Be Better: Spider Web Discussion and Why, Thankfully, Teachers Are Not As Important As We Thought

17 Feb

If you’ve never heard of Spider Web Discussion, then you probably haven’t spent much time with me. Spider Web Discussion is the single most useful tool in my educational toolbox. When it comes to teaching, I believe in feedback, authentic assessment, putting student learning before teachers’ interests, Essential Questions, fostering an engaging, ethical classroom environment, and asking students to do the “heavy lifting” of learning rather than to parrot my thoughts back to me; I believe all of these are crucial elements to successful learning.

So what if you had one method that incorporated all of those pedagogical elements at once? And it was free? And it required nothing more than a piece of paper and a pen?

Well, here you have it: Spider Web Discussion. Here is a method I first learned from a Harkness school I taught at in New York; in the years since I taught there, I went on to hone and develop this method into something more detailed, systematic, and closely tied to assessment and self-evaluation. I have spent the last seven years using Spider Web Discussion in my classrooms with students of varied age, ability, English level, and nationality. I’ve shared this method with hundreds of educators, both colleagues and attendees of my workshops, and they often report giddy levels of excitement about Spider Web Discussion’s effects on their students. I’ve had math, French, and elementary teachers try it — skeptically, in many cases — and fall in love with it; they find what I have found: that there is so much to gain in opening up your classroom to student-led inquiry with detailed feedback and self-assessment.

So here is a brief overview of Spider Web Discussion:

What is it?

Basically, it’s a highly-stylized version of Socratic seminar, which is a student-centered discussion on a particular topic, question, or text. In most high schools, Socratic seminar (or Harkness method, as some schools like to call it) is still driven by the teacher. While students are the ones discussing, the teacher is still the referee and master of knowledge, offering up the right question at the right moment, redirecting the conversation, correcting misunderstandings, and ensuring that students are being civil to one another.

In Spider Web Discussion, the teacher is largely silent. When I do it, I sit in the back of the room, away from the students, and I avoid eye contact with them. I have a blank notepad in front of me on which I take notes about their discussion. Who is asking the right question at the right moment, redirecting the conversation, correcting misunderstandings, and ensuring that students are being civil to one another? The students are. That’s their job, and I train them over several months to do it. By the middle of the year, they do it very well. I take a perverse pleasure in seeing how irrelevant I am in the classroom when this starts to happen every year around November (after three months of Spider Web practice) — the students themselves are far better referees and masters of knowledge than we usually give them credit for (or even allow them to attempt). In my next blog post, I’ll talk more specifically about how I train them, so stay tuned for more detail there if you are interested.

For now, though, a general overview and an invitation to go ahead and give Spider a try this week in your classroom. Dip a toe in and see what happens, whether you teach IB Chemistry or ELL, college or grade two.

Why is it called “Spider Web” discussion?

Good question. It’s an acronym for several aspects of the discussion that are key to its success:

Synergetic – it’s team-oriented, balanced, and group graded (the whole class gets a single grade for each discussion).

practiced – it’s ongoing, practiced and debriefed. It’s not a one-time activity but a process, much like writing.

independent – the teacher “interferes” as little as possible; students run the discussion and self-assess.

developed – the discussion gets deep, builds on itself, goes “somewhere.”

exploration – this is the main goal; more than discussion, it is a discussion-based exploration (of a text, Essential Question, or topic)

with a

rubric – this is the cornerstone to the whole process: to have a clear, concise rubric against which students can easily self-assess (you can make the rubric based on what you want to accomplish, but you are welcome to use/adapt some sample ones here on my wiki).

The “Web” part of the name comes from the web-like graph that one of the students or I graph to map the discussion while it’s happening and then use to debrief later.

A few key things here about Spider Web that make it very unique (and distinguish it from its cousins, Socratic seminar and Harkness):

1. On my rubric, balanced discussion and ethical behavior are front and center, right alongside providing support for ideas/argument and having deep, critical, interesting explorations. It’s amazing to see how requiring all students to speak in order for an A grade to be assigned and requiring that people not interrupt or dominate the conversation shifts the classroom dynamic. Suddenly the “leaders” are the empathic students who may not usually get to shine, and the “superstars” have to accept that being loud and dominating is not helpful to a group exploration and brings the group grade down. They must reassess what it means to be productive in this new context (hint: I usually encourage my superstars to become better question askers, to inspire even deeper levels of discussion, rather than use the crutch of always vociferously giving their insights and opinions).

2. There is a group grade. The whole class gets an A or the whole class gets a C-. There are no individual grades given for Spider Web. This is a monumental shift for students to get used to and can cause anxiety in high-school students who agonize over grades. I am careful to use the grading as a tool and not a weapon — I handle this issue delicately, and I have worked in schools that will not allow this grade to count at all. I roll with whatever environment I’m in and tread carefully here. But even if the grade is formative and doesn’t “count,” students take the task seriously because we dedicate time to process, the rubric, and the self-assessment. By November, I am no longer assigning the grade — the students are. Now that it’s February, I can say, “Look at the rubric, guys. How did we do today?” And they’ll debate with each other and usually come back with an honest answer.

3. Just because there is no individual grade does not mean there is no individual feedback. Quite the contrary — on my notepad, I’m taking copious notes in code (you can see my coding — a work in progress — here on my wiki). Since I started doing Spider Web and keeping track of these codes in my gradebook, I have a veritable treasure trove of data on individual students. Suddenly I see that Jake is an expert at referencing the text to support his and others’ arguments, but he regularly makes errors in comprehension of those passages. And since all students are required to speak, more or less equally, during the discussion in order for the class to get an A, I have a lot of data after several months — far more than I would have just correcting assignments or allowing the old discussion model (superstars dominate, shy kids stay silent and accept that they will not get top marks in participation).

4. The shy students and the superstars have to negotiate this new terrain, and it initially makes them uncomfortable. It’s amazing what happens, though, when the loud people learn that they are bringing the grade down (I mean, haven’t we been rewarding them all along for being loud and pushy with their ideas? Isn’t that “good” participation in the old model? Spider Web has made me totally rethink my position on this, as I have seen shy, quiet, and academically limited students share some of the most insightful comments ever during discussion only because the superstars had finally been asked to listen more often than dominate. Try it for yourself and see the results.) I talk openly about this difficult new terrain and how it’s hard for quiet students and loud ones alike. I don’t pretend that elephant isn’t in the room; instead, I keep reminding them that the goal is to have the best, deepest, most interesting exploration of an idea we can as a team — how can we do that if only a few people are involved?

There are a lot of good documents on the wiki if you want to try it for yourself. There is a rubric for HS (with an English focus), and a rubric for Grade 2. There is a document that tells you how to begin step-by-step if you want more detail. There are many examples of the “web” graphs to see the progression over several months — how students went from chaos and imbalance to order and balance. Here is a video about Spider Web (called Harkness in the video) from my early teaching days at a Harkness school if you want to see what it looks like in April, after nearly a year of practice.

Next week I’ll blog about how student roles can deepen the process even more. But for now, take a stab at it, no matter what your discipline. I just heard about a group of Thai language teachers at the International Community School in Thailand who are committed to Spider Web and are enjoying the fruits of it in their classes. And when I asked a colleague friend who teaches elementary school to pilot Spider for me in the second grade, she came back amazed at how much her students knew and how well they led their inquiry without her leading or prompting them.

Sometimes even we teacher “superstars” can learn from listening and watching.


14 Responses to “Be Better: Spider Web Discussion and Why, Thankfully, Teachers Are Not As Important As We Thought”

  1. Lindsay February 17, 2013 at 4:27 pm #

    Love it! Mapping has made a huge difference for my students. Can’t wait to share with you and hopefully see your SPIDER webs next year!

  2. Michaela February 17, 2013 at 4:56 pm #

    I LOVE this. I did something very similar with Socratic seminar, not talking to give students responsibility for the conversation. BUT this takes it so much further. I can’t wait to teach again so I can try it!

  3. mrtheriaultfvhs February 17, 2013 at 9:10 pm #

    Alexis: What a great idea. I’ve had my own struggles with Socratic Seminars (documented here:

    But I’ve never thought about giving the whole class the same grade. I’d have to imagine that this is super effective. Also thanks for linking to your rubric. I have a few questions:

    1. Could you post a picture of what your webmap looks like at the end of a discussion?
    2. Do you have a block schedule or do you do this over multiple periods. I struggle with getting everyone to participate in only 55 minutes if they are being encouraged to dig deep.
    3. I really value great listeners, and sometimes these students are not great talkers. I’m still trying to figure out how to reward listening vs. talking in a seminar. I have a few ideas but nothing stands out. Do you have any ideas you care to share?

    • alexisswiggins February 17, 2013 at 10:57 pm #

      Hi there; thanks for the questions.

      1. There are a bunch of web graphs on the wiki page of documents. You can see how they progress throughout the year (the first ones are all over the place, with many interruptions and a few people dominating; the later ones show far more balance and fewer interruptions.)

      2. I do have a block schedule, but I rarely do this for more than 35 or 40 minutes at a time for grades 9 and 10. At upper grades and in my IB classes, the students can go for longer, but I almost never have them discuss for more than an hour — just too long for most of them. My classes are capped at 21; a group that size needs 40 minutes or more to do this well. But you can also split the group in half and have an outer circle and an inner circle. One day the outer circle only observes and takes notes (1:1 pairing can work well there), and the next day you switch. I’ve even had two circles running simultaneously while I bounce back and forth between them (albeit late in the year, when the method was very familiar and established for all of us).

      3. Great question. This is my new “job” as a teacher. I spend a lot of time taking notes on the best points. Usually what happens early on is that some quiet kid makes a great point that everyone glosses over and no one really picks up on. During the debriefing session (leave 10 minutes after every SPIDER to debrief), we talk about specifics, and this is where I’ll highlight that great remark that no one even heard or paid attention to. I have learned that the more we can talk openly about the process (“Alex had a good point on Oedipus being blind metaphorically that no one even seemed to hear — stop and see things through”; “Jack interrupted eleven times during discussion today, cutting off several interesting comments. Let’s try to work on that next time”; “Everyone seemed to say their own point, but no one listened to the others’. There was little development. What can we do about that next time?”), the better. This is where the training and learning really lies.

      But if you provide them a clear rubric with these objectives, you’ll find that in no time you don’t need to reward anyone; they will begin to police themselves. It’s cool when it happens and a few kids are kindly chiding their peer about his interruption, or inviting a quiet classmate to the discussion.

      In my next post, I’ll talk about roles I sometimes assign to individual students to help some of these problem areas. This may go further to help address some of your concerns.

  4. Christine Fo February 18, 2013 at 4:04 am #

    Looking forward to testing the waters here…

  5. Frank McGowan February 22, 2013 at 1:20 am #

    Alexis – Thanks so much for sharing! I gave SPIDER a go this week and experienced great conversations in my classes. Students appreciated the large block of time to talk without my presence and later enjoyed the web. I wrote up the experience and look forward to my next discussion.

    • alexisswiggins February 22, 2013 at 2:13 am #

      Great post, Frank. I think you’ll enjoy the next blog post coming up in the next week — it’s all about how to deal with the pitfalls of discussion, especially with quite and talkative kids in the same bunch.

      • Frank McGowan February 22, 2013 at 3:18 am #

        I’m looking forward to it.

  6. Alicia Sullivan March 2, 2013 at 2:51 am #

    I think this strategy sounds great! I love the clarity of the set up. For teachers who are nervous to dive in, the structure decreases the risk! Thank you for sharing your rubrics as well!


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