SPIDER WEB discussion in the classroom increases student engagement and provides a vehicle for improving student skills in the area of dialogue. In her book The Best Class You Never Taught: How SPIDER WEB Discussion Can Turn Students Into Learning Leaders, Alexis Wiggins notes the following additional benefits of regularly employing the SPIDER WEB discussion practice that she has observed in her own classroom (pp. 132-141):
- Better Assessment Data on Individual Students: All the coding involved in monitoring discussion and creating the web graph provides teachers with a tremendous amount of data on individual students. That data makes it easier to identify things students do well and things that need improvement.
- Increase in Homework Completion: Students generally do no want to look bad in front of their peers, so they will do homework in order to meet the participation requirements. Students understand that for a SPIDER WEB to work, all strands must be firmly attached. No one wants to be the weak strand.
- An Ethical and Safe Classroom Environment: Since SPIDER WEB discussion results in a group grade, students are more willing to step out of their typical behavior to participate (i.e. the students who are shy are more willing to speak, and the students who are overly talkative are more willing to sit back and listen). Students are more willing to ask good, open-ended questions, often questioning thoughts and beliefs that may have otherwise been taboo in class (i.e. race, religion, beliefs, values, and the like).
- Greater Student Autonomy: Students are frequently their own best teacher. SPIDER WEB discussion gives students voice in their learning process, and it allows the students to learn from each other, which allows the teacher to take on a coaching role.
- Opportunities for Greater Equity: SPIDER WEB discussion lends itself to equal participation in class. This helps students of all varieties find a voice in the classroom. SPIDER WEB discussion can be enhanced by allowing students to write questions and responses for sharing discussion, further strengthening writing for all students.
SPIDER WEB discussion, as a pedagogical practice, can be regularly used in classrooms of all grade levels and content areas. Over time, students and teachers are likely to become more comfortable with the process, thus increasing student engagement and voice. Keep trying the practice in your classroom. You and your students will learn much in the process!
If students are to improve their communication and collaboration skills, they will require feedback related to current levels of performance. In her book The Best Class You Never Taught: How SPIDER WEB Discussion Can Turn Students Into Learning Leaders, Alexis Wiggins promotes the use of a rubric for assessing SPIDER WEB discussions. According to Wiggins (pp. 17-22), the rubric should:
- Clearly identify the goals for the discussion.
- Clearly identify the skills to be increased.
- Clearly define the outcomes to achieved.
- Be used by students to reflect and self-assess.
While I concur with Wiggins’ recommendations regarding the rubric, I would also add one more recommendation:
- The rubric should be student generated if at all possible.
Students of all ages are capable of understanding and articulating what they should know and how they will demonstrate their new knowledge. Several years ago I taught a 4th grade music composition class, and I asked the group to develop the rubric used to assess the music generated. Our dialogue about what makes a good composition (harmony, melody, form, contrast, rhythm, etc.) demonstrated that they had a significant understanding of the content, and I found that the students were far more demanding than I would have been regarding their compositions. I was quite shocked and impressed at the same time. In the end, they produced some rather high quality compositions, they could explain them in appropriate terms, and they were fully engaged in the assessment process.
As you begin to develop plans for your SPIDER WEB discussions, think of ways to engage students in the development of the rubric to be used for assessment purposes. I believe you and your students will learn much and enjoy the journey!