The Spider Web Approach: How to Facilitate Effective Online Discussions

By Alexis Wiggins

Most of us are facing another school year in which at least part of our classroom work will need to be translated to an online environment. Some teachers worry that it isn’t possible in the distance learning environment to have the kind of effective discussions facilitated in the classroom, but I’m here to say that by following some key protocols and staying flexible, teachers can absolutely design for strong online discussions.

I’ve spent the last 15 years immersed in the research, design, and practice of student-led discussions. It began with a job early in my career at a Harkness School and eventually developed into a method I call Spider Web Discussion, which asks teachers to train students how to begin, facilitate, and assess their own discussions while the teachers themselves are mostly silent. (You can see it in action in a ninth-grade classroom here.) In the current environment, I’m getting a lot of questions about how to conduct class discussion online.

Here are my tips for success:

1. Lay the Groundwork and Set Protocols.

In Spider Web Discussion, the students themselves learn how to ask and discuss the big, important questions. The results in my classes year after year: deeper learning, stronger critical thinking, better data on every student, greater empathy developed through listening and question asking, and higher student engagement.

I always introduce Spider Web Discussion in a full lesson the first time. Part of the introduction includes sharing with them this 10-minute video of what it looks like in practice. Then I share the rubric, and we discuss their impressions and questions about what’s on it. I’d encourage you to make your own rubric for your course/age group; just ensure that it’s easily assessed in a yes/no format. Then I choose an engaging multimedia text for our first discussion (two favorites for HS students are Spike Jonze’s short film How They Get There and Ryan Lewis’s music video for the song “Fake Empire.”). I put a reasonable amount of time on the clock (I suggest 30-35 minutes for HS grade; 20-25 minutes MS; 10-15 minutes for ES) and during that time, they are completely responsible for the discussion. My role is to graph the conversation and take notes for the feedback session at the end. I don’t save the students, even from uncomfortable, awkward silence. They must save themselves. If we step in as the adult who fixes things, they will look to us each time, rather than looking within themselves or to each other for the answers.

When the time is up, I enter the conversation and we debrief. I share the graph of the conversation, and we talk about how everyone did or didn’t participate and unpack how or why that happened without blame. I ask them to self-assess the discussion on the rubric and choose a formative (no-count) group grade that I agree with. I ask what they can do better next time to improve upon today’s discussion and share my ideas.

As long as all of your students have internet capability and a platform for synchronous videoconferencing, all of this can be done online just as it is in person. When my school moved to distance learning last March, my students had no trouble adapting to online discussions. These are the key first steps for successful online discussions.

2. Follow the Non-Negotiables.

Secondly, I’ve learned that the best discussions adhere to four principles that I never compromise on, key elements that can make the difference between discussions that sink or swim. Here they are:

Non-Negotiable #1: Students must all be able to see one another. In the physical classroom, this means sitting in an oval or square format so everyone can see everyone else. In a platform like Zoom, it means we need everyone’s camera on and showing their whole face so we can read each other’s verbal and emotional cues.

Non-Negotiable #2: The teacher must stay silent throughout the agreed-upon discussion time. If you interfere or save them once, they will expect you to do so every time. Even if you’re uncomfortable with their reasoning or misunderstandings during discussion time, let them go as long as you possibly can to see if a student will correct or redirect instead of you doing so: 99% of the time, the students will get where you want them to without you if you just bite your tongue and wait a little longer. (The only exception to this rule is if there is any emotional harm being experienced by students during the discussion. In these instances, you should intervene.)

Non-Negotiable #3: Leave 10-20 minutes at the end of the discussion for debrief time. The debrief is as important as the discussion itself. I cannot stress this enough; the content alone is not enough for deep learning — deep learning happens as much or more from the meta-cognitive, reflective unpacking of that learning and inquiry. Feedback is crucial to getting better at discussion. Ask students what went well, what they could have done better, what were the most interesting moments of discussion, what they felt about the collaborative endeavor.

Non-Negotiable #4: Using a clear, simple rubric, have students self-assess their discussion and choose a group grade. The group grade is the keystone to the method; it ensures students are working as a team, not in competition with each other for talk time. Over the course of a year, you’ll see how this collaborative approach reduces the chaotic, scattered nature of early discussions and develops them into deeper, more sustained, more balanced discussions. It’s a long-term process; my students almost always score themselves in the C or D range in the early weeks and months, and it can take half a year or more to get into the A range.

For me, the grades are always formative — symbolic — but we note and track them as a record of our progress. Make sure you agree with the grade for the day; if not, debrief a little more with them as to why you feel the grade is too high or too low. Note it, and for your next discussion, ask students to recap what they learned from the previous one and what a couple of goals might be for that day’s discussion. Over time, this cycle of collaborative inquiry with meta-cognitive feedback will keenly develop students’ overall understanding and social skills.

3. Stay Flexible and Open.

While I have had success in designing really effective discussions online using the above protocols, we need to be flexible and open to the fact that in this new distance environment, some plans may have to be adjusted or abandoned. If you try the protocols and non-negotiables above and after a couple of weeks it just isn’t working, don’t be afraid to try something else.

There are tech tools that can help you track your discussions, such as Equity Maps, and great online discussion platforms like Parlay Ideas, which works for both synchronous and asynchronous, typed discussions.

I have classes of 18-20 students, and I find that to be a manageable number for a single, sustained Zoom discussion, but if you have bigger class sizes than that or feel that smaller groups would work better for your population, consider how you might utilize synchronous class time to split your groups into different discussion days or times; perhaps one group uses an online discussion board while the other half is live over Zoom, and then you swap groups on the following class day. If you have mature, trustworthy students, you could use breakout rooms to split the discussion groups and bounce between them during class.

And don’t be afraid to try something totally different: a colleague of mine found online discussions just weren’t working for her the same way in her interactive, performance-based Shakespeare course, so she chose to have students posting performances in Flipgrid and engaging in asynchronous discussions there in the comments section. Ultimately, it’s not about one magic bullet approach; it’s about being adaptable, creative, and responsive to our students’ needs in this unprecedented time.

It is possible to design an online discussion environment that leads to strong critical thinking, deep inquiry, and enhanced interpersonal skills. It takes some time and energy to lay the groundwork and set up effective protocols, but I believe it is time well spent. I start teaching online again in just a week, and I can’t wait to start discussions.

Let’s not toss aside great teaching and learning tools because we fear they can’t be used as effectively online; let’s trust in the research, lean into our tech tools, and apply tested protocols so we can make online discussions not only possible, but effective.


Alexis Wiggins has worked as a teacher, instructional coach, and consultant. Her book, The Best Class You Never Taught: How Spider Web Discussion Can Turn Students into Learning Leaders (ASCD), helps transform classrooms through collaborative inquiry. Alexis is currently the English Department Chair at The John Cooper School in The Woodlands, TX. You can contact her at www.ceelcenter.org.

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