Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Harkness: Discussion-based teaching

Several Veritas secondary teachers spent two days last week with Geoff Sahs of Regents School of Austin discussing the Harkness method of teaching. Harkness is essentially a student-driven discussion-based approach. It is not unlike more familiar socratic teaching (which many Veritas teachers use frequently) but it seeks to go beyond the dependence on the teacher to move the conversation that socratic discussion tends to create to a classroom where the students, well prepared by advanced reading and reflection on questions, demonstrate that they have thought carefully about the topic and are able to not only articulate their understanding but apply it in conversation with others.

These discussions do (at least) three very critical things for us as a school. Since the discussions are based on the content of the class, the curriculum is advanced in a way that requires the students to be heavily invested. In daily discussions around a table with a small group of other students (and the teacher, of course) there is, quite literally, no place to hide. Students must prepare, must know what they are talking about. Secondly, the discussions give feedback to the students as to how they are doing in understanding the content. Reading and reflecting on one's own may give the false impression that a concept was thoroughly grasped. In trying to explain it to another person, or to defend a position about it against an alternative, it may quickly become clear that the student hasn't really understood. Finally, the teacher also receives immediate, on-going feedback on if students are learning the content. While written homework may contribute to this, it is all too easy for students to draft answers or apply formulas without having the concepts truly sink down deep into their minds. Skillfully created and guided discussions will reveal this pretty quickly to an alert teacher, who may then, if necessary, interject into the conversation--or stop it temporarily, if needed--to clarify missed points, present to the class, or in other ways change the direction of the discussion. Follow-up questions and preparation for the next lesson can then be more effectively designed based on the understanding demonstrated in the discussion.

Student writing is also a very important part of the process of ensuring that students are understanding the content of the class. Short responses, essays, and papers are all used to give opportunities for students to demonstrate what they have learned, and to give the all-important feedback to both students and teachers.

There are issues to be resolved as we seek to apply more discussion-based lessons. Assessing the quality of participation (and grading),while not complicated, does require thoughtful attention by the teacher. There are many ways to track who says what, when, to whom, and for how long, and this will need to be a skill we develop. Providing effective homework preparation, asking the right questions, guiding the discussion, and applying the method in age and subject appropriate ways will all need to be thought through carefully. However, the potential reward--students who are more self-directed in their learning, who can thoughtfully read an unfamiliar passage or work through a new mathematical concept, grasp the essentials, see the connections to previous learning and the implications for future learning, and then discuss all this with others, as well as write thoughtfully about it--will be worth the trouble to teachers of learning to do things in a new way.

I have to say I was impressed with the way Veritas teachers have been enthusiastically moving toward more Harkness-style teaching. They will be setting an example to students of an eagerness to learn.

The following links to the Regents School of Austin web site have more information on Harkness teaching as they execute it, which is very similar to how Veritas intends to do this:

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