three periods in his/her country's history...
My son, writing on "England," wrote one "chapter" about the starting
of the Wedgewood factory. I don't recall offhand what the other two
chapters were -- I can't find the thing right now, as I think my wife
hid it because it makes me crazed when I think about it. But did he
cover the Magna Carta? Nope. The Norman Conquest and the Battle of
Hastings? Nope and nope. The Glorious Revolution? Nope. Henry VIII?
Nope. Charles III? Nope. WWII and the Battle of Britain? Nope.
Can a jigsaw truly deliver the content in the standards?
I suppose, but that's
not how it was done here. This project WAS the curriculum -- the
school actually had the chutzpah to say that this fuzz-fest -- all by
itself -- satisfied the state requirement to teach world
history!!!! As far as I can tell, our "wonderful"
school never teaches a proper course in world
history anywhere from pre-K through 8th grade.
Oh, and I should add that the same school also handles middle-school
American History the same way: there is a dress-up
project where each child picks ONE -- count 'em -- ONE person from
American History and studies that one person to death.
Lest it become obvious that jigsaws accomplish little, the educrats have dreamed up all manner of variations.
From a recent
blog posting, here are a few of those twists, along with comments:
- "Co-Op Jigsaw: Each member of a group of 5 is assigned
unique material to learn and teach to the group. Members of different
groups consult about how to teach the material. A test or assessment
usually follows instruction."
- This might better be called the jigsawed jigsaw, and it has all
the flaws of the basic jigsaw nightmare. With the added element of
this being a workshop, we have to wonder if the goal is a) consume as
much workshop clock time as possible so that everyone feels active
while the organizer has little to prepare, or b) minimize time spent
on that little matter of "learning" the "assigned unique material".
- "Partner Work: Teams are formed. Half of each team is
given an assignment to master and teach the other half. Team reviews
how well they learned and taught."
- This is a reductio ad absurdum jigsaw. This reduces the flurry
of activity in a jigsaw down to its simplest elements, where it
becomes glaringly obvious that someone should ask, "Why can't we just
have a teacher who knows this stuff teach us?"
- "Numbered Teams: Each team member is assigned a number
and is prepared to answer a question discussed with their team.
Leader calls out a number and the appropriate member from each team
- A strange jigsaw, in which even less time is available
for poor glimpses of learning, due to the necessity for explaining
the rules at the start.
- "Circle the Sage: Leader polls class to identify
students who have special knowledge. Classmates surround these
students, who explain what they know. Students listening to different
sages return to their teams to explain what they learned.
Inconsistencies/Disagreements in their explanations are aired and
- This is a "strategy" based purely on hope: let's hope that a
few people walk into the classroom who already know at least a few
conversation tidbits about the subject. (This raises the question of
why those people should attend this chatfest workshop in the first place.) But
regardless of the accuracy or completeness of the knowledge of these thus-identified
"sages", those persons are still put in charge of "explaining" to the
others. This is a case of the vision-impaired leading the blind.
- "Small Group Brainstorming: A question is posed to small
groups. After individual "think time," members share responses while
a recorder takes notes."
- "Think-Pair-Share: learners think independently,
exchange thoughts with a partner, and then share ideas with a larger
- These two are the worst. There is no expectation that
anyone involved actually has to know or learn anything at all! Just think about stuff. This is
"education" in the style of The Music Man's Professor Hill.
Do Standards Help?
The whole point of having academic standards is to define a minimal
set of what a child should know and be able to do as a result of his or her
It's bad enough if the standards are written in a vague and shallow way
(see our page on the Illinois standards, for example).
But jigsawing is the poison that can ruin the
intent of even a tough academic standard.
A written curriculum, even a Core Knowledge curriculum, has grossly reduced
value if teachers slice and dice it down to bits and pieces for an individual child.
A school might get to make a big, bold checkmark next to each and every
bullet item in a rich curriculum, but is that really what we intended
if a specific child has become an "expert" (supposedly) only on
Gregor Mendel, Denmark, Harriet Tubman, the 9th Amendment, and
bismuth -- but knows little else about history, geography, civics or science?
Can Jigsawing Be Good?
Many of us who went to school many years ago remember the jigsaw projects we did.
So, if we have good memories of them, and we seemed to benefit from them,
what harm do they do?
Dave Ziffer puts it well:
Like all constructivist practices, this one can be extremely positive and
effective IF, and only if, it is merely a supplement to a comprehensive
instruction-based curriculum, preferably one that is being taught from a
The role of projects can certainly be taken to excess. For more on that,
see our page on projects versus learning.
I still have fond memories of a blue-covered report I produced on the
subject of Portugal, somewhere in or about sixth grade. Producing this
report certainly didn't hurt me any, and in fact it was quite a positive
experience. HOWEVER it was done on top of a traditional textbook-based
To have this sort of project serve as a core curriculum, of course, is a
But E. D. Hirsch points out that there is nothing inherently wrong with projects,
as long as they are
well-chosen to meet learning goals and that the the curriculum isn't
diluted to accommodate them. Indeed, most of his Core Knowledge
schools are vividly alive with projects of all kinds.
But unless attention is given to whether all children master
the content expected of them, jigsawing jeopardizes the chance that
any one child will have a complete education.