Book Review: The Best Class You Never Taught

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The Best Class You Never Taught by Alexis Wiggins is an excellent resource for teachers who are courageous enough to take that next step in engaging their students.  All of the research about Generation Z, our current high school students, will tell you that they don’t need adults to give them information, they need adults to help them wisely interpret information.  Want to try that out?  Ask a group of teenagers anything about when something happened to where some famous person is from…they will whip out their phone in a split second and solve that for you.  We have to train students to think more deeply than that so that they can truly engage with things that really matter.  Tim Elmore, founder of Growing Leaders, puts it this way, “They don’t need a sage on the stage anymore, they need a guide on the side.”  Wiggins book about Spider Web Discussion moves the center of power in the classroom into a great spot of student accountability which gives them a chance to support each other and challenge each other to a higher level of learning than we’d likely ever achieve from simply requiring the traditional…teacher tell, teacher ask, student answer.

Spider Web Discussion is risky because it takes a lot of class time to implement correctly.  When implemented correctly, it not only helps students engage the material beyond the text and the lecture, it allows them to develop the soft skills that every employer will tell you that they are looking for in hiring.  Do you truly want your students to be ready to make an impact in their lives?  As a Christian school leader, my hope and prayer is that our students will truly be equipped to have a seat at the table of influence in the communities that they will work in, raise their families in, and serve for the rest of their days.  If we want to impact the world for Christ, it starts with teaching our students to be thinkers that ask great questions.

I highlighted several things while reading and have typed out my notes below…

  • Today’s most competitive jobs go to candidates who can both lead and listen, innovate and question, see the big picture as well as the small details. p. 4
  • Spider Web Discussion is a classroom philosophy, not a one-off activity.  It’s a culture.  It’s about understanding that learning is a complex process that plays out over time, through allowing students to grapple with challenging questions, ideas, and people.  The Process of Spider Web Discussion trains students to work together collaboratively in solving problems and to self-assess that process.  The result is deep, high-level inquiry led and assessed by the students themselves, whether they are in 2nd grade social studies or high school geometry.  Teachers using Spider Web Discussion aim to create authentic collaborators, communicators, and self-evaluators through ongoing, sustained discussion and assessment. p. 5
  • Once the goals of collaborative inquiry and teamwork were clear to the students, the assessment design seemed logical to them. p. 7
  • The name, Spider Web Discussion, is an acronym that describes all the components of the method: The name is an acronym, describing the specific aspects of the discussion and its process: S ynergetic – a collaborative, group effort with a single group grade p rocess – a process that must be practiced and honed i ndependent – students work independently; teacher observes and gives feedback d eveloped – a developed, sustained discussion that aims to “get somewhere” e xploration – an exploration of ideas, texts, or questions through discussion with a r ubric – a clear, specific rubric against which the students can self-assess. p. 9
  • Web - A word that describes two aspects of the method: 1. The physical map of the discussion 2. A metaphor for the process — like a web, all participants must pull their own weight equally, or the web cannot be strong. p. 9
  • Spider Web Discussion captures the essence of what the technique aims to do: create graduates who are skilled collaborators, listeners, problem solvers, power relinquishers, and leaders. p. 9
  • A 2015 study by an associate professor of education and economics at Harvard University highlights how, since 1980, jobs requiring social skills have grown more than other types of jobs. p. 10
  • “We don’t need good note takers — we need students who can hold up ideas to the light and challenge, question, tests, and hypothesize about them.  We need leaders who can ask deep questions and leaders who can also sit back and listen, learning from others.” Professor Eric Mazur, Dean of Applied Physics, Harvard University, p. 14
  • You have to ask yourself, “What student behavior and learning outcomes do I want to see the students master in our class?” p. 17
  • I do not, under any circumstances, jump in and save them from their silence.  I learned early on not to save them, or the process of building independence would be delayed or snuffed out. p. 27
  • Make yourself look busy and let them take responsibility for their own ideas and collaboration. p. 28
  • Effective collaboration and teamwork is slow, steady work. p. 29
  • It can be refreshingly humbling to see how much students can do without you.  p. 31
  • Spider Web Discussion four nonnegotiable principles:
    1. Students must sit in a circle so that they can easily see everyone, face-to-face.
    2. The teacher must be silent throughout the agreed-upon discussion time, only observing (unless the discussion is causing emotional harm to any student).  In addition, the teacher must sit outside the circle of students, in a chair that is the same or similar to the students’ chairs.
    3. After the discussion time has ended, there must always be from 10 to 20 minutes allotted for the students to self-assess, provide and receive feedback, debrief the discussion process and content, and set one or two concrete goals for next time.
    4. Using clear and easily assessed criteria, the students decide on a group grade and the teacher either agrees or tweaks it based on specific criteria and feedback.  This grade should be no count and recorded in a grade book.  p. 31
  • Education is moving away from considering content as the most important component of learning. p. 32
  • “Were all instructors to realize that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth something hardly less than a revolution in teaching would be worked.” John Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916/2009), p. 304, p. 32
  • A rubric, which is really just physical evidence of group norming, helps the group keep the end goals in mind and allows them to self-assess accurately, creating direction and accountability. p. 33
  • At the end of the day, we all need to feel safe and supported in order to do our best work; students are no exception.  If we focus only on the acquisition of content, we lose sight of what is truly essential in learning: experience and meaning making.  Just like adults, students learn more when they feel safe and secure enough in their critical explorations to take risks, ask provocative questions, challenge the status quo, an admit when they don’t understand and seek clarification.  p. 35
  • Over the years, the coding became a treasure trove of data on each student that helped me not only see students’ weaknesses but also see their strengths, specifically ones that are not usually assessed. p. 39
  • Playing coach rather than judge as students engage with messy complex ideas through messy, complex collaboration will create a classroom of highly engaged, empathetic critical thinkers. p. 42
  • The barrier for most teachers, especially in high school, is the belief that there isn’t time for application, collaboration, and meaning making, because there is just too much material to get through.  We need to move away from this type of thinking, not because we are opposed to rote learning or traditional modest of teaching but because the research is clear.  The brain works best with practical, problem-solving models. Students learn better and retain more when they are allowed interactive, problem-based, and collaborative learning opportunities.  We cannot cling to tradition in the face of good evidence; it is every teacher’s responsibility to know what leads to the best learning outcomes and to adapt his teaching. p. 54
  • I’ve realized over the years that the best discussions always look more beautiful on paper.  Just like a spider web in nature, the graph from Spider Web Discussions reflects that beauty of a balanced conversation based on listening and quality contribution. p. 80
  • In order to ask great questions, you need to be an astute listener and be able to detect the bigger picture — the themes that tie the conversation together. p. 82
  • The superstars and the shy kids have their place in the world, but we aren’t doing our students any favors by rewarding them for behavior that runs counter to productive collaboration.  The greatest learning opportunities for students come when we challenge them in just the right ways, pushing them a bit outside their comfort zones so they can experience a new way of thinking or working. p. 91
  • At the root of the anxiety students and their parents feel about grades is the power dynamic.  Rightly or not, most students view the teacher as having the power to help or hurt them on their path to success through the grades the teacher “gives” them. p. 117
  • “In environments where extrinsic rewards are most salient, many people work only to the point that triggers the reward—and no further.  So if students get a prize for reading three books, many won’t pick up a fourth, let alone embark on a lifetime of reading.” Daniel Pink, Drive, 2009, p. 56-57, p. 121
  • Spider Web Discussion offers students the chance to develop autonomy as they facilitate and assess their own discussions; the chance to achieve mastery as they engage in deep, critical thinking, listening and empathy skills; and the chance to find purpose through discussion meaningful texts and finding their own voices. p. 122
  • Another unexpected result that many teachers and I have discovered is that students are often perfectly find with letting their teachers down by not completing assignments or giving their all, but those habits and attitudes can change abruptly when they are letting their peers down.  Almost no student wants to b the one who looks bad and brings the group grade down because he didn’t complete the reading and can’t contribute—even when the grade doesn’t count. p. 134
  • Giving students a voice helps make them autonomous and encourages buy-in.  If the homework is designed not as busy work but as a piece of the puzzle that the students must put together during class, then they understand that their part is important and that they have a chance to contribute. p. 134
  • When the entire group is rewarded for being engaged and digging deep, student become more aware of their peers and more empathetic. p. 135
  • I would never agree that students know as much as the teacher or that they can direct the class better than the teacher, but the research supports the notion that if we want to produce graduates who are adept at empathy, inquiry, and collaboration, then we need to give the students ample space and time to hone those skills during our classes each and every day. p. 144
  • One of the best and most eye-opening professional development experiences I have ever had is filming my teaching and watching it.  I strongly suggest that you film yourself on a regular teaching day and watch it. p. 146
  • The goal of Spider Web Discussion is to help students—and educators—develop lifelong skills that benefit us as individuals and as a society.  With sustained practice of the method in your classroom, you can create a culture in which collaboration, empathy, autonomy, and equity are within everyone’s reach. p. 149

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