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Goodbye Harkness, Hello Spider Web

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I’m going to be presenting at Authentic Education’s UbD conference in October at the American School of Paris (full disclosure: Grant Wiggins, AE’s founder and president, is my dad and a big inspiration to my work as teacher, writer, and consultant). I pitched AE my Harkness workshop and they liked it; they wanted me to present it as a way of “making meaning” within the UbD framework. But there was one condition: change the name.

The reason is, they argued, that “Harkness” doesn’t really mean anything. It’s the last name of the man that donated a lot of money to Exeter in the 1930s when he decided there had to be a better way to learn than rote memorization. The round tables in the classrooms there and at other “Harkness schools” are known as Harkness tables, and students are meant to engage in Socratic seminars around them instead of just taking notes from the teacher.

All well and good, but, as the big guns at AE pointed out, it doesn’t really describe what I do. The way I do Harkness is not the way Exeter does it, or how anyone else I know really does it: First, I say as little as possible; I try not to interfere in their own discovery of the work. After years of doing this, I’m always humbled by how regularly they can touch on all the “important” points I would have myself without my doing it for them. I give them feedback at the end but try to allow them the freedom to explore their ideas independent of me as much as possible. Second, the discussion requires balanced, thoughtful teamwork, and key to the process is the group grade. The group grade is the keystone; it changes how all of us understand our job during discussion and turns the act into one of true teamwork and empathy, instead of a competition. Third, students in my classes always self-assess their own performance based on a rubric once they are comfortable doing so (usually within the first month). Again, independence and self-sufficiency.

Once I started thinking of all the ways I did “Harkness” differently than Harkness schools out there, I began to see the potential benefit to a new name. Many people call “Harkness Method” Socratic Seminar, and they are quite interchangeable terms; but I felt that this term, too, lacked the connotations I wanted to make sure were explicit in the name: student-led, team-oriented, group graded, ongoing and developed (never a “one-off” activity), and self-assessed. My dad and his partner were right: I needed an entirely new name. And, with special thanks to my husband for his help, I’ve come up with one:┬áSpider Web Discussion.

Spider is an acronym for the individual elements of the way I run my discussions:

Synergetic – team-oriented, balanced, group graded

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

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

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

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

with a

rubric – key to the whole process is a clear, concise rubric against which students can easily self-assess

So that’s the Spider part — each letter specifically spells out an aspect of the process so that teachers can remember and be cognizant of all of them working together.

“Web” is both a practical description for what the graphing looks like when I (or a student) graphs the conversation on a piece of paper, and also a metaphor for the process itself: a spider web must have all of its strands working equally to pull their weight in order for the web to be functional and beautiful. So, too, with our discussions — each student is a strand, and the web is the entire discussion.

So there you have it — Spider Web Discussion. (Adios, Harkness!)

I’m so grateful that I was pushed to take a harder look at what I was calling this process and why I was calling it that. I feel like Spider Web Discussion is a much more specific, accurate name for this process I have honed and found to be so powerful in the classroom.

My students dig it, too. They have turned the name into a verb already and now begin class by saying, “Let’s spider.”

For further info on Spider Web, such as rubrics, research, and a “how-to” on getting started in your class, please see my wiki.

12 thoughts on “Goodbye Harkness, Hello Spider Web

  1. I love it, too! I’ve been using your mapping this year, and love it. Something I’ve added with my iPad–mapping the discussion on my iPad with the students watching (during the discussion). I can also insert little reminders if I want to, although I also stay out of the seminars (webs!) for the most part.

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  3. I love the framework that you have set up here… it’s very similar to what I’m already doing in Socratic Seminar, but I think I might have to steal your “SPIDER” name- it’s more more clear. A few questions though… would be be able to explain the mapping aspect to more more? How do you complete that as they talk? Also, what do you base your rubric on? I’ve been modifying mine, but I’m still not happy. I would love to see samples of what you have because it sounds like it’s so similar to what I’m already doing. I love you ideas! Thanks-
    PS- I’m an IB grad and am thankful a hundred times over for that program!

    1. Hi Erika,

      Check out my wiki page, where you can find a lot of SPIDER Web resources, including rubrics for HS and ES, tips on how to start, and sample web graphs, which you graph simply by starting the pen near a student’s name and drawing a line to the next person that speaks, and so on, including all interruptions and back and forths).

      You don’t need to request access to see and use all the content — just click away:

      1. Alexis, you’re thinking is brilliant. What struck me is that your planning is intentional and explicit yet requires a gradual release of responsibility-something many educators seem to overlook. You recognize the need for students to take pride in their thinking. (I’m sure it didn’t go unnoticed that your acronym resorted spells PRIDES.)
        I look forward to reading more about your work!

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