How We Teach: The Harkness Method

One of the fundamental principles of the Classical model is that it teaches with the grain of childhood development. Students in the Grammar stage love to sing, chant, recite, listen to stories, and in the elementary years we teach them accordingly. Students in the Logic stage love to debate, argue, take things apart, and fit them together, and they get their chance to do this when they enter seventh grade.

In our tenth grade classes, the students have entered the Rhetoric stage or, as Dorothy Sayers called it, the Poetic stage. Their skills at analyzing and evaluating have been sharpened by formal logic and they continue to hone these skills as they learn to present their arguments with politeness, poise, and polish.

In the high school grades we have started using Harkness discussions regularly. Harkness discussions are similar to Socratic discussions in that both require students to do most of the thinking and discussion. In the Socratic method, however, the discussion involves the teacher asking the students a series of questions to lead them to a desired realization. With the Harkness method, the students lead the discussion, asking questions of the text and themselves with minimal intervention from the teacher.

To prepare students for a Harkness discussion, I assign them a text to read on their own. (In our Ancient History class, we recently read a portion of the Egyptian Book of the Dead.) I tell the students some things they should be looking for in the text. (What is the Egyptian view of god? How does this compare to the Sumerian prayer we studied last week? How does it compare to what we learn in the Bible?) I encourage the students to make notes on specific places in their text as they are reading. (For books they are not allowed to write in, they use post-it notes.)

On the day of the discussion, I remind them what knowledge we are seeking to obtain and then seat myself in the background to allow them to discuss with each other. With a mature class, I rarely need to intervene in a discussion to get them back on track. Occasionally, I lob a new discussion question into their midst when a subject needs to be further explored. (What would daily life be like in a culture that has this view of god?)

After the discussion is over, I provide the students with feedback. Here are some of the positive feedback points I give students:

  • Asks good questions of the text
  • Refers to text regularly
  • Refers to text thoughtfully
  • Connects ideas to previous learning
  • Connects responses to other student comments
  • Disagrees respectfully with another viewpoint

You will note the primacy of the text in this feedback. The mature student asks questions of the text until he makes the text comprehensible and then uses textual evidence to support his own assertions about the text. The students are good about policing each other in this area. A student who makes a blanket statement is prodded by his fellows to demonstrate where he is getting that from the text. A student who offers a shaky interpretation is challenged by her peers when she tells them what line she is basing her assumption on.

You will also notice the importance of subject integration in this feedback. The mature student is the one who can tie in what he learned last year in science and last month in Bible class to this week’s discussion on Herodotus’ Histories.

And finally, you will notice the importance of the group interaction. Learning is a communal activity, and it is the fellowship of the classroom that stimulates, nurtures, and enhances learning. Students learn that they can and must learn from each other as well as from the teacher. This group interaction can only occur when we ask questions of each other and respond with respect and fairness.

The benefits of the Harkness discussion method are legion. Not only do my students now understand the crushing weight of perfection prescribed by the Egyptian Book of the Dead in contrast with Biblical grace, they also understand how to interrogate a text, how to integrate multiple facets of the world, and how to hold civil discourse. The Harkness discussion leads students away from unsupported opinion and teaches them to journey together on the quest for truth.

Book of the Dead
Panel from the Egyptian Book of the Dead (British Museum)

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