lliot Aronson, an American psychologist known for his pioneering work in the fields of social psychology and cognitive dissonance, explored the ways that people’s attitudes and beliefs can be influenced by peer pressure, group dynamics, and cognitive inconsistencies. His work led to the design of the jigsaw strategy used in classrooms. Consider how elements of his work apply to instructional coaching.
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[00:00:00.330] – Steve [Intro]
Welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. As instructional coaches and school leaders, you have a challenge to guide continuous teacher growth that promotes student success. This podcast looks to support you with strategies from our experienced guests and insights that I’ve gathered across many years. I’m thrilled you’re here. Thanks for listening.
[00:00:30.810] – Steve
Opportunities for cognitive dissidents to challenge beliefs and values. I always love when I get an unexpected learning experience, especially one that has a continuing inquiry exploration as I engage in conversations with educators. This podcast comes from one of those experiences. I was looking for a podcast to listen to as I headed out for a walk and I came across the Stanford Psychology Sodcast titled, “Elliot Aronson: Cognitive Dissonance, Cooperation, and Juicy Stories About The History of Psychology.” Elliot Aronson is an american psychologist known for his pioneering work in the fields of social psychology and cognitive dissonance. His research has explored the ways in which people’s attitudes and beliefs can be influenced by various factors, including peer pressure, group dynamics, and cognitive inconsistencies. His studies have provided valuable insights into the psychology of prejudice and discrimination, as well as the mechanisms that drive behavior, change and persuasion. I encourage you to listen to that podcast which is linked in this podcast lead-in. I’m sure you’ll be captured by Aronson’s storytelling, which includes how, at the age of 19 in college, majoring in economics, he accompanied a young woman who he wanted to date to her psychology class.
[00:02:19.930] – Steve
There, he heard an instructor by the name of Abraham Maslow discussing the psychology of prejudice. As a young jewish lad, Aronson had pondered the reasoning behind the prejudice that he had experienced. In the lecture, he shortly began taking notes, and as he describes, he lost the woman but gained a career. He switched his major to psychology the next day and began to study with Maslow. In the podcast interview, Aronson lays out the history of his work that led to the creation of the Jigsaw strategy in teaching. This information was new to me, which is a little embarrassing as I not only have used Jigsaw for years as an instructional strategy, but I’ve taught the strategy to teachers. What insights are triggered for you as you hear Aronson detail the experience?
[00:03:23.950] – Elliot
The Jigsaw classroom? Yeah, I think the American way is competitive, and I think it’s led to some really good things, but it’s also led to some deficits. And people are forever, certainly in elementary school and junior high school and high school and college, forever trying to find someone that they can feel superior to. And a lot of this prejudice, a lot of this white supremacy that’s going on in this country right now is that people who are unhappy, especially, want to find somebody that they can feel superior to, want to find somebody that they can feel like, I may not be making much money, I may be uneducated, but I’m sure better off than that guy. And that’s a destructive kind of attitude. And what we did in the jigsaw classroom, in developing it, again, that was another lucky break. At that time, I was teaching at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas, when the Austin public schools were desegregated in 1971. And so black kids and white kids and mexican-american kids were brought together in the same classroom for the first time since the civil war. It was an incredible thing. And as social psychologists, many of us, believed, in 1954, when the supreme court decided that the notion that was the law of the land at the time was that it was okay to separate races.
[00:05:03.950] – Elliot
Segregation was okay in schools as long as the facilities were the same, as long or equal or equivalent, so that it was okay to have a school that was all black and another school that was all mexican-american and another school that was all white, as long as they had equal facilities. But what the supreme court in 1954 decided in a magnificent case in which social psychology played a role is that the mere act of separating kids by race or ethnicity makes the kids in the minority group feel that they’re not as good or as worthy as the kids in the majority group, because a black kid is not going to think, “oh, they’re segregating me because I’m so much better than these white people.” No, segregating me because the society at large thinks I’m not good enough. And that in and of itself makes it unequal psychologically. So you can never have separate but equal. You have built in feelings of inequality, which makes the whole notion of segregation a lie. And that got overturned. So 17 years later, it took that long, Austin schools were finally desegregated, and all hell broke loose. We thought desegregation would be a good thing.
[00:06:41.680] – Elliot
Social psychologists believed that since prejudice is largely a matter of ignorance, if you bring people together in contact, equal people in the same classroom, in contact with each other, they’re going to learn to appreciate each other. Not so. When we observed the classroom, just to continue with the story, I had a former student who was now assistant superintendent of schools in the Austin school system and when they desegregated and all these fistfights were breaking out across racial lines, black kids against white kids against mexican-american kids, bullying of all kinds, they really had to shut down many of the schools because of that. This guy called me up and he says, “hey, can you do something about this? Do you have any ideas?” And I agreed to come in and try to do something, but only if we find something out that we think works. You give me carte blanche to use it in as many classrooms as I see fit. And because the schools were in crisis with kids being at each other’s throats, he agreed to that. And that’s what allowed for the jigsaw classroom. And I didn’t have any great ideas going in.
[00:08:09.760] – Elliot
But the first thing we did, my graduate students and I, is we observed several elementary school classrooms, and I sent them out in peers, each looking at a different classroom, 4th, 5th, 6th grade and I asked them to observe carefully and to write down the things they see and to rank order them in terms of frequency and power and stuff like that. And every pair came up with the same thing at the top of their list: the classroom is a very competitive place where kids are vying against each other for the teacher’s respect and affection. Because especially in elementary school, the teacher is the second most important person in most kids lives, second only to their mother. It’s like the teacher is really important, and they want the teacher to respect and like them. So the teacher stands in front of the classroom, asks a question, and immediately six or seven hands go up, and they’re straining. They’re lifting their asses out of their chairs to try to get her attention. It’s a very powerful, competitive look to it. And the teacher calls on one kid, and when she calls on one kid, you can hear a groan go up from the other five or six kids who had their hands up because they missed a chance to show the teacher how smart they are.
[00:09:43.350] – Elliot
And if the kid comes up at the right answer, they hate the kid that was called on. But what they hate worse is the fact that a lot of the other kids don’t even have their hands up. And it turns out that after years of segregation and the schools were never equal in any way in the poorer sections of town, the teaching wasn’t as good, the curriculum wasn’t as good, the facilities weren’t as good. So the minority kids were not getting a good education. And when they entered, say, the fifth grade in a newly desegregated school, they were one full grade level in reading comprehension behind the white kids. The mexican american and african american kids in the fifth grade were reading at the fourth grade level. Most of the white kids were reading at the 6th grade level. So they were almost two full grades behind. And we’re in this highly competitive situation. They were thrust into this situation where they were virtually guaranteed to lose. And after a while, they became solemn, and they didn’t even try to participate. It was a terrible situation. So what’s the solution? It didn’t take us long, but after observing these classrooms for a couple of days and all agreeing, I had seven or eight graduates working with me on this.
[00:11:15.110] – Elliot
We all agreed that what we need to do is cut through the competition in some way. And that’s how we invented the jigsaw classroom, which is breaking the groups up into small group, breaking the class of maybe 30 students into six groups of five, five or six, depending upon the number of kids in the classroom, and then making an assignment. The reason it’s called jigsaw is that, let’s say, the lesson of the day, let’s say in social studies, they’re studying lives of great americans, and the lesson of the day is the life of Eleanor Roosevelt. So we would take her biography, and if it’s a five person group, we would break it down into five paragraphs. One paragraph would be her childhood and how she grew up. The second paragraph would be meeting Franklin Roosevelt. The third paragraph would be their marriage and while he was being assistant secretary of the navy. The next paragraph would be, he’s elected president, Eleanor Roosevelt in the white house and the final paragraph would be, after Roosevelt’s death, Eleanor Roosevelt in the United Nations and all the work she was doing there, et cetera, et cetera.
[00:12:38.380] – Elliot
And then each kid had one paragraph. Each kid takes that paragraph, reads it, doesn’t have to memorize it, but learns it pretty well, and then meets with one kid from each of the jigsaw groups who has the same paragraph, and they talk about how they’re going to present it to their jigsaw group, really learn it well by discussing it, and learn the best way to present it. And then they go back into their original group, where each kid has a different paragraph and they go through it, reciting it to each other, asking questions about it, et cetera. And they help each other. Each one really has to now listen hard to the kid who’s presenting in order to understand it and to ask questions if you don’t fully understand it. And with this technique, we call it jigsaw, because it’s like putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to come out with the life of Eleanor Roosevelt. And the reason that we have kids work with other kids that have the same paragraph is that some kids don’t have good reading skills and by working with four or five kids that have the same paragraph, they’re learning how they do it, and they’re gaining access to that wealth of information, and then they go back into their jigsaw group.
[00:14:07.870] – Elliot
The jigsaw group was arranged on purpose to have boys and girls in it, to have african americans, mexican americans, and anglo kids in it, so that you get a lot of diversity in each jigsaw group. And what we found was, after only six weeks, first of all, the teacher sees it within a week or two, the atmosphere in the classroom changes immensely. Kids are now talking to each other. Black kids and white kids are talking to other in the schoolyard during recess. They’re playing together rather than being in white groups, black groups, mexican american groups, really just hanging out with their own ethnicity. But now, total integration, total mingling. And that just took place within four or five weeks. But within six weeks, when we actually collected the data, we found prejudice went down. We found that learning increased tremendously. They learned the material better than a control condition, which consisted of teachers who were designated as some of the best teachers in the school system, teaching in the traditional way. And the jigsaw was being taught by a random sample of teachers who we designated to be in that convention. So prejudice was done.
[00:15:43.850] – Elliot
Learning increased, the self esteem of minority kids improved, and the empathy of kids, the empathic ability of kids improved. When we gave them tests of empathy, they were much more able to put themselves in the shoes of another person. Why? Because if you’re competing in a classroom, the only person you really need to pay attention to is the teacher, and you want to make sure she knows how smart you are. So you don’t have to really pay attention to any of the other kids. They’re just noise as far as you’re concerned. But in the jigsaw classroom, you damn well better pay attention to each of the other kids, even if it’s a kid you think is stupid or a kid you don’t like because of his ethnicity or for any reason, you have to pay attention. And in paying attention, you begin to see that kid is a lot smarter, a lot nicer, a lot more articulate than you would have given him credit for. And you begin to like him more. You begin to appreciate him more. And this technique worked beautifully in every place that we ever used it over the next several years.
[00:17:03.910] – Steve
I think that the current times and events triggered me to an even closer listening to Aronson’s words. How about you? I know that I’ll have a keener sense of observation as I use the jigsaw strategy and as I observe its use in teachers’ classrooms. I’m also pondering how my coaching generates opportunities for teachers to grow from their cognitive dissonance. I’d love to hear your thoughts or questions that arise for you. As always, you can reach me at .barkleypd.com Thanks for listening.
[00:17:48.370] – Steve [Outro]
Thanks for listening, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter or linkedin @stevebakrley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com