Putting Education and Safety Together Inside The Jigsaw Classroom
By Gail Osgood, Internet Reporter

The Columbine tragedy put every school in the nation on high alert. As a result, schools adopted sophisticated safety procedures and zero tolerance policies in order to prevent copycats. However, and what many educators might not know, is that there are also advanced learning techniques to help avoid massive tragedies from occurring inside school walls. One of these techniques was designed over thirty years ago by social psychologist Dr. Elliot Aronson.

"There's something terribly wrong with the social atmosphere in schools," Aronson said. "Teens are frightened. They want to be liked and accepted. They feel if they can put someone else down, it will make them look better. If you add extreme competitiveness to that, it can lead to Columbine." 

Aronson, currently professor emeritus at the University of California in Santa Cruz, developed a cooperative learning technique called the "Jigsaw Classroom" while working in Austin, Texas in 1971. Aronson produced the unique approach in order to foster collaboration and improve student relations during a tense period following the desegregation of Austin schools. Jigsaw puts children of different races, genders and backgrounds into the same working groups, forcing them to forget differences and act as one. 

The goal, according to Aronson, is to facilitate interaction among all students in the class, leading them to value each other as contributors to a common task.

Jigsaw groups consist of five or six students assigned to learn five or six segments of a particular topic. After fully comprehending their individual sections, each student must then teach their segment to the other group members, acting as the "expert" on their section. At the end of the activity, all students take an exam on what they've learned. Throughout the activity, they must rely on each other to learn all of the information and put all of the pieces of the puzzle together to perform well. 

"[This type of learning] is fun for the student," Aronson said. "Performance on grades goes up, absentees goes down, kids enjoy it and they learn more. The bottom line is they're learning compassion for each other."

Aronson said he received very powerful results when Jigsaw was first tested in its early stages. 

"The results were so stunning, I used to go around doing workshops without charge to get the system going," he said. "When some school systems use it, and it works, it spreads to others." 

He said about 20 percent of schools nationwide use Jigsaw and he regularly receives calls and emails from teachers who want to implement the technique. With widespread access to the Internet, use is much more attainable, he says. Teachers can build and share curriculum, download training materials and organize chat groups to share ideas or discuss solutions to problems that might arise.

Safety and Education Fit Together

Joanne McDaniel, director of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence, said the Jigsaw Classroom is an important approach that needs to be considered in schools because it is a more sophisticated way to make schools safer environments. She said the lowest level of school safety is providing physical security, but the highest level is incorporating it in education.

"It really does what we're striving for - to blend our school safety efforts with educational purposes," she said. "You're educating, and by doing that, you're creating a safer environment." 

Another important part of the Jigsaw Classroom is that it helps teachers decrease bullying and to break up certain cliques that might be contributing to a negative social atmosphere.

"Teachers know their kids well enough to organize them appropriately and break up cliques," McDaniel said. "And because there is a common purpose, the children are forced to focus on it and develop good human relationship skills in the process." 

"I think the kids become closer [with Jigsaw learning], but after the Jigsaw activity is over, some of the same bullying and teasing issues continue," Ellen Berg, a sixth grade teacher from Turner Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri, said. "However, I do find that during the activity, arguments are centered around sharing the workload or disagreements about ideas."

One Teacher's Puzzle

Berg, who has been using the Jigsaw technique in her classroom for roughly four years, said that this year, her class always seemed to be in turmoil and no one could stand anyone else. Although she feared using the Jigsaw activity with this particularly uncooperative class, she tried it anyway. 

Berg set up the Jigsaw activity with "high interest material" for her sixth-graders. She used Cinderella stories from many cultures and gave each group a task that pushed their thinking and allowed for personal input. She gave them very clear directions and made her expectations clear to them.

"Any technique sinks or swims in the way it is implemented," she said. 

Though relationships were not perfect, she said, the students eventually learned to cooperate with one another. She has also noticed since the latest Jigsaw project, the students have been more cooperative with her, have fewer disagreements and problems with teasing, and hold each other more accountable for learning and being on task. 

"It puts the students in the positions of learners and meaning makers, rather than as receivers of information," she said. "It is an active acquisition of knowledge."

And, what does Berg do if a student is not feeling cooperative?

"If a student refuses to participate, I take them to the side to try to find out what the problem is," she said. "If it is simply that they do not want to be in a group, I present them with all of the material and tell them they'll have to do all the reading, synthesizing, and project work on their own. That usually solves the problem."

Although Berg said her kids love the Jigsaw technique, most likely because the work burden is shared, she does not use Jigsaw daily

"A Jigsaw task needs to be used in an appropriate place; it is not always the most effective strategy to get a concept across," she said. "I like to use it as an introduction to genres before I ever define it for them. If they have already wrapped their mind around trying to make their own meaning, they are more open to learning about the concept when I give a mini-lesson about it or ask them to apply their learning to a new situation."

Berg said on the teacher's part, there is a lot of up front work required to get the technique going. It requires multiple tries before it reaches the full level of effectiveness.

"It takes time for students to become comfortable with the structure, and it takes time for teachers to learn how to use the structure successfully," she said. "Teachers need to thoroughly prepare ahead of time."

Aronson agrees. "A teacher has to be willing to do some work at the beginning, [but] after a while it becomes easier for the teacher and the students."

The Jigsaw Classroom can be used in any type of class and with any age group. Corporations can implement the cooperative learning technique. Recently, Apple Computers integrated it into their employees training. Aronson said it works best when the goal is to overcome prejudice or when you're striving to decrease relentless competitiveness. 

In terms of violence, no technique is going to fight everything, Aronson said, but this is so much better than doing nothing. If Columbine had implemented cooperative learning such as this, "I would bet that all those kids would be alive today," he said.


For more information on Elliot Aronson and the Jigsaw Classroom, please visit

To contact Joanne McDaniel, director of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence, call 800-299-6054, or email

To contact Ellen Berg, email her at

159 Burgin Parkway | Quincy, MA 02169
617-471-4445 | Fax 617-770-3339