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Jigsawing

    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". It clearly takes the teacher "off-stage" relying on the child to "construct" his own "knowledge." (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 Curriculum").

    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 characters.

    But, try this: In your article you say that these kids portrayed these historic figures ...

      Meredith ...
      Alexandra ...
      Molly ...
      Josey ...
      Nathan ...
      John Adams
      International Red Cross
      astronomer Maria Mitchell
      Tecumseh
      Benjamin Banneker

    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 globe.
    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 DPP's...
    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 "artwork".

    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.

Jigsaw Variations

    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 responds ."

    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 resolved."

    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 group."

    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 schooling.

    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 textbook.

    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 curriculum.

    To have this sort of project serve as a core curriculum, of course, is a joke.
    The role of projects can certainly be taken to excess. For more on that, see our page on projects versus learning.

    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.

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