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Tuesday, 19 June 2018
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Addressing Classroom Challenges With the Harkness Method

By Kimberly Fradale

06/07/2018

Addressing Classroom Challenges With the Harkness Method
Oscar Wilde once wrote that “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.” If this is the case, I have a great deal of experience. I’ve found The Harkness Method, a collaborative form of class discussion, to be a pedagogical tool that improved my students’ performance, and I hope it can serve as a tool to help you. Here are some of the major challenges Harkness helps to address.

Challenge One: our students are reticent and our teachers, talkative. According to John Hattie, most teachers speak for 60–70 percent of a class period, leaving little time for students to ask questions, let alone verbally work out their own ideas. A Harkness discussion places the teacher in the role of moderator, with the students as the main speakers.

Use of the Harkness oval diagram is not only valuable in monitoring how much students speak, it is a visual reminder of how little teachers should actually be vocalizing ideas. Each line a teacher has to draw to herself is a strong reminder of this. Diagrams of the same class over time have revealed consistent improvement in flow and participation. At the end of my first school year using Harkness, the difference between the first discussion oval versus the last was significant.

Challenge Two: students need experience taking risks followed by success in order to grow. A student’s strong drive to be correct in front of his peers often overrides the desire to take the risk to speak up. This reluctance is a major barrier to critical thinking and effective discussion skills. Phillips Exeter, the school where the Harkness Method was created, emphasizes a “collaborative approach” and the idea that discussions are “not about being right or wrong.”

Further, when a teacher recognizes risk taking after a discussion in front of the group, it provides an experience of success for the student. Verbal acknowledgement by the teacher also serves as a model for students when they make their comments at the end of class; the positive reinforcement from peers is then used as a force for growth rather than retreat.

Challenge Three: students need practice with explicit skills related to teamwork and social and/or leadership skills. A rubric that rewards inclusion and emphasizes the targeting of ideas rather than individuals quickly shapes these behaviors as the accepted norm. Behaviors such as listening, seeking the opinions of others, making eye contact, using names, acknowledging others’ ideas, asking questions, and challenging statements in a civil manner are tracked throughout the discussion, and those behaviors carry over beyond the discussion. Students continue to use one another’s names and restate each other’s ideas in non-Harkness classes.

Challenge Four: students need many participation opportunities. While an effective Harkness optimally includes 10–12 participants, when faced even with a larger class teachers can create an inner circle, the Harkness Discussion, and the outside participants become trackers. With multiple behaviors to observe, all non-Harkness students have something to keep their focus during the conversation. While one student tracks the use of names, another might track eye contact or body language. The higher the participation, the more learning is taking place; with a two-circle approach, all participants are expected to be involved at some level.

Challenge Five: teachers and learners need regular formative assessment on how successfully students have acquired content and skills. Students consistently show an active interest in seeing the final tracking oval; they also participate in a post-discussion session, followed by a personal written reflection that allows metacognition, helping students to recognize where their own strengths and weaknesses lie and to make adjustments. When a Harkness Discussion falters—and they do—it is invariably because the students do not have enough content to tackle the question in a meaningful way.

Harkness Discussions allow instructors to focus on topics to revisit before a major summative assessment. Another positive aspect of this approach is that students often consult one another when they realize they haven’t understood a concept.

Challenge Six: students need to feel wanted. In an age of increasing digital isolation, Harkness discussions develop a sense of bonding in the classroom that is unparalleled to most other pedagogical approaches. Students regularly cite our history classes as being close-knit because the method encourages interpersonal behaviors that build relationships. Furthermore, with the removal of digital devices at the discussions, students have practice (yes, practice) making eye contact with one another. While scary for teachers, letting go of the conversation’s direction gives students the freedom to explore ideas as a group, which becomes an empowering and team-building experience.

Harkness encapsulates indicators of strong learning, according to Hattie: clear learning intentions (e.g., answering an open-ended question), obvious success criteria (rubric), a high level of peer work (discussion), and peer involvement in the task (discussion, observation, and sometimes moderation).

After the discussion wraps up, participants are generally eager to pick it up again and improve the quality of their contributions the next time. Harkness also promotes leadership characteristics: strong self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. l

Kimberly Fradale is a National Board-certified instructor of Social Studies currently teaching at St. Mary’s International School in Tokyo, Japan.


References

Goleman, Daniel. “What Makes a Leader?” Harvard Business Review November-December (1998): 93-102.

Hattie, John. Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta- Analyses Relating to Achievement. Routledge: New York, 2009.

Hattie, John. “Visible Learning Pt.1” Youtube, November 28, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sng4p3Vsu7Y.

Foley, Margaret. “The Harkness Oval.” Phillips Exeter. https://www.dropbox.com/s/m2nprdsn0nyuduz/1%20Oval.pdf?dl=0.

“How You’ll Learn.” Phillips Exeter. https://www.exeter.edu/exeter-difference/how-youll-learn.




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