In June 2019, following a conversation with Joe Sanders about his successful Politics inquiry, Michael Carter from the Economics department came to me to discuss designing a unit for the new Year 12 in the first 2 weeks in September 2019. His concern was that, in the first few weeks, new students were taught a few different and important Economic concepts but there wasn’t a very clear link between them, and they come away not really appreciating why these topics were important. He wanted to unify the topics through the excellent question “Economics has been labelled “the dismal science”. To what extent is this accurate?”and wondered about concluding the unit with a debate, given Joe had had such success with this approach.
There would be two other teachers involved in teaching the unit (to three groups – each group being shared between two teachers) and he wanted to allow them to teach the concepts in any way they felt comfortable with, but to ‘top and tail’ each lesson with FOSIL stages, so that the eight lessons essentially became a series of mini-inquiries that fitted together to answer the main inquiry question. He had some fantastic ideas for how each concept addressed the inquiry question from a different angle and was really looking for FOSIL resources that we could supply to support this idea. The Economics department has been developing a flip-learning approach over several years and they were also keen that students were introduced to this early on.
It is unusual for a teacher to approach us with such a well-developed and thought-out idea with such clear parameters, and this degree of initial planning and clarity from the subject specialist is what, in the end, made it possible to develop the unit over the summer with minimal contact. In our initial meeting we realised that a debate would not be an ideal Express tool here because the students would all be debating the same question, and it becomes very tedious when you hear the same debate 5 or 6 times in a row, so we either needed to come up with 5 or 6 separate questions (which may have defeated the purpose of unifying the topics) or we needed to think of another Express tool. Michael was keen that it was not an essay, because Economics students will write a lot of those over their two year course and he wanted something more memorable and collaborative to start the year. Darryl (our Head of Library) suggested a Harkness discussion, where the students discuss the question themselves with minimal input from the teacher, who observes, takes notes and feeds back. We have Harkness tables in both the Library and Economics Department, but these are not widely used for Harkness discussion in it’s pure form (this is an interesting article about the Harkness method for those who are new to the idea). While we really liked the idea of students taking ownership of the material in this way and it seemed a good solution to our debate problem, both Michael and I were a little nervous because neither of us had any experience of this method.
We decided that over the summer I would identify and source suitable articles for students to read after each lesson to stimulate their thinking, and that teachers would deliberately engage in Connect and Wonder at the start of each lesson using lesson starters such as thought-provoking quotations to get students thinking about the topic and the questions they had about it before going into any detail. At the end of the lesson (or for prep) students would be given an opportunity to fill in any responses to the lesson material on their Key Ideas Construct sheet and begin to build an understanding of the topic ready for the discussion. They would also be expected to read and comment on the articles I had found relating to that lesson, and build ideas from these into their Construct sheets.
I found a fair number of suitable articles from a wide range of sources and, in consultation with Michael, we chose a series of “must read” and “extension” articles for each topic and I produced a printed booklet for each student. While I cannot post the finished booklet (which contained all the articles in full) here because we reproduced it under an educational copyright license which does not allow us to share it beyond our institution, I have shared the structure of the booklet with hyperlinks to the articles we used, should anyone wish to make something similar.
My second task was to build my understanding of Harkness discussion and how to prepare students for it and assess it. The critical step in the success of this inquiry was the discovery of the work of Alexis Wiggins who, in her own words “did ‘Harkness’ differently than Harkness schools out there” and has developed a method that she calls Spiderweb discussion (excellently explained here). I bought her book “The Best Class You Never Taught: How Spider Web Discussion Can Turn Students into Learning Leaders” and discovered it was exactly what I needed – a step-by-step guide to using the method in the classroom, complete with rationale and commentary. However, I still had quite a lot of work to do to understand how to support the teachers as they used this method for the first time. Michael sensibly suggested that an intermediate mini-discussion half-way through would help students and staff to get the idea, for which I found two potential video stimuli for teachers to choose from for the question “Should everyone study Economics?” (UAE – Why study Economics? and Masterclass – Paul Krugman teaches economics and society ).
As term started, teachers were pleased with the resources and reported the lessons were going well and they felt students were engaging with the articles, but Michael reported that teachers and students were nervous about the discussion and students had asked whether they could do a debate instead. He suggested an extra preparatory lesson immediately before the discussion where they could practise discussing and preparing four different aspects of the main question in small groups. I agreed to run one of these sessions and also to map the final discussion for this group. Unfortunately the other discussions occurred on a Saturday when I was unable to leave the library due to other commitments. I produced a rubric for marking the discussion, and sent out links to two of Alexis Wiggins’ videos – one for staff to share with students to explain what we were about to do, and one for staff to watch to help them understand what they were looking for.
The preparatory lesson turned out to be vital. Students suddenly began to understand what they were being asked to do, and what their individual roles were. They were excited about the task and now had some idea of why the task itself was going to teach them some immensely important skills. In the discussion itself, they blew us away! Eleven sixteen-year-old students talked intelligently and respectfully for 35 minutes with no intervention at all from an adult about the topics they had been studying. They listened carefully to each other, responded to each other’s points and did not interrupt. More vocal students invited less vocal into the conversation and everyone had an important contribution to make. With 5 minutes to go we popped up a “conclusion” slide on the board and they brought their discussion to an orderly conclusion, with everyone having a chance to voice their opinion. I mapped the whole discussion (using blue for the first 10 minutes, green for the middle 15 and red for the final 10), and then we sat around the table and marked it together. An important feature of Spiderweb discussion is a negotiated group grade, and they ended up giving themselves a B+. The map gave them an overview of the discussion, with notes about how often articles were being referenced and key vocabulary used and was an excellent starting point for this reflection stage. Michael made notes on the Economic content of the discussion to feedback during the next lesson on any terms or concepts that they needed clarified because they were not using them quite correctly.
We all – staff and students – came out of that room buzzing with enthusiasm about how well the students had risen to the challenge, and feeling that they had achieved something special. This was absolutely about the Economics, but it was about so much more than that. I will certainly be recommending Spiderweb discussion as an Express tool to other colleagues. Some of the Economics teachers also suggested they might be considering integrating it (although perhaps in a smaller way) into some of the rest of their teaching over the year, which is the way Alexis Wiggins recommends using it (rather than as a one-off approach).
If I could do anything differently, I would have been more prepared for the start of the inquiry. Getting the articles together was a huge job, and I also had a lot of reading to do before I felt on top of the method. This meant that I only supplied the teachers with the rubric and videos about Spiderweb discussion partway through the inquiry, and some had already done their mini-discussion by then. I think it would have done a lot for student and teacher confidence levels mid-way through if I had had all the materials ready for the start of term. There was a limit to what I could manage in the time available, however, and if we run this inquiry again next year (or if I need to work with another department on Spiderweb discussion) there is now a lot of material already in place.
[Note: links to the resources we produced to support this inquiry to follow shortly]
I have yet to introduce myself on the forum but my name is Michael Carter and I am a Teacher of Economics at Oakham School. I worked with Jenny on this project as the subject lead and would like to add my thoughts from a teaching perspective.
This project was all about providing students with a more focused start to the course and to set the standard for studying economics at A-Level. I had no prior experience of spider-web discussions, or indeed of executing an inquiry based project at A-Level, so it really was new ground for me and our department.
The project really started to take shape once I had noted down my initial ideas on what knowledge I wanted students to take away from the two week inquiry. This was when I realised we had something both engaging and achievable. It also gave Jenny something concrete to work with and the articles that she found worked really well in providing a range of view points. Some articles were more difficult than others, but this was a good way to differentiate and provided the element of challenge we were looking for.
We were pleased with how students engaged with the reading early on and, when necessary, we used a bit of lesson time to talk about the articles and support them in drawing out the key arguments. The mini discussion half way through was a good opportunity to test the water, and to be honest, I came away with slight misgivings over whether a Harkness type discussion was going to work. The students preferred a debate but I felt they were underestimating themselves. After talking to Jenny and colleagues we decided to continue with the plan, on the basis that we would build their confidence with a preparatory lesson immediately before where they could become “experts” on a particular topic and practise making their point in smaller groups. As Jenny has said, this addition made all the difference and enabled all students to participate in the final discussion.
We were genuinely impressed with the quality of the four groups’ discussions and the involvement of all students. It was a real pleasure to see the students leave the room visibly energised by the experience and being proud of what they had accomplished.
This project would not have been possible without the work of Jenny and the library staff. The belief in the process and the confidence she instilled, in both teachers and students, truly drove the project on.
As a department we have decided to run the project again next September, albeit with a few minor tweaks, specifically:
Putting more of an emphasis on the connect and wonder stages of each topic. I was guilty of neglecting a couple of these but in hindsight they really opened up the individual topics to the students
Ensuring the first lesson clearly spells out the reasons for doing a spider-web discussion (to win hearts and minds as early as possible)
Making sure students complete the construct sheet as they go along as some found completing it in full a day or two before the discussion a little heavy going
We are very keen to build on this experience and give students a further opportunity to lead a discussion, so we are planning on delivering another inquiry based project in the spring term on the inequality in the distribution of income and wealth.