“What will you remember about our class?” I asked my English class in May, during the last month of their senior year. My students sat quietly considering the question.
“I will remember how we would disagree, but we were still very respectful, and I just loved it. I loved how much respect we hold for one another,” one of them said.
I nodded to show that I understood and that this was also important to me. I, too, was struck by how artfully my students disagreed. In a year full of tumult, geopolitical strife and a general COVID hangover, I often found myself marveling at how my 17- and 18-year old students calmly and respectfully disagreed about a range of topics, including their perspectives on the Black Lives Matter movement and the nuances surrounding it, Donald Trump’s decisions during his presidency, and the moral complexities surrounding George’s choice to shoot Lenny in “Of Mice and Men.”
How did this happen? In short, I decided to experiment with Spider Web Discussions, a strategy that leverages the web of connections between and among learners as they volley a discussion idea back and forth. I learned about this revolutionary classroom practice in Alexis Wiggins’ 2017 book, “The Best Class You Never Taught.” The idea is simple. The teacher coaches students before and after the discussion, sharing norms and modeling sentence starters, but during the discussion, the teacher remains silent.
We practiced this strategy regularly throughout the year. During every discussion, we placed a piece of paper at the center of our circle that read: “The goal is that we understand this work and ourselves more.” This consistent goal drove our conversations and the development of a set of norms that we used to foster a culture of respect and to ensure that every voice was heard.
Over time, students developed social skills and strategies for listening and effectively expressing disagreement. I began hearing my students say things like, “I see what you’re saying, but I disagree because…” and “I hear where you are coming from, but can I ask a question?”
I had been teaching writing and English at this rural public PreK-12 school for nearly five years, but this year felt different. My students developed a real respect for civic discourse and the skills for entering into it.
That was the last class I taught at the high school before moving into my new role as an assistant professor at Peru State College in Peru, Nebraska, where I teach a course for pre-service teachers on educational technology.
Applying This Strategy to My Work With Pre-Service Teachers
Working with pre-service teachers is quite different from teaching high schoolers. One of the challenges is to find ways to model great teaching while delivering the content my students need. As I reviewed the content in my educational technology course for undergraduates to prepare for the fall, I couldn’t help but think about how there were so many complex issues that called for open dialogue, one of the most obvious and timely being pedagogical and instructional shifts related to the emergence of artificial intelligence tools. I wanted to draw from my experience with Spider Web Discussions to engage my students in thoughtful discourse around AI in the classroom and recreate that environment where students could safely disagree as some raised concerns and pitfalls, while others embraced possibilities.
I wondered if I could use the strategy to get us not just experimenting with AI tools, but also talking about ethical issues and questions that were on our minds. I decided to use the practice with a text we read, “The AI Classroom: The Ultimate Guide to Artificial Intelligence in the Classroom,” which included practical step-by-step directions that can allow both teachers and pre-service teachers to wade into the waters of AI.
Before our first Spider Web Discussion, we watched a video of high school students using the strategy, which offered a clear view of what this type of discussion looks like. It illustrated students holding their text, “Romeo and Juliet,” pointing to specific sections, asking questions and disagreeing respectfully. At no point in the video did the teacher talk. Instead, she coached her students both before and after they started.
As my students began discussing the text, I found myself wanting to say so much. But, I restrained myself and was surprised again and again to see that my students brought up all of the points I had been itching to talk about.
The Importance of Creating Safe Spaces for Open Discourse
As a social constructivist, I wasn’t surprised that in addition to student learning, this form of discourse led me to learn a lot too. Over the next few weeks, as we continued using the strategy, students — without my direction — started to send me articles, video links and movie recommendations that all tied to our discussions around AI. It was clear that the conversation was moving outside the classroom and curiosity was piqued. What surprised me most was that the ideas they shared differed so much from my own, and how that created learning opportunities for me. For example, without letting my students take the lead, I would not be thinking about the environmental implications and the morality of graduating high school students who have never used AI. This strategy allowed me to make space to learn from and with my students.
As a former high school English teacher, I can’t help thinking about Frankenstein — the moral dilemma that emerges as a theme and author Mary Shelley’s warning about the unbridled pursuit of science and technology weighs on my mind. Similar ethical issues have arisen in our discussions around AI. The thing that gives me peace is that we’re talking about these issues in our class.
We’re talking about challenges and consequences of using these tools, such as how these technologies may perpetuate racism, the impact of implicit bias in decision-making, and the risks students face from AI hallucinations and prompt drift (the decrease of a generative AI tool’s ability to follow instructions over time). We’re questioning the equity issues that arise as AI tools move behind paywalls. And as we explore tools, student’s are openly conversing about how this is affecting their pre-service teacher education. For example, is it a bad thing that just as these aspiring teachers are learning to write lesson plans, we’re exploring tools that create them — and create them fast?
As the teacher and facilitator, these questions can give me vertigo, but what I’ve found so far is that even as we zoom in on existential questions, we find our way back to classroom practicalities. The reality is that some of my students will experience frustration as they get jobs in districts that ban AI tools. Others will feel pressured to use tools despite their questions and hesitations. While Spider Web Discussions can get wobbly at times, they’ve created space for us to explore tough conversations with less fear and they’ve set us up to learn and grow together.