Spider Web Discussions as a Formative Assessment

Several years ago, I began implementing more classroom opportunities for my students to practice their verbal communication skills. Having access to unlimited technology had allowed me to support their online and written communication skills, but I still saw a lack of both oral and listening skills on the part of my juniors and seniors. There are several methodologies that I have tried with great success, but at the request of one of my good friend’s and colleagues, John McCarthy, I’m writing this detailed description on how to conduct my twist on the Harkness Discussion.

Early on in my consulting career, I was introduced to the Harkness Discussion, by a teacher who attended one of my trainings and taught AP Literature. I was intrigued by the process and did some additional research on it. There are several variations and you can view some videos on the process here.  However, I found that a few tweaks and changes were needed in order to maximize the potential of the process. The result is what I call a Spider Web Discussion, which is described in Authentic Learning Experiences: A Real World Approach to Project Based Learning.

To start a discussion, place students in a circle, but don’t assign students a specific seat. Sitting on the floor is what worked best for my students. However, a circle of chairs works just as well and may be preferable for younger students. You may use as many students as you like and my classes of thirty were used to the process. I have found, however, that middle school students should be limited to approximately 15 and elementary school students, depending on the age, should be limited to between six and ten. (I’ve done this with kindergarten students too!) If your class size is larger than the suggested size for the age level, you will need to run multiple discussion groups. Have one group of students participate in the discussion, while another group of students is working on something else such as a learning center. You could also have one group observe the discussion of the active group. This may, however, produce similar results in the information discussed, unless you use two different discussion prompts.

The next step, is to write the names of the students on a pre-made large circle that you have drawn on either chart paper or on letter size paper attached to a clip board. Place dots at regularly spaced intervals around the circle. For each dot, write a corresponding student name. If you would like, you might also decide to use numbers instead of names. Just be sure to have a corresponding list of names that relate to the assigned numbers. This suggestion came from another good friend and colleague, Tim Kubik, who mentioned numbers would allow you to show the final chart to a parent without compromising student information. The chart with the names or numbers is important for you to be able to track the discussion. You can see a sample of one of my charts that is provided as the photo for this blog.

Now, choose a prompt to start the discussion. It is up to you whether or not you want to provide the prompt in advance. I do not. Since I am using the discussion as a formative assessment of student understanding of significant content and the critical thinking about the content, in addition to communication and collaboration, I do not want to give them an advance prompt. I certainly don’t want to give students a specific reading, prior to the discussion, either. This would lead to students simply regurgitating the information that they had read and would defeat the purpose of the discussion. The prompt should be open-ended in nature to allow for rich discussion. An example prompt that I have used in my government class is, “How can we increase the active political participation of U.S. citizens?” An elementary appropriate prompt for the same topic might be, “How can we be better citizens?”

Once students begin the discussion, you completely step out of interacting with the students. Contrary to many Harkness protocols, in my version, your role, as the teacher, is to merely chart the discussion. Whoever begins the discussion (and it can be anyone) will be the dot at which you will begin the chart. Then, draw a line from the first speaker to the second speaker. The line will continue from the second speaker to the third speaker and so on for the entire discussion. This means that you might have a line that goes back and forth between two speakers several times if they are vacillating on a discussion point. That’s okay. You will also want to make any antidotal notes in the margins of the chart related to misinformation that may be discussed that you will need to address following the discussion. However, the hope is that one of the other students will be able to address this during the course of the discussion. You will also want to take note of any student who brings the conversation to the next level. These students will be eligible for additional points once the discussion has concluded.

The goal of the conversation is to have every student participate. This is definitely one of the areas in which I differ from many Harkness implementations. I don’t remind students if they haven’t participated. Nor do I assign a facilitator student to remind student if they haven’t participated. It is the responsibility of the group, as a whole, to ensure everyone participates. This is where the art of collaboration and communication can really kick in for the students. Rather than calling someone out, students learn how to draw those students, who tend to be quieter, into the discussion. They may say something like, “Sally, I know you always have great thoughts on (insert topic discussion here) and would love to hear if you have any insight on the direction the conversation has been going.” Remember, since collaboration is key, each student must participate at least once. In this respect, I assign a grade to the discussion. I only make it worth 15 points. However, every student must participate at least once in order to have the entire group receive the points. Thus, it is an all pass or an all fail endeavor. While I am not a huge proponent of grades, per se, I use the points as a bit of an incentive, at least the first few times that we conduct a Spider Web Discussion in class. Let’s face it; points are often a big piece of the educational picture for many students. After several implementations of the discussion protocol, however, points are no longer the motivating factor. The students merely want to have the discussion as a part of their communication. You know you are really onto something when the students begin asking when you are going to have another discussion! “Mrs. Laur, It’s been two weeks since our last Spider Web Discussion. Don’t you have one scheduled soon?”

Some of you may be concerned about the “all pass, all fail” methodology to the Spider Web Discussion. You are certainly free to base it off of a percentage of those who participate and often this is how the Harkness Discussion is run. Let me give you some guidelines on how to make this work without causing serious anxiety in students. The first time you run it, you know not every student will participate. At the end of the discussion, make note of the fact that you won’t grade it this time, but that students should be ready for a grade in the next discussion. During the second discussion, you probably still won’t have full participation. At the conclusion of the second discussion protocol, announce to the entire class that those who did not add to the discussion will have the opportunity to write a few paragraphs for homework that evening. The paragraphs should include the information that they would have said during the discussion, but did not. If the homework paragraphs are turned in the next day, all students will receive the points. I guarantee the peer pressure will kick in and those two or three students who did not participate will turn in written paragraphs. By the time you run the discussion for the third time, you will more than likely see all students fully participating. You may still have a few students who only speak once or twice, but that’s okay. The more frequently you run the discussions, the better the students will become at both participating and listening. This means your frequent talkers will learn to listen more as well! Also, keep in mind that the grading aspect of all pass or all fail isn’t something that you would want to implement in early elementary groups. For these students, you can feel free to use any reward point system that you may already have in place.

Earlier in this post, I mentioned the possibility of extra points. I do not like extra credit and do believe that districts should ban it. However, this is not considered extra credit. Extra credit tends to be non-germane work to the curriculum in order to boost grade averages. These extra points (and I only give three) are simply incentive for students to dive deeply into the discussion. You will probably only have two or three students who take the conversation to the next level at first. You will want to make note of this on your chart in order to debrief the process at the conclusion of the discussion. You also need to ask the group who deserves the additional points. Inevitably, the group will choose the exact students you noted. The more frequently you implement the discussions, the greater the number of students who will take the conversation to that next level. Thus, your assigning of the extra points will require deeper and deeper thinking by the students.

I run my Spider Web Discussion for the first time on the first day of class. This let’s students know they can expect something different from your classes. Perhaps you might want to try this as a new semester starts in January.  This is also a great way to assess your students’ communication and collaboration skills right from the start. You can easily identify those who are your talkers and those who are quieter, right off the bat. You can then target these students in order to scaffold the discussion process for them in other ways and through other activities in class. For example, conducting a silent debate (see page 20 in Authentic Learning Experiences) may be a way to foster this growth.

At the conclusion of the discussion, ask the group to predict the pattern of the spider web chart. This should be done before you begin to debrief the discussion points, clarify misconceptions, and note the students who deserve the extra points. Does the chart lean heavy on one side or the other for participation? Does the chart look like a true spider web that is evenly spaced? Students get very good at knowing the pattern of the web and this helps them to determine seating for future discussions. Students learn where they should and should not sit during the discussion. If two students are talkers, they don’t want to sit next to one another!

The more frequently you implement a Spider Web Discussion in your classroom, the more you foster communication and collaboration growth with your students. You also are able to continually formatively assess these skills in your students in order to provide appropriate supports in the classroom. Additionally, you are formatively assessing the content knowledge and the critical thinking of the content for each of your students. This, too, promotes planning for any scaffolding of the content that you may need to do for a student, a small group of students, or the entire class of students.

I look forward to hearing how you implement a Spider Web Discussion in your classrooms. You may even get brave enough to try it in a faculty meeting or in a teacher training session. In any case, building communication and collaboration skills in teachers and students alike is important for growth and learning.

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  1. Dayna,

    Thank you so much for writing this! I have used the Harkness method and another called the Fish Bowl, but I love your Spider Web. What I am really thankful for is how much discussion you provide about the grading because that has always been difficult for me and for others I talk to. I hope everything is going well with you!


  2. I just wanted to say thank you very much for taking the time to write this up. I have a discussion class here in Bangkok with university students, and I’m sure this activity will generate something new in the classroom

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