Spiderweb Discussions

Recently I had the opportunity to hear Alexis Wiggins talk about Spider Web Discussions, a topic I had never even heard of before. I was immediately hooked on this mindset as she shared findings on research good managers that apply to the work that we do in schools to prepare students for their future. One example is that the Google Project “Oxygen” did a study that resulted in a finding of 8 top qualities of good managers:

  1. Is a good coach
  2. Empowers the team and does not micromanage
  3. Expresses interest in and concern for team members’ success and personal well -being
  4. Is productive and results-oriented
  5. Is a good communicator–listens and shares information
  6. Helps with career development
  7. Has a clear vision and strategy for the team
  8. Has key technical skills that help him or her advise the team

What is most interesting about this list is that the top 7 qualities are all soft skills, with the 8th being technical skills or content specific.  As educators, we often believe our content is the most critical for our students, however, it is the soft skills (and their own ability to learn on their own) that will help them be successful. Furthermore, it does not matter what grade or subject you teach, you can give students experiences to build the soft skills to help prepare them for their future!

How does she advocate for teaching students the soft skills? Through the use of  Spider Web Discussion. Basically, you give your class some essential questions to discuss (no matter your grade or subject) with the goals of having all involved in the discussion and then you sit back and do not engage in the conversation at all. (You would do more than just that little bit I just gave you to get this started, but you would have to read more of Wiggins’s work for the full details).  You keep track of the class discussion, by creating a spider web to show how the conversation flowed and keep track of other notes, such as who asked a question, if a student cited the text, if someone used language to agree with someone, etc.

After the discussion, you share the documentation with the class to look at the goals–did everyone contribute? Did one person talk more than others? Did they cite the text, did they ask questions to keep the conversation going, etc. You can have individual conversations with students that aren’t contributing or that dominate discussion and even assign individual roles.

Once I learned about this I told Alexis that I was excited to try this in the grad class that I teach and made sure to tweet her a picture of my spider web afterwards. When she replied to ask how it went, I realized I had to blog about it, because my response was too much for 140 characters!

So, here is the spiderweb and my reflections from our class discussion:

  • I gave the class some guiding questions for their discussion (on the book they read), but let them know they did not have to follow them in order and could come up with their own for discussion.
  • I told them my goal was for them to discuss for at least 20 minutes and then I set the stopwatch on my phone so I could keep an eye on time.
  • When they got started I glanced at my phone several times in the first few minutes to see how long we had been at it. But after about 4 minutes I didn’t look again.
  • It was so slow/awkward to start in the beginning and I realized that I was watching as each person talked and they looked to me, almost for affirmation, but I had told them I would not talk so I said nothing. From then on I just looked down and took notes and did NOT look up. This was very hard for me to do, because I felt like I was being rude, but I did not want them looking at me for the discussion, I wanted them to engage with each other in this discussion.
  • I started marking some letters next to names to indicate A-used agreement language, Q-asked a question, C-cited the text and a star if they said something very insightful. I struggled with the star, because many of them shared some very insightful comments. A teacher could make any markings/documentation based on what you are wanting students to grow in when having a discussion. Your skills in documenting/key for what you are documenting would surely grow with more experience.

Just from one attempt at a spider web discussion, I see SO much value in this activity and the self-assessment discussion that takes place after as a class, so that all students are learning and growing together! Just think about how much students will learn from one another in these discussions, how your ELL students will benefit, and how you will know if your students understand the content that was being discussed.  I am very excited to get Wiggins’s book that is out this month from ASCD:

A great example of a Spider Web Discussion, with her explaining it in the second half of the video can be found here:

You can also find many resources on her website HERE.


Reference: Project Oxygen: 8 Ways Google Resuscitated Management

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Dave Nelson

    Dear Jessica,

    Alexis Wiggins brings her tools to life for educators and students. It is leaders like yourself who encourage others to try something new and demonstrate a willingness to be vulnerable – your grad students are obviously lucky. I enjoyed reading your post and look forward to reading Alexis’ book as well.

    I think that the most important element of her work is the post reflection and conference piece, where students really consider the benefits of dialogue, listening, and informed collaboration while also discovering ways to individually improve the soft skills each time. Ultimately, when we develop ways to deepen not only the discussions but also the reflection, our students benefit! It was through learning about Alexis’ work, in addition to the work of Socratic Seminar gurus like John Zola, when I sought to create an iPad app to help us enrich these experiences in the classroom as well.

    Check out #equitymaps or at equitymaps.com to see our start! I’m looking forward to reading more of your work.

    Have a great school year!

    Dave Nelson
    International Educator (High School Social Studies)
    Creator of Equity Maps

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