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Group Work Doesn’t Have To Be Annoying and Pointless

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Students-working-together1My series of posts from the Northeast Summer Institute on Scientific Teaching (collected here) have generated a number of interesting responses from readers—the one titled “Why Students Don’t Like Active Learning” in particular. In that post, I noted that that research has shown that people are generally poor monitors of how well they’re learning and how much they know, and that this is especially true of novices—which is what students are. Barry Garelick, a math teacher from California, wrote in a comment:

“Quite true; students are novices. Particularly true in lower grades (K-8) where group work and student-centered, inquiry-based classes have become more common over the years. [Because students are novices], the comparison of ‘group work’ to the collaboration that supposedly is going on in the working world and which they will need to do is flawed. In the real world, whatever collaboration occurs consists of people bringing their individual expertise to the table. In school, everyone is essentially a novice, so you have either the blind leading the blind, or the smart kids . . . take the lead and do the work that no one else does.”

Barry makes an important point, and as it happens, it’s a point that was addressed in a Summer Institute session on active learning led by Andrew Moiseff, professor and associate dean for behavioral and life sciences at the University of Connecticut. In Andy’s session, participants discussed their use of the “jigsaw classroom,” a technique that effectively changes the nature of student group work from “the blind leading the blind” to a process of “people bringing their individual expertise to the table.”

The way it works is this: The knowledge needed to complete a task—say, writing an essay about a famous figure—is divided into sections. These sections are distributed among the members of a student work group such that each student learns one part of the whole. Every student then has to contribute his or her unique portion of knowledge in order for the task to be completed. In a sense, students become short-term “experts” who must figure out how to communicate their own expertise and build on the expertise of others to get the job done, together.

Structuring students’ activity in this way helps to avoid two common pitfalls of group work noted above by Barry Garelick: the problem of “social loafing” (I love that phrase), in which a few group members contribute all the labor and the others simply watch; and the aimlessness of a group in which no one really knows much at all.

The jigsaw classroom accomplishes something else, too—and to understand what that is it helps to know about the fascinating history of this technique. It was created by Elliot Aronson, the pioneering social psychologist and longtime professor of psychology at the University of Texas. In 1971, Aronson’s city of Austin was under a court order to desegregate its schools. Tensions were simmering and fights were breaking out between white students and students of color. Neither group trusted or valued or even really knew members of the other group, and educating them in the same classroom—much less having them work together—seemed increasingly impossible.

It was in this fraught situation that Aronson and his graduate students introduced the jigsaw classroom, showing teachers how to create groups made up of white and minority students, and then giving the groups a task that required the contribution of every member. I’ll let Aronson describe in his own words how it worked out:

“And so we began our pilot study, comparing a sixth-grade classroom divided into jigsaw groups with a control classroom structured as usual. At first the children simply repeated their competitive strategies, but in a few days they realized that their competitive behavior had abruptly become dysfunctional. Take the example of a Mexican American boy I will call Carlos. English was his second language, and although he was fluent, he spoke with an accent that often evoked taunting or derisive laughter among the Anglo kids. So he usually kept quiet in class. But when we introduced jigsaw, he could no longer avoid talking; he was required to present the paragraph he had learned. When Carlos began to recite his piece of the puzzle, he had learned the paragraph well, but he was nervous and frequently stumbled and mumbled. Initially, some of the other children sighed audibly or looked away; one called him stupid. In a competitive classroom this kind of behavior often succeeds in throwing your opponent off balance. But in a jigsaw classroom the kids soon understood that their disparaging remarks and gestures would keep them from learning the piece of the puzzle that Carlos was struggling to give them—and would thus prevent them from getting a high grade on the exam. They had to learn to be patient, to listen carefully, and to prompt Carlos with the kinds of questions that would help him articulate the information he had. In the process they learned that Carlos was smarter and nicer than they had previously thought. Within a week of instituting jigsaw, there was a discernible positive change in the classroom atmosphere.”

(The quotation is from Aronson’s wonderful memoir Not By Chance Alone: My Life As A Social Psychologist. My favorite detail from Aronson’s study: Throughout the experiment, he had one of his graduate students go up on the roofs of the participating schools and take pictures of the students at recess. After six weeks, the photographs showed evidence of less segregated social interaction at the schools that were implementing the jigsaw classroom.)

Aronson’s use of the phrase “competitive strategies” makes me think of the situation I hear about often from current teachers and professors: students who are so driven by grades and individual achievement that they resist collaborating and sharing with their classmates. Of course, Aronson was talking about the tensions among racial and ethnic groups—”There’s no bigger, stronger clique than race,” as he observed—but I wonder if the jigsaw classroom might not work to ease some of the every-man-for-himself attitudes found among today’s students.

In any case, the jigsaw classroom does address the last of Barry Garelick’s criticisms: that group work in classrooms is nothing like the group work that graduates will some day be doing in the workplace. People have to learn how to work well in groups, and school seems like a good place to start. Turning each student into an “expert” via the jigsaw classroom could accomplish a number of goals at once: training students to work effectively in groups; tamping down excessive competition; equitably distributing the workload; and—in the spirit of Elliot Aronson—helping students to see each other as full and valuable human beings.

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2 Responses to “Group Work Doesn’t Have To Be Annoying and Pointless”

  1. Robert Irby says:

    I am afraid the jigsaw method fails at he same place as all other group work which is where you have a group where not everyone feels accountable and subsequently either the other group members pick up the slack or worse the otherwise productive member(s) receive a lower grade. As a parent I would not allow my student’s grade to be effected by the apathy of another. The jigsaw method also falls apart if none of the group members are willing and/or able to take on the task. I agree with the premise that group learning in school is nothing like collaboration in the work place, regardless of how the group activity is structured.

  2. Hi Annie,
    In my grade 6 Performing Arts class I teach collaboration explicitly and it makes such a difference in my classroom, so I thought I’d share. My students create a ‘performance map’ for homework, it must list the songs we can play but the students must think creatively about how they are going to communicate the number of musicians required, instruments required, transitions between songs. Anyhow, after everyone has completed their poster we sit down in pairs and write down the similarities between the creative ideas shared, and give comments on which ideas worked most efficiently in each poster. The students then collaborate to create a new poster that builds on the best of the ideas. From this we discuss how being a good collaborators means acknowledging other people’s ideas and making compromises in order to make the best idea. In our next project we move on to groups of 6-8, this time notepads out, each person must contribute an idea for a performance based on research from home. Importantly, everyone is responsible for contributing an idea (no passes) and students have to ‘zip it’ while listening and use the note pad to jot down the ideas they want to come back to. After everyone has shared then it’s looking to the notepad and commenting on ideas they liked, ideas similar to their own, and ideas they can build on. Of course I have to circulate and make sure they follow the model, but it’s great to finally hear the introverts ideas articulated verbally, and when we move onto more free form collaboration and they are creating a performance I can pull them back to the model and ask about whose ideas have been listened to and built upon each session. I’m pretty proud of the classroom dynamic that evolves thanks to this, hope it helps someone else.

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