The ultimate teaching technique

UPDATE: I no longer agree with any of the following. It remains on my blog as a warning against hubris. June, 2016

Maybe it’s just me, but I seem to be encountering an awful lot of people railing against ‘progressive’ teaching methods of late (see this for an example.) There seems to some sort of consensus that all schools are bastions of constructivist theory in action and that seldom, if ever, are teachers allowed to waffle from the front. Sadly, my experience is that many teachers still spend far too much time standing at the front of their classes talking at students. Why does this happen despite the widely held wisdom that 80% of the time in lessons should be spent with students getting on with independent work? Well, my view is that it’s a damn sight easier to just pitch up and drone on. It requires a good deal more preparation to get a class working independently like a well-oiled learning machine.

This is not to say that there is not a time and a place for ‘teacher talk’: there absolutely is. Whenever we want students to learn large amounts of information the most effective and efficient tactic can be the ‘traditional’ approach of direction instruction. For those wanting to find out more, I’ve written about it here.

But, you may be relieved to hear, this isn’t the only  approach to the imparting of knowledge. My absolute favourite way to teach is using Home and Expert groups. If you have a large quantity of wonderful new information that students need to learn and don’t fancy subjecting them to death by Power Point or perpetrating some other passive, teach lead thought crime, the Home/Expert method may be for you. The material you wish students to learn must be divided in into five discrete ‘bits’ with students required to become ‘experts’ on one of these five areas. Each member of the expert group is then responsible for taking back whatever it is they’ve learned to their home group who then have to synthesise the entirety of the material in a manner of your (or their) choosing. Everyone is required to work at all times, otherwise the home groups will be unable to complete their challenge and the miscreant responsible for this failure can be publicly lambasted.

Kids learn enormous amounts from this activity: it develops skills of oracy and of turn taking; they also learn predominantly from each other. Your are not involved in any way other than as a facilitator, and as such, it is a serious, über-constructivist, Ofsted pleaser.

Phil Beadle[i]

Although he calls it ‘jigsawing’, Phil Beadle says this is the ultimate of all teaching techniques”. I’ve also heard it called ‘snowballing’ and it probably goes by other monikers as well, but I’ve always called it Home and Expert Groups and when it works it is a thing of beauty, wonderful to behold.

The main thing is to ensure the groupings and movement work with military precision. I’ve worked with teachers who approach this very successfully on an impromptu basis, but if you’re trying it for the first time I’d recommend some serious advance planning. One way to approach this is to give each student several different groups to which they belong and corresponding seating plans.

This might mean that in class of 30 students you would have five groups of six students. Let’s make these colour groups:

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These are our ‘home’ groups. Home groups are all given the same task e.g. summarise Act 2 of Romeo and Juliet or produce a guide to cell division or whatever it is you want. Clearly, this is too big a task to complete in the hour available so we need to move students into expert groups. Let’s make these shape groups:

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These groupings have several potential uses. Firstly, if students know in advance that they are, say a green pentagon then they’ll know exactly where to move when you say, right – move to your expert groups. Also,  you can work out groupings based on ability, team skills, personality types, gender and so on. The possibilities are only limited by your ability to think up different ways to organise them.

In order to minimise the amount of movement, you might want to inform students that they need to sit in their expert (shape) groups as they enter the room. Then, once you consider they’ve had sufficient time to digest the source material you can blow a whistle or signal time in some other, less piecing way and have every swap to their home (colour) groups to share their findings and work on whatever task it is you’ve set them. My advice here is to give students less time than you think they’ll need. Experience suggests that the time required to complete group activities increases in direct proportion to the amount of time they given.

The most important information students need to know is that their expert group is the only group dealing with the vitally important information which they are privy to and that if they are not all working hard to make sense of it, they’ll be empty handed and exposed as a work-shy oik when reporting back to their home group.

The very best thing about this way of teaching is that it all happens without your direct involvement. You’re left free to roam the room giving feedback as and when appropriate, engaging in high quality conversations about the learning which is quite patently unfolding before your happy eyes. Result.

If you doubt that this is a better way to approach the dissemination of knowledge, try it. Compare how much students subsequently know after teaching this way and after engaging in some direct instruction. You may just find yourself surprised.

Related posts

Total teaching: every lesson is groupwork
Effective groupwork


[i] How To Teach p120

Here‘s some more advice on home/expert groups from Geoff Petty.

33 Responses to The ultimate teaching technique

  1. Penny says:

    Great post. I’ve used this in the past, really like it. I think that the key to it is coming up with a really effective exercise that demands the students have to meaningfully synthesise the information they’ve gathered in their expert groups. Although obviously getting students to move around the room without wreaking havoc is also important!

  2. John Golding says:

    Great post. I use this technique a lot in History as it gets through a great deal of information quickly, effectively and at a good pace. A variation on the theme is something I have heard called “World Cafe” – each group has different information and records it on a tablecloth over their table. As students move around the tables they add relevant info – really good for showing links between aspects of topics

    • learningspy says:

      Thanks Penny & John. Good to know jigsawing is as popular as ever. Like the table clothes idea. I really want to get hold of some ideapaint and turn my tables into whiteboards!

  3. […] Interesting article on group work / independent learning: Learning Spy […]

  4. Shanti Lall says:

    Tried a version of this today with a poem, with Year 10, with students working in groups, doing close reading of one stanza of a three stanza poem. They are to reform into groups of 3 in tomorrow’s lesson to jointly build an overall interpretation of the poem. I’m feeling pretty unsure, though: perhaps this method suits ‘information’ better than analysis of literary texts? Generally I regularly do what you might call ‘expert groups followed by feedback to whole class’. I also do the latter regularly with A Level classes. Maybe it’s being a control freak, but I do worry that when they’re struggling with a difficult text, I shouldn’t leave them on their own to pass on to their peers their misunderstandings or limited understanding.

    • learningspy says:

      A thorny issue. I really understand your concern about students not ‘getting’ texts. However, if they have to ZOOM IN and OUT showing an awareness of the big picture as well as the micro analysis of words/phrases then they should arrive at something which they can justify. At that’s the point, isn’t it? English teaching is all about defending our interpretations. Also, if we don’t give them the chance to get it wrong and learn from mistakes, how will they cope with unseen texts?

  5. […] what they’ve learned because they’ve had to work through it independently. Likewise, Jigsawing, described by Phil Beadle as ‘the ultimate teaching technique’ is by far the most […]

  6. Liz says:

    I love this technique and use it a lot to teach science (ethical areas rather than factual), my only concern is wondering about the contribution less able students can make to expert groups, and whether this will impede the learning of more able. I wonder whether I should also arrange expert groups into more/less able to avoid this.

  7. […] and successful way to impart knowledge. You doubt me? Then I guess you haven’t tried The Ultimate Teaching Technique. Oh, you have? It didn’t work? No matter. Try again. Fail better. Whatever. The purpose of […]

  8. @GeogJo says:

    I love this activity and use it a lot in Geography especially for case studies. I like how every pupils has to get involved and can’t afford to be a passenger in the lesson.
    See also the ‘Market Place’ activity in Paul Ginnis’ Teacher Toolkit for a variation on this general type of group work/peer teaching.

  9. @lukeperritt says:

    All the literature goes into detail about group sizes but nothing says what sort of group tasks they do. Lets say its a geography case study as @geogjo suggests, what do they then do with the info? Do they “teach” the others the info the do the group task or do they go straight into a task?

  10. learningspy says:

    Luke, the point is that this technique allows you to get through a large quantity of information without you having to teach any of it. In the case of a geography case study, split it up into 5 bits (or even better 5 case studies) then make sure everyone in the expert groups knows they are responsible for teaching everyone in their home group. Simples.

  11. @lukeperritt says:

    Yeah I get the idea but I still struggle with the ending. Do people think the end result should be everyone to have notes on the topic? If its about “knowing it” how do they show their understanding? What tasks are suitable for proving they’ve learnt a topic? I believe in and use the strategy but I struggle after the experts have taught their teams.

  12. RusselM says:

    A very good post indeed. Similar to David, I am a teacher who was trained with direct instruction techniques and who has on his teaching journey adapted his teaching to now work within a flexible learning space in a school that uses inquiry based learning. David has identified the contrasting pedagogical approaches that we as teachers need to objectively critique and adapt in order to promote successful and quality learning experiences within our classrooms. Robert Slavin’s book on “Cooperative Learning: Theory, Research and Practice” has good information on several cooperative learning techniques: ‘Group Investigation’; ‘Co-Op Co-Op’; and ‘Jigsaw II’. One of his underlying requirements for success in cooperative learning is accountability to a group objective. His cooperative learning techniques have been critiqued adapted by Dr Spencer Kagan in “Cooperative Learning” and Dylan Wiliam in “Embedded Formative Assessment”. Additionally, one of your fellow countrymen, Paul Ginnis, in his excellent book “The Teacher’s Toolkit”, has devised ‘Marketplace’ which has extensive and adaptable instructions for its use. It uses a good method of designing expert posters with a limited number of words on each poster to ensure communication and understanding occur and not just copying another student’s good notes. Of course you need to establish your desired learning outcome, whether it is a discussion around analysis of a topic / text or the creation of a product. No silver bullets as one size does not fit all here, but that’s what makes teaching challenging and a great vocation.

  13. @lukeperritt says:

    Just to follow up on my previous comments, this technique isnow my standard lesson, especially for case studies! I finish it with either a 20 question test (show them the questions before the activity) or an exam question which needs most of the info.

  14. […] this anticipation, we moved straight into discussing the language and structure of the scene using The Ultimate Teaching Technique and had one of those lessons where everyone feels disappointed by the bell. Well, I did anyway. And […]

  15. […] ‘jigsaw method’ is slightly more intricate. David Didau describes here how it is the “ultimate teaching method”, but that it benefits greatly from careful […]

  16. […] he calls jigsawing is what I call Home/Expert groups and this is, as I’ve said before, the Ultimate Teaching Technique. What makes it so effective is that it is focussed so tightly on ensuring individual […]

  17. […] are up to. All students are involved in the discussion.  Kagan structures are worth exploring and jigsawing (from David Didau) is another routine worth teaching.  The key is to teach group work skills […]

  18. […] by Allie Henry The Learning Spy is a reflective educational blog by David Didau. In his post, The ultimate Teaching Technique on February 14, 2012, David promotes a specific teaching technique by avoiding traditional teacher […]

  19. […] with a re-tweet of this link by Eric Wareham (@developingTandL) plus a second link from David here: “The Ultimate Teaching Technique” and  “Why group work works for […]

  20. […] he calls jigsawing is what I call Home/Expert groups and this is, as I’ve said before, the Ultimate Teaching Technique. What makes it so effective is that it is focussed so tightly on ensuring individual […]

  21. […] any more than they would of the teacher having to talk. You can, in some circumstances use a jigsawing approach, but to do this too often is inefficient, open to students’ misunderstandings, and […]

  22. […] It’s no secret that I think children learn best in groups. I’ve argued back and forth with sundry opponents who claim that group work is variously inefficient, pointless or too hard to do and have (to mind my mind at least) matched them stroke for stroke with no quarter given on either side. It seems that one of the main objections to group work is that it has in some way a constructivist, anti-knowledge agenda, and who knows? Maybe in some teachers’ minds it does. But for me, children working in groups is the most efficient, practical and successful way to impart knowledge. You doubt me? Then I’m guessing you haven’t tried The Ultimate Teaching Technique. […]

  23. […] Interesting article on group work / independent learning: Learning Spy […]

  24. […] Up to 12 months ago I always found differentiation difficult and extremely tine consuming.   I teach in a mixed ability 11-16 comprehensive school,  and often was taken to task during observations about differentiation.  Fortunately @heatexedu mentioned to me about home and away groups, so I did some research in this and based my ideas on @learningspy (http://www.learningspy.co.uk/learning/the-expert-approach-to-group-work). […]

  25. […] this anticipation, we moved straight into discussing the language and structure of the scene using The Ultimate Teaching Technique and had one of those lessons where everyone feels disappointed by the bell. Well, I did anyway. And […]

  26. […] this anticipation, we moved straight into discussing the language and structure of the scene using The Ultimate Teaching Technique and had one of those lessons where everyone feels disappointed by the bell. Well, I did anyway. And […]

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