The Jigsaw Strategy and Cognitive Dissonance - Steve Barkley

The Jigsaw Strategy and Cognitive Dissonance

Searching for a podcast to listen to on my daily walk, I came across the Stanford Psychology Podcast, Elliot Aronson: Cognitive Dissonance, Cooperation, and Juicy Stories About the History of Psychology.  It turned out to entertaining and educational.


The juicy story part caught my attention first as Aronson (at age 91) shared how at age 19 in college, majoring in Economics, he accompanied a young woman, whom we wanted to date, to her psychology class. There he heard Abraham Maslow discussing the psychology of prejudice.  As a young Jewish lad, Aronson had pondered the reasoning behind the prejudice he had experienced. In the lecture he shortly began taking notes and as he described, “lost the woman but gained a career.” He switched his major to Psychology the next day and began to study with Maslow.

Aronson went on to graduate school at Stanford and became the student of Leon Festinger, who is best known for his work in the development of the theory of cognitive dissonance. (Aronson has great stories about developing a relationship with Festinger.)  Cognitive dissonance theory explains the discomfort or tension that arises when individuals hold conflicting beliefs, attitudes, or values.

“When people engage in behaviors that conflict with their beliefs or attitudes, they experience psychological discomfort and are motivated to reduce this discomfort, often by changing their attitudes or beliefs to align with their behavior.”

Aronson went on to continue and extend Festinger’s work with dissonance theory which was an important element as Aronson designed the jigsaw collaborative strategy. (This was new learning for me.)

I was introduced to the jigsaw strategy early in my teaching career. When I began working in professional development, I used jigsaw activities in the classes I taught to teachers and taught the strategy for teachers to use in their classrooms. My experience has been that the jigsaw process increased learner engagement and led to increased learning.

Here’s how the Jigsaw strategy works:

Heterogeneous Groups: The class is divided into small groups, typically comprising 4-6 students. These groups should be diverse in terms of students’ abilities, backgrounds, or other relevant characteristics.

Expert Groups: Each small group is assigned a specific topic or task related to the larger lesson or unit. Students within these groups become “experts” on their assigned topic through research and discussion.

Jigsaw Groups: After becoming experts in their respective areas, students from the expert groups are reorganized into new groups called “Jigsaw groups.” In these groups, each member represents a different expert group, ensuring that every group has a representative from each of the initial expert groups.

Sharing and Teaching: In the Jigsaw groups, students take turns teaching their peers about their assigned topics. This sharing of information is essential for the overall understanding of the subject matter.

Assessment and Reflection: After the jigsaw groups have shared their knowledge, there is often a discussion or assessment to ensure that every student has understood all aspects of the topic. This can include quizzes, discussions, or group projects.

Here are the suggested benefits of the process.

  • It encourages active engagement and participation among students.
  • It fosters cooperation and teamwork as students depend on each other for information.
  • It promotes a deeper understanding of the material because students must teach it to others.
  • It creates a positive and inclusive learning environment as students work together across differences.

Elliot Aronson and his team of graduate students developed the Jigsaw strategy in 1971 when he was invited to support the Austin, Texas school district with the opening of desegrated schools. Teachers were struggling with a crisis of fighting and bullying as students were placed into mixed-race classrooms for the first time. Aronson shares that those initial observations identified the traditional classrooms as very competitive. Students were vying for the teacher’s attention and approval. He saw little if any need for students to pay attention to or value each other.

The design of the Jigsaw strategy cut through the competition and created opportunities for students to see classmates in ways that created dissonance with their prejudices. Within six weeks of implementation, the initial findings showed prejudice was down, learning increased, self-esteem of minority students increased, and the empathic ability of students increased.

Gaining the background and history behind the Jigsaw process has provided me with a deeper understanding, pushing reflection on my past practices and future opportunities. If this topic is of interest to you, I encourage you to hear Elliot Aronson personally describe his experiences.


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One Response to “ The Jigsaw Strategy and Cognitive Dissonance ”

  1. Kim Tucker Says:

    Very interesting! This side benefit of the jigsaw strategy did not occur to me!

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