Discussion Webs are a great way to engage students in meaningful conversation and spark critical thinking at the same time. Included: Tons of ideas for active discussions across the curriculum and across the grades!
It's time to dust the cobwebs off your old discussion routines and introduce your students to -- Discussion Webs!
Discussion Webs are "a special kind of graphic aid for teaching students to look at both sides of an issue before drawing a conclusion." They help students to organize their thinking, examine (and learn tolerance for) other points of view, and draw richer understanding from the materials they read.
But Discussion Webs aren't just for reading. Creative teachers use discussion webs across the curriculum. And Discussion Webs aren't just for use in middle schools and high schools. Kindergarten and first-grade teachers are using them, too!
AN APPROACH THAT INVOLVES ALL STUDENTS
If Discussion Webs were homes to spider families, the Spider "Queen" would be Donna E. Alvermann, a professor of education at The University of Georgia. It is Alvermann's treatise on Discussion Webs (published in The Reading Teacher back in October 1991) that many turn to as the definitive work on the subject.
Often, in what passes for "classroom discussion," a few highly verbal students monopolize the stage, notes Alvermann. But the Discussion Web approach involves students -- all students -- in the process.
It does that by incorporating an adaptation of a discussion approach called think-pair-share. Using this approach, students are asked to respond to a yes-no thinking question. Then:
"By talking with partners and pairs of partners prior to engaging in whole-class discussion, students have multiple opportunities to interact," explains Alvermann in "The Discussion Web: A Graphic Aid for Learning Across the Curriculum."
"This type of discussion differs from the more traditional pattern of classroom interaction in which teachers call on students to respond one at a time," Alvermann adds. "Small group discussions also encourage active participation by shy or quiet students and by students whose first language is not English."
DISCUSSION WEBS INCORPORATE ALL FOUR LANGUAGE ARTS
The Discussion Web, as defined by Alvermann, has its basis in an article written by James Duthie in The History and Social Science Teacher. Duthie used what he called the Web Outline to help his students write analytical essays in response to classroom readings.
The physical layout (we'll get to that in a second!) of the Discussion Web is similar to Duthie's Web Outline. But Alvermann has broadened the approach and incorporated the think-pair-share strategy. The Discussion Web differs from the Web Outline in several distinct ways, Alvermann says:
"The Discussion Web approach can be used with students of all ages," says MaryEllen Vogt in Lively Discussions!, published by the International Reading Association. Vogt provides several examples of the Discussion Web strategy in action across the grades.
For very young children, Vogt provides the example of Nancy Shaw's Sheep series, published by Houghton Mifflin (Sheep on a Jeep, Sheep in a Ship, Sheep in a Shop, Sheep Out to Eat...). Teachers love these books for the language and phonics skills they teach. And kids love them for the goofy fun, the humorous illustrations, and the rhyming text.
Vogt uses young children's exposure to these delightful books as the basis for discussion. She poses to students this question: Would sheep make good pets?
Vogt follows a Discussion Web form prescribed by Whisler and Williams (see references):
This is how one pair of students might have responded in the second step above:
Source: Lively Discussions!, p. 189
DISCUSSION WEBS ACROSS THE GRADES AND THE CURRICULUM
The simple format demonstrated above could be used across the grades and across the curriculum, Vogt says.
"Older students might debate the merits of current events issues, political questions, or decisions that were made in years past," explains Vogt. "For example, students might respond to the question Given the information he had, should General George Custer have mounted his attack?"
"The Discussion Web works equally well with narrative and expository text," Vogt adds.
Alvermann, in her article in The Reading Teacher, provides many examples of Discussion Webs as they've been used by teachers across the grades. Among her examples are these:
Jeanne Swafford, an associate professor of language literacy education at Texas Tech University, uses Alvermann's article to introduce her college students to Discussion Webs as a classroom strategy.
Swafford provides students with ideas for literature-based Discussion Web questions and solicits additional ideas from her students. Among the examples she shares are:
MOVING UP THE GRADES
The higher up in the grades you go, the more potential uses for Discussion Webs! Questions relating to literature can become more involved. The opportunities for using Discussion Webs across the curriculum widen. And as students polish their critical thinking and debating skills, they are able to handle more involved issues.
Swafford uses the Discussion Web strategy across the curriculum. In a paper she presented at the World Congress on Reading (1990), she suggested a number of possibilities for using Discussion Webs including:
The two children, 9-year-old Susan and 11-year-old Mario, delivered 3 dozen cookies to their neighbor. If the cookies sold for 90 cents a dozen, how much money should Susan and Mario collect?
Students label one side of the Discussion Web "relevant" and the other side "irrelevant." Then they sort the number facts presented in the problem into two categories -- that information needed to solve the problem and that information that is unneeded. (For example, in the problem above, the numbers two, 9 and 11 are irrelevant numbers; the numbers 3 and 90 are the relevant numbers.)
Another possible literature-related use for Discussion Webs from Alvermann's article: Students might use the Discussion Web to analyze an author's perspective. For example, after reading E.B. White's Charlotte's Web, students might be asked to respond to the question Did E.B. White believe in animal rights?
USING DISCUSSION WEBS TO TEACH DIFFICULT CONCEPTS
Discussion Webs can be used to teach difficult-to-understand concepts -- concepts that often contradict students' experiences and ideas, says Swafford. For example, a Discussion Web could be created that has at its center the question (concept) "Why Do the Seasons Change?"
"In the column on one side of the question, students record what they think before they engage in reading and other classroom experiences," Swafford explains. "As students gather information about why seasons change from other sources, they list that information in the second column."
"Throughout their study of the seasons, students have the opportunity to discuss the information they add to their Web," continues Swafford. "If the information they've learned contradicts their original ideas about why the seasons change, that cognitive dissonance will hopefully help them to modify or change their ideas to more closely match the scientific explanation."
"A study done in the early 90s by Guzzetti found Discussion Webs to be one of the most beneficial strategies for promoting conceptual change," adds Swafford.
MORE SUGGESTIONS FOR ADVANCED DISCUSSION WEBBERS!
In a 1996 Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy article, authors Julie Fisher Robertson and Donna Rane-Szostak provide a two-step approach for students to analyze written dialogues for bias and errors in thinking. They offer a laundry list of questions that might serve as fuel for their approach. Some of those questions would be perfect ones for applying the Discussion Web strategy and format at the upper grades:
The possibilities for using Discussion Webs in the classroom are endless. They are limited only by the creativity of teachers. No! The possibilities aren't even limited by that! Because once the strategy is used -- once students grow familiar and comfortable with it -- the students are bound to start coming up with their own questions!
And the benefits of using Discussion Web strategies are many.
Perhaps James Barton best summed up the value of Discussion Webs (and other graphic organizers) in a recent Journal of Reading article: "To put it simply, the human mind craves organization... [Webs] are one practical way of giving the mind what it requires."
Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 2002 Education World
Last Updated 11/15/2011