Teach less, talk less; Guide more, listen more

Over the past few months, I’ve attempted to incorporate the Harkness Method into my IB Economics and 10th grade Individuals & Societies classes. My hope is that in learning to facilitate Harkness-style discussions my lessons will become more student-focused, encouraging deeper critical thinking and a more comfortable environment for risk-taking and “failing forward“.


In setting up Harkness discussions, I’ve found a few posts particularly inspirational. The image to the left comes from George Couros, and lays out a nice visual argument for turning learning over to your students.

Jabiz Raisdana has provided useful insights on how to set clear, meaningful expectations, including what he’s learned by using Harkness in his classroom and a post outlining “Roundtable Expectations” he uses in his classroom.

This year I’m trying to, as Jabiz puts it “teach less, talk less, instruct less, deliver content less, and to guide more, listen more, give more voice to my students.” So far, it’s been going alright. I wanted to write a post documenting the process of running my first Harkness Discussion, mostly to have a record of what worked and what didn’t, and to be able to reflect on the process and make improvements going forward.

Part of the reason I’m incorporating Harkness discussions into my lessons is to give students more ownership of the learning that takes place in our classroom. In my six years since moving from teaching in middle school to high school humanities and economics, I have constantly struggled with striking the right balance between delivering content and facilitating student learning. It seems harder to plan student-centered lessons, and as a result, when my creative juices aren’t flowing at 100%, I tend to default to a more teacher-centered approach. Even when I plan what I think is a perfectly student-centered lesson, I find myself inevitably taking over the lesson at some point to steer it in a different, more “productive” direction.


file_004Attempt #1

The first Harkness lesson I attempted went surprisingly well. Surprising, because it was the 3rd day of class with my 10th grade Individuals and Societies students, with very little time to build up much trust for an appropriate level of respectful discussion and risk-taking. Also surprising because I video-taped the lesson! For the practical setup, I relied heavily on Silvia Tolisano’s post on the Socratic Seminar and the Backchannel. She used a “Fish Bowl” structure, which I was familiar with but had never used. I found it really helpful to follow Silvia’s guidance on establishing norms for what she calls a “Socratic Seminar”, and my “bowl” students used Today’s Meet to stay involved in the “fish” discussion.To prepare for the discussion, I assigned students to read a sample essay and, using the MYP Assessment Criteria, give it a mark in each of three criteria. Then we used Silvia Tolisano’s model on “Socratic Seminar” and went to work. The students handled it brilliantly, engaging in a meaningful analysis of a sample MYP assessment. From my perspective, students were engaged, they steered the conversation where they wanted, arriving at agreement on some points rather quickly, and spending more time on the topics where there wasn’t clear agreement. Students themselves reported they enjoyed discussing what they were interested in (for what is a fairly boring topic) and their sense of ownership over the discussion. They didn’t like the “Fish Bowl” setup as much as I thought they would, but I think this was as much up to how I sold/facilitated their use of Today’s Meet during the discussion. I hope to try Today’s Meet again later with a different group/topic. Overall, my first forage into the Harkness world was a success.

Attempt #2

More recently, my year 1 IB Economics students had a Harkness discussion centering on “The Wonderful World of Adam Smith”, a chapter from Robert Heilbroner’s “The Worldly Philosophers”. This effort seemed to be another step forward, for both me and the students involved. One highlight included using Jabiz’s “At the Table” post to set expectations for the discussion. This seemed to engage students from the start, as we read the post quietly on our own before students highlighted expectations which particularly resonated with them. Another highlight was the debrief at the end of the discussion. Despite some logistical problems during the discussion (30 degrees celcius in the classroom, 19 people at the table before splitting into two groups), the classes both reported feeling engaged in meaningful discussions about the text. On some topics, they spent much longer than I would have in class, while others they only covered superficially, which allowed me to follow up in more depth during the debrief the following lesson. But their overall satisfaction with the process was high.

As a result of these early successes, I wish I could report that we kept consistently holding Harkness discussions, however, it’s been tough. We’ve only done so once in each class since the fall semester. The pull of content has won out far too often thus far. However, there is still hope. Going forward, I intend to meet with colleagues in the Humanities Department who have experienced similar (and more consistent) success, and ideally I will include some form of these discussions in my professional goal for the upcoming school year.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s