One of the greatest advancements in teaching and most successful examples of applied social psychology originated in the 1970s with Elliot Aronson’s jigsaw classroom. Aronson’s intervention applied Gordon Allport’s (1954/1979) contact hypothesis, which posited that placing groups in a situation in which they must work together toward a common goal given a supportive environment and equivalent status and power, to the classroom. Yet all great ideas must start somewhere, and for Aronson, his began with a phone call.
By 1971, Aronson had become head of the University of Texas’ social psychology department, and a former student of his reached out to discuss something the professor had taught him years ago (Aronson, 2001). The student, who himself was now an assistant superintendent in the Austin school district, was encountering fights and riots between the black, white, and Hispanic students after desegregation (Aronson, 2001; Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2013). In response, Aronson (2001), with the help of some of his graduate students, developed an intervention inspired by Allport’s (1954/1979) contact hypothesis and Muzafer Sherif and colleague’s (1961) Robbers Cave Experiment (Aronson & Bridgeman, 1979; as cited in Kwantes, Bergeron, & Kaushal, 2012). This intervention would come to be known as the jigsaw classroom.
(Jigsaw Classroom, 2016)
Students in a jigsaw classroom may not seem to be all that different on the surface. Like many classrooms, jigsaw students learn together in small groups of four to seven students (Blaney et al., 1977), although six is now a common figure (Aronson et al., 2013). Members are assigned to the group to represent a diverse mix of backgrounds, but what is truly different is that instead of learning from a teacher, jigsaw students learn from each other: Each member is assigned the responsibility of learning one particular part of the lesson and teaching this part to the others (Blaney et al., 1977; Aronson & Bridgeman, 1979; Aronson et al., 2013). The students, then, are interdependent on each other to reach a common goal, and since each would not know the same information as the others did, their status was made equivalent, just like Allport’s (1954/1979) contact hypothesis would necessitate. In as little as one hour a day (Aronson, 2001), the jigsaw intervention can have wide-reaching implications within and outside the classroom.
These implications have been found and replicated many times over the years since Aronson’s first intervention. Within the group, students actually start to listen to, respect, and like one another (Blaney et al., 1977; Aronson et al., 2013). But the effects of the jigsaw classroom go far beyond intragroup relations. In addition to liking and respect their fellow group members more, students in jigsaw classrooms also show a remarkable decrease in prejudice and stereotyping, perform better on standardized tests, say they like school more, and have higher self-esteem than students in comparison to students in traditional classrooms (Blaney et al., 1977; Aronson et al., 2013). Minority students, in particular, tend to flourish after the jigsaw intervention (Blaney et al., 1977). This may be related to the negative stereotypes with which students from racial and ethnic minorities are often publicly regarded.
Given the remarkable effects of the jigsaw intervention, it is no surprise it is widely implemented. Aronson (2001) estimates that 15 to 18 percent of all schools in America have used his jigsaw classroom intervention, but it might be safe to say he may feel this remarkable number is still insufficient. To Aronson (2001), the “cliquish atmosphere of rejection and humiliation” found in schools makes “30 percent to 40 percent” of students “very, very unhappy,” creating a climate that potentially leads to conflicts ranging from teasing and bullying to suicide and acts of violence. His jigsaw classroom, however, may be one solution to all of these problems. Aronson (2001) thinks his intervention can be used to break down cliques of every kind, from nerds to jocks and from social class to popularity, and “There’s no bigger, stronger clique than race. And we overcame that.” Bold as these claims may be, there is some evidence to back them up.
Remarkable as the aforementioned short-term effects of the jigsaw classroom intervention are, their long-term results may suggest real and lasting behavioral and attitudinal change. Six weeks after a jigsaw classroom intervention, students playing at recess were far more racially mixed than were students at schools without the intervention (Aronson, 2001). Even five or ten years later, Aronson (2001) still receives letters from students and teachers describing lasting effects on empathy and self-esteem. In fact, one notable letter came from one of the students in Aronson’s first jigsaw class.
While a junior at the University of Texas–the same school at which Aronson developed the jigsaw classroom intervention–a man recognized himself, referred to by the pseudonym “Carlos,” in Aronson’s book The Social Animal and wrote to him about the difference the jigsaw experience made in his life. Under that pseudonym, Carlos (1982) wrote that when Aronson came into his 5th grade classroom, “I hated school” and felt “I was so stupid and didn’t know anything,” but “when we started to do work in jigsaw groups, I began to realize that I wan’t really that stupid.” The children he felt were bullies became his friends, “the teacher acted friendly and nice to me and I actually began to love school” so much that, at the time of his letter, he was about to go on to Harvard Law School. To Carlos (1982), Aronson and his jigsaw classroom saved his life. Who knows how many of the thousands of other children exposed to jigsaw interventions might feel the same?
Allport, G.W. (1979). The nature of prejudice (Rev. ed.). The nature of prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company. Original work published (1954).
Aronson, E. (2001, March 27). A conversation with Elliot Aronson / Interviewer: Susan Gilbert [Published interview]. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2001/03/27/health/a-conversation-with-elliot-aronson-no-one-left-to-hate-averting-columbines.html
Aronson, E., & Bridgeman, D. (1979). Jigsaw groups and the desegregated classroom: In pursuit of common goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 5(4), 438-446. doi:10.1177/014616727900500405
Aronson, E., Wilson, T.D., & Akert, R.M. (2013). Social Psychology (8th Ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.
Blaney, N.T., Stephan, C., Rosenfield, D., Aronson, E., & Sikes, ,J. (1977). Interdependence in the classroom: A field study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 69(2), 121-128. doi:10.1037/0022-06184.108.40.206
Carlos. (1982). A letter from Carlos. Rpt. by Jigsaw Classroom. Retrieved from https://www.jigsaw.org/history/carlos.html
Jigsaw Classroom. (2016). Logo [Image]. Retrieved from https://www.jigsaw.org/
Kwantes, C.T., Bergeron, S., & Kaushal, R. (2012). Chapter 14: Applying social psychology to diversity. In F.W. Schneider, J.A. Gruman, & L.M. Coutts (Eds.) Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing
social and practical problems (2nd ed.) (323-347). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.