With the right strategies, educators can support student-led discussions that foster deep critical thinking and empathy. Student-led discussions can build students’ skills in analytical thinking and innovation; complex problem-solving; creativity, originality, and initiative; and reasoning and ideation. Tracy Hill and Alexis Wiggins, experienced teachers, instructional coaches, authors, and workshop leaders encourage school leaders to focus teachers on time for making meaning.
Email Tracy: email@example.com
Tracy’s Twitter: twitter.com/tracyhillriyadh
Email Alexis: firstname.lastname@example.org
Alexis’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/alexiswiggins
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PODCAST TRANSCRIPTSteve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello, and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. Instructional coaches and leaders create the environment that supports teachers to continually imagine, grow and achieve. They model an excitement for learning that teachers in turn model for students. This podcast is dedicated to promoting the important aspects of instructional leadership. Thanks for listening. I’m thrilled you’re here.
Steve: 00:33 Coaches encouraging teachers to use student-led discussions. Joining the podcast today are two experienced educators who recently published an article with ASCD titled, “Six Strategies to Bolster Student-Led Discussions,” Tracy Hill and Alexis Wiggins. When I contacted them about sharing their thoughts on the podcast, we discovered that they had been in an instructional coaches training that I did in the past, so they are experienced instructional coaches as, as well as teachers. I’m looking forward to this opportunity to learn from their experiences. So, welcome, Tracy and Alexis.
Tracy: 01:19 Hi, Steve. Thank you for having us.
Alexis: 01:21 Hi, Steve. Great to be here.
Steve: 01:23 So I’m wondering if you’d start by giving folks a a quick introduction to your backgrounds and the current roles that you have.
Tracy: 01:32 I guess I can start. This is almost my 30th year of education, and luckily I’ve been able to have experience in US public schools,
international schools, and most recently in a US independent school. So I’ve taught upper elementary, middle school, English, social studies, humanities, and had a four year opportunity as an instructional coach overseas.
Steve: 02:03 Great.
Alexis: 02:05 I have more of a high school background. I’ve taught in independent schools and international schools where Tracy and I have first overlapped all over the world. And I’m in year 23, maybe 24 now of teaching at mostly high school English, but I dabbled in some Spanish and social studies and even a couple brave years of foray into middle school.
Steve: 02:30 Terrific. So what led to your interest and focus on student-led discussions?
Alexis: 02:37 Well, I’ll jump in. My first interest in it was as a young teacher in an independent school outside of New York City, I was introduced to the Harkness Method, which kind of was born in independent schools in the northeast, close to a hundred years ago now. And basically, it’s just a fancy word for students sitting in an oval or a circle having a discussion where the teacher may or may not lead it, depending on the model, the Socratic sort of style. But the school I worked at took Harkness very, very seriously, and every class from grade five through 12, math, science, English, everything – was Harkness style. So there was a round table, an oval table in the center of every room in a science room, it was in the back. The lab was in the front, the table was in the back.
Alexis: 03:26 And so in a science lab, students would do the lab and then go to the table and discuss what they’d seen. And it was entirely student-centered. Before I’d gotten there, actually the English department had created a rubric that designed a group grade. There were no individual grades for hardness at this school and that was something that they felt really strongly about. So anyway, that was my first introduction to it. I was floored by the results and what kids could do. I even have a video of one of my classrooms there from years ago. And then from there, I just kind of started developing it. When I moved on to other schools, overseas schools, I sort of branched out from there and used different kind of styles and techniques to continue and deepen this in ways that I thought were really valuable. And I think it really led to the best teaching I’ve ever done so I wrote a book about it and that was really exciting. And Tracy and I then overlapped in Riyadh where we were both coaches in the American school there in Saudi Arabia and and we got to help coach other teachers using student-led discussion. So that was kind of my journey to student-led discussion. I’ll let Tracy jump in with hers.
Tracy: 04:38 So I think for me, most of my discussion background was probably small group discussion, book clubs, maybe some whole group discussion, but probably more led by me than maybe I wanted to admit at the time. I probably thought I was doing something that seemed student-led, but was really driven by my focus. And I think the catalyst for me was student-led. I think a couple things – one, I wanted to see more students engaged in the discussion and actively engaged and I wanted a way that was more intentional, a way to track conversations or to actually have it a little bit more data driven than a small group of kids chatting about a book. And then, luckily, I was able to coach alongside of Alexis. I think she was really honing in at that time with the book and really looking at all the skills and all the things.
Tracy: 05:39 And she had brought a lot of that experience to the table and being able to watch her coach teachers. And she was able to coach me that I could then coach middle school teachers and kind of bringing this environment of student-led conferences. And I guess also being able to see that it could go across content areas, in my mind, discussions were often in the English classroom based on literature. And then I think having my eyes open that we can have discussions in health class and PE class and orchestra class. I mean, we can have them anywhere, anytime about any topic. So I think that that was the catalyst for me.
Steve: 06:26 Tracy, you touched on this a little – maybe go a little more specific as to what would you identify as as benefits for students when the teacher moves in the direction of student-led discussions?
Tracy: 06:42 Yeah, I mean, this probably sounds a little silly, but I think it makes it more enjoyable for students, which in turn is going to make the opportunities and those experiences more engaging for students. We can talk later about some of the things that we put into place to make them intentional, to make them a little more structured, that having ways that we’re hearing from all students and all voices and all perspectives are being brought to the table, not just the teacher’s perspective or maybe some of those students in the class that we all have. I was maybe one of those students that likes to talk.
Tracy: 07:26 You know, hearing from some of the quieter students, putting things into place that ensure equity for all of our kids. I know that’s something that’s really important for us.
Steve: 07:40 Alexis, wanna add to that?
Alexis: 07:42 Yeah, I think Tracy nailed it. I think for me, the student-led piece always taught me something and I always say, I’m a talker, like Tracy, I love ideas. I love to engage. So it’s really hard for me to be more of a coach and a guide on the side and taking notes rather than participating, really listening and leading the kids through the process of kind of facilitating their own discussion. That’s really what it’s about – how do you get them to lead the learning? So I think it leads to leadership skills. I wasn’t necessarily intending that when I really began it, but I think it leads to greater empathy. You have to kind of empathize with your peer. And when you don’t and when you’re interrupting and there’s sort of a chaotic environment, when we unpack it, it’s like, what happened?
Alexis: 08:39 And it’s like, well, this person talked too much and I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. And it’s like, alright, well, how do we fix that next time? So I think that kind of collaborative approach to problem solving rather than an individually kind of competitive environment based on volume, how many times did you speak, is not gonna get you a better grade or a worse grade. It’s about balance, it’s about collaboration, it’s about empathy. Like Tracy said, it’s equity. Maybe for one person to speak once, that’s a big deal. And for another person to speak 10 times and not 20, that’s a big deal. So it’s not gonna look equal per kid. But together, I call it spider web discussion. That’s the name of the method that I use. And what I always say to the kids is, have you ever seen a real spiderweb in nature?
Alexis: 09:28 And they always say yes. And I say, okay, what happens if you pull off a few strands? And they say, oh, it all falls apart. And I said, exactly. I said, each of you is pulling your own strand. Your strand, as Tracy kind of mentioned, might be supporting someone’s ideas with text or with an example or with evidence. Your strand might be asking great questions. Your strand might be listening more and your strand might be speaking up once. And so you each sort of learn to pull your own strands. So I think it leads to some intended benefits. Sure. It’s great discussion. It deepens critical thinking, question asking, but I think there’s some hidden benefits like we’ve already talked about empathy, leadership…
Steve: 10:12 I’m almost hearing a workplace set of skills that you’d want graduates to take out into the community.
Alexis: 10:22 Absolutely. A couple times I’ve given workshops to faculty all over the world in spiderweb discussion. And every once in a while,
someone will say, do you teach the faculty to use this? Everybody always chuckles because they know that they’re probably the worst .
Steve: 10:40 For sure. So what what thoughts do you have for instructional coaches and school administrators as to what they can do to support
and encourage teachers to move in this direction?
Tracy: 10:59 I think for me, schools need to make that commitment and they need to support teachers letting them take risks and possibly failing at something. That it’s okay, it’s not gonna be perfect. I think that schools, if you really wanna start something like this network with other schools that are doing that, maybe partnership with another school and, and have ideas of how that worked for them and kind of do that partnership. I know in the past, we did instructional rounds and learning rounds in schools. So students and teachers that are doing a really good job at strategies like this, having colleagues coming in and doing work studies on that, or PLCs, you know, read Alexis’s book, “The Best Class You Never Taught.” I know lots of people have read that. I know lots of our colleagues helped contribute to that book and the hard work that people have done in real classrooms with students. This is based in real life, real work that everybody has done.
Steve: 12:12 Alexis, what are the concerns or, or resistances that come up for teachers if if leadership and instructional coaches suggest student-led discussions?
Alexis: 12:25 Yeah, I think the common ones that I hear initially are, and it’s normal – letting go of control, turning over the classroom to students feels like panic will enue. And so I think that’s the big one. I think sometimes teachers will say, yeah, I’m totally open to trying this, or I tried it and the students didn’t talk. They didn’t know what to do without me leading it. And so I have a resource doc, which we can make available through this podcast if that’s possible, with all sorts of resources. And one of them is frequently asked questions, including this one, another is how to start and continue for a year. So what do you do on day one and then how do you keep it going? But the hesitancies that I just shared, I think are best countered by trying it.
Alexis: 13:18 You don’t know what it’s gonna be like until you try it. And almost a hundred percent of the time, I can’t tell you, every single hesitant teacher I’ve ever spoken with who’s followed up with me has said, oh my gosh, I had no idea the kids could do that. I just didn’t understand how excited they would be, how this kid who hasn’t spoken all year was suddenly on fire. It shifts and changes the dynamic. So, I’m talking scores of teachers over the years who were hesitant to try it and then wrote me later and said how wonderful it was.
Steve: 13:53 Great. So I’m wondering if you had a chance talking to a administrator or an instructional coach who’s in a school where they don’t really have a member on staff that they can point to as a model for student-led discussions, what might be a step that they could use to to start an introduction?
Tracy: 14:15 Well, I was immediately thinking they could contact – I mean, they can contact one of us. Great. We know lots of people within the
US and overseas that are doing lots of really great work with student-led discussions and we would be more than happy to put someone in in touch with those people. I don’t know if Alexis has other ideas.
Alexis: 14:39 Yeah, I have some videos of different classrooms and that’s on the resource doc that I’m sharing with you. So, there’s a video of students doing this in New York and what that looks like. And there’s a video of one of the classrooms where Tracy and I worked with a group of ninth grade history students. And so, just to be able to see a model, I think maybe gives people a little bit of encouragement. Back to your question about hesitancy and concerns, sometimes people see those videos and say, oh, my kids could never do that. But I always say, well, that’s April, that’s not the first one. Your kids can do that. You just need to sort of help provide the structure. And I think the key really is not making teachers feel like this is sort of a hundred or zero, it’s black or white.
Alexis: 15:33 You are still in control. You are a coach of a team rather than the judge or the star player. And I think that is the key. You still are able to sort of manage, as a professional, when things are going a little bit off the rails or when kids didn’t get deep enough at the end of that discussion, in the feedback session, you throw it back to them. You know, it didn’t seem like we got very deep today in our discussion. We sort of stayed on the surface. What do you think happened there? And so, it’s just this continuous kind of process of let’s try it and feedback against criteria with a clear rubric. And I think anyone can do that. I’ve seen this done in kindergarten and third grade.
Alexis: 16:21 I’ve seen it done in middle school math classrooms. I’ve seen it done in, AP and IB classrooms in 11th and 12th grade. So I do really believe it can be done anywhere. You just need to have a little courage to try something new. But I think the results – I’ll let Tracy chime in, but every time I see it done for the first time in someone’s classroom as an observer, there’s something fun and fresh to learn. There’s always some kind of new, interesting, unique component to that class. And one math teacher where we worked in Riyadh was stunned when she brought her math students in to our lab to try this for the first time and she said I had no idea there was a group of math students who really weren’t very technically strong, but they were so strong conceptually in that discussion about math and it brought them in a new light to her eyes. And I think that’s one of the powerful features of it. Like Tracy was saying before, you get to see a different side of students that maybe you didn’t see in other skills or content ways.
Tracy: 17:27 I was gonna add on to what Alexis said about the control. I think that once teachers give up that control, I really think that every teacher that I’ve worked with on a team has come back in a positive way about student-led discussions. Maybe something didn’t work perfectly or there’s some kinks to iron out, but like every single person comes back and normally they are saying things like, I had no idea my students thought like that. Or that one student that hadn’t really expressed their thoughts before, or like Alexis is saying, a student that maybe isn’t great with math skills that are needed to pass that test, but maybe have really deep thinking about the way that they problem solve, that you may have never known about that. And I think also something is that I think students start to see in each other, these qualities that they didn’t know about. Even a student that they sit with every day in class, and now we’re in this circle and we’re having the discussion and it’s sort of like, whoa. They have a lot to say that given that opportunity to do so is pretty eye-opening. So I think it’s also just eye-opening for our students.
Alexis: 18:59 And I’ll just chime in with one other thing as I’m thinking it through as you’re speaking. One of the paradoxes of it is you give up time. So you need to make time for what my Dad, Grant Wiggins would say is making meaning. If you don’t give time for students to make meaning of the content and the skills, then they can’t really process it, they can’t really learn. So you are giving up time. You’re not lecturing in front of the class or having them read something. You’re allowing them to make meaning with the content of your course. But the powerful I think, side of that that is unexpected is, you actually get more data, not less by allowing that process to play out. You get to see – I often use a series of codes.
Alexis: 19:51 Not everybody likes this, but I like to code as students are talking. So every reference to the text, I put a little “T” next to their name. Every interruption I put a little “I”. They’re just feedback points. But, over the years, I would start making codes for things I saw. Years ago, I saw a student just making these really illogical conclusions and she would sort of ask these illogical questions that would confuse her classmates. The classmates were very kind about it in sort of redirecting somewhere else, but it allowed me to see well before a summative test that she had some processing challenges. And so we were able to kind of find one-on-one time so I could guide her through some of that. That’s just one example, but I think it actually allows you before a high stakes summative assessment to see students understanding play out and give you more data actually.
Steve: 20:47 You know more about the kids.
Alexis: 20:49 Yeah.
Steve: 20:51 I have to tell you, as I listen to both of you, there’s a line that I’ve used for a lot of years that kept coming back to my mind. And that is, there’s a part of what we do where we have to trust the brains of kids.
Alexis: 21:05 Yes.
Steve: 21:06 Kids can learn things that we didn’t teach . And for me, that’s the switch of that time. I did this activity instead of my lecture, and I can trust that the kids learned from the activity even though I didn’t formally teach it.
Alexis: 21:22 Yeah. And the truth is, you think about anyone’s own work, I mean, what are the skills that you need? Collaboration, listening, speaking, question asking, problem solving, empathy. I mean, these are real-life skills, and if we don’t ask students to practice them and assess how well they’re doing that and give them feedback on that, there’s really not a chance to grow and learn from it until you’re an adult, which makes for, I think, a more challenging experience.
Steve: 21:54 Well, Alexis, I love the the title of your book, “The Best Class I Never Taught.” You want to fill folks in on a little bit of what they can find there?
Alexis: 22:06 Sure, yeah. If you’re interested in student-led discussion, it just really drills down a little bit into the research of why this is actually one of the best ways to learn and all the benefits of this including in the real world. Places like Google have run fascinating studies that support how discussion leads to better outcomes in the business world. Strong discussion and voices at the table. But then from there, really just goes into the practical how to set this up and how it works and ways that other teachers have adapted it over the years for their age group, their subject area, their particular school environment, their assessment structure. So pretty much anyone who wants to engage in student-led
discussion at any age would find something there. And the title is a nod to that first school that I worked at, that was the Harkness School.
Alexis: 22:58 One day, we didn’t have a subsystem, if you were absent, you just canceled class. We had a pretty trustworthy kids. And so, this teacher set up a video camera the day that he couldn’t be there and just filmed the discussion. And then when he came back, he watched it and someone else asked him, how was the class? And he said, it was the best class I ever taught. And so I thought that was very interesting. And so I played on that with the title, “The Best Class You Never Taught,” because you’re teaching the kids how to lead their own discussions and that breakdown of it.
Steve: 23:39 I build a lot of my coaching around being able to make that switch from being focused on teaching to being focused on learning. And that’s what I really hear in that description. Well, I really appreciate the time and the thinking that you’ve shared here with us. What’s the best way that listeners might be able to connect with you, follow up with questions that they have?
Tracy: 24:10 I think for me I am email@example.com and my Twitter is @tracyhillriyadh.
Alexis: 24:21 And people can sign up for my newsletter or contact me at my website, which is ceelcenter.org and find me on Twitter at the handle, @alexiswiggins.
Steve: 24:45 And the resource that you had talked about that had the videos in them, will they find that on that site?
Alexis: 24:54 Yes, there is a spider web discussion link on my website for one of my workshops and all those resources are there. But if you have a way to share it when you post the podcast anywhere…
Steve: 25:07 I’ll put the link in the lead-in to the podcast. Well, thanks so much. Greatly appreciate it.
Tracy: 25:13 Thank you.
Alexis : 25:13 Yeah, thank you. Pleasure’s ours.
Steve [Outro]: 25:17 Thank you for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean. And please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.