English teacher Rachel Maiorano answers four questions about the Harkness method – a style of teaching used at Lakeside that puts students at the center of the action.
Q: Rachel, to start, what IS the Harkness method?
Rachel: The Harkness method is a student-led and -directed discussion style developed at Phillips Exeter Academy. It teaches participants to listen genuinely and see discussion as a team effort directed toward a shared goal: thoroughly exploring and illuminating a key question about a text. Students practice a variety of roles (sharing observations, supporting classmates’ assertions, using textual evidence for support and analysis, asking questions of the group to look at a variety of angles and perspectives on a question. The teacher is mostly an observer who comments on the content of the discussion after it is over, though I do very occasionally jump in with a guiding or grounding question when students seem to need it.
In a classroom with younger students, I will typically give them the questions to answer, but juniors and seniors come up with their own questions in a structured way: each student writes an open-ended question they’d be interested in exploring related to the reading and then shares it with a classmate. Together, that pair either picks one of their two questions or comes up with a new one. Then two pairs meet up and share their questions, discussing the options and doing the same thing—either choosing one of the two or coming up with a new one. The double-groups write their chosen questions on the board and then the whole class votes with tick marks to indicate which of the questions they most want to take on that day. They then write about the question for about 7-10 minutes, including their ideas about an answer to the question as well as two sub-questions that will help the group thoroughly explore the larger question and two quotations from the text that relate to the central question in some way.
Once the discussion prep is finished, we start the discussion. Two students volunteer to serve as note-taking observers, focusing on the dynamics of the discussion: are people sharing the speaking roles relatively evenly; are they using the text to support and ground their conversation; are they listening and building on an idea; are there people dominating or staying silent; are they asking questions to ensure they look at the question from a variety of angles and in depth. At the same time, I take notes on the content. After the conversation comes to a close, the observers report out on what went well and what to work on during the next iteration. We begin the next discussion with a reminder of the observer notes.
Q: How (and where) is this style of teaching used at Lakeside?
Rachel: I use it in my 9th grade English classes and my 11th grade American Cultural Studies classes. Other English teachers use a form of it in some of their classes, as well – English Department Chair Emily Chu, who started her teaching career at Exeter, uses it regularly. Lots of teachers use a Socratic Seminar method that is similar but may be moderated more actively by the teacher.
Q: How do you train new students in it? Is it something they enjoy?
Rachel: We start by reading a handout that goes over the basics of the method in straightforward language (note that this handout refers to a “Graded Harkness Discussion”; I do not assign a letter grade based on these discussions, but the skills listed are still accurate). We then talk about why it makes sense to run a discussion this way: as a team effort, rather than an individual participation competition.
Then students jump into their first practice Harkness discussion and we’re off. Students do enjoy this, sometimes enormously—many call it out as their favorite thing about the class each year. Individual class chemistry comes into play, and some groups find that it’s all they want to do while others are content to do it regularly and mix in more teacher-facilitated discussions.
Q: This is a method that Lakeside has been using for a while, but how might we see it in a new way when we’re thinking about fostering students’ competencies and mindsets?
Rachel: It is an explicit teaching of the growth and learning mindset since the observer role rotates and students are tasked with letting their classmates know where they are doing well and where they need to direct their group attention during the next session – those skills in feedback and being a team player also contribute to a collaboration and leadership competency. It supports the equity and inclusion mindset in that the goal is that everyone participates in some way every time, and the class learns that some students tend to do best in certain roles (asking a question, summarizing the discussion so far, bringing the group back to the key question, supporting classmates’ points with evidence) and become adept at making a thoughtful space for everyone to be involved. The greater the diversity of perspectives and ideas, the better the conversation.
The Harkness method requires that students learn, practice, and build skills and competencies that you’d expect to learn in an English class (communication and listening, cognitive flexibility, and collaboration and leadership) as well as those that might be less obvious (resilience, introspection and emotional intelligence, and unstructured problem-solving).