Thursday, November 1, 2012

Harkness Discussion and Self-Education

            During a discussion with William Buckley on Buckley’s Firing Line program in 1988 Mortimer Adler said, “When the great books are well taught in a seminar, they are not taught as antiquities, they are not taught as objects of art, they are taught as raising moral and political and human problems which are just as pressing today as when they were written.” Adler, one of the founders of the Great Books movement in the United States, and a promoter of the Paideia projects, was a tireless proponent of reading and discussing the great books of Western civilization. And while this search for meaning and understanding lacked a commitment to the foundational truth of the Christian faith, it has been an inspiration to many teachers whose own education, they have discovered, was woefully insufficient. Interestingly, at the same time Adler was helping to bring the great books seminar back to American universities in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the philanthropist Edward Harkness donated $5.9 million to Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire to fund a new seminar-approach to teaching and learning at the secondary level. The Harkness method and the Harkness table, named for Mr. Harkness and the teaching method he promoted, has emphasized the discussion of books and ideas around specially-designed tables in a growing number of schools ever since.

At Veritas School, Harkness discussions, used mainly (though not exclusively) in high school classes, are content-focused and teacher-led, but student-centered. That is, the students carry the load of learning how to ask, and of discussing, the questions raised by the content they are studying, whether this is Paradise Lost or a topic in ancient history. We’ve been most successful in implementing Harkness discussions in high school humanities classes—Humane Letters, Rhetoric, Theology—but the principles are being applied in languages, math and science classes, as well. (Middle-school level and elementary teachers have also successfully integrated beginning discussions using materials such as Teaching the Classics.) Student-driven but content-rich and teacher-led discussions of books and ideas are particularly well suited to classical and Christian schools, where the emphasis is on older students evaluating ideas and presenting their understanding to others clearly and persuasively, and, ultimately, taking responsibility for their own education.

Of course, there was nothing really new in either Adler’s seminars or in the Harkness method of teaching. Excellent teachers have always discussed ideas with their students, requiring the students, as they are able, to increasingly do the heavy lifting, as the teacher questioned, encouraged, led the discussion. Students in our discussions are all expected to be able to articulate their understanding, and to ask questions both of the text and of each other. There is no hiding in a good seminar discussion—careful preparation and a thoughtful search for truth are critical. Ideally, these discussions occur around an oval-shaped table where all students can see and interact with each other. Since the architecture of a place (and a classroom in no exception) significantly impacts what goes on in it, we are working to provide more of these tables for our classrooms.  

Having students in rows is more efficient for certain tasks—organization, individual work, teacher access to students, group instruction—but the arrangement of the classroom environment highly influences intellectual habits and routines. The furniture becomes the lesson. The teacher speaking in front becomes the focus and the learning tends to flow one way, and the message to students is that efficient organization and passive compliance are what is really important. An excellent teacher, of course, will find ways to engage students whatever the arrangement. And there are times when a teacher needs to be at the center of the intellectual and organizational action in the classroom. However, if the teacher (rather than the student working with the content) is always at the center, then what may be the most important lesson students learn is that learning is directed by someone else, that it is something done for them, or to them, depending on their enthusiasm for it. Once away from this classroom they may find that learning is something they’re just not interested in or aren’t sure how to do on their own.

It’s important to note, however, that we don’t approach discussions as a kind of free-for-all sharing time during which anything goes. Rather, teachers guide students to prepare thoroughly and then discuss carefully and thoughtfully, applying both their content knowledge and their biblical worldview to the problems raised. But the bulk of the work in the discussion is placed squarely where it should be—on the students.  This requires consistent training, for students and for teachers, in learning how to ask effective questions, what kinds of responses are most likely to get to meaning, even how to conduct a civil discussion. But the pay-off is rich, especially for those of us who teach older students. For example, in one of our last class periods of this school year, my 11th grade Humane Letters class (all 18 of them) sat around our lone (for now) Harkness table and conducted a forty-five-minute challenging and thoughtful summary discussion of Gene Edward Veith’s Postmodern Times. They asked questions about the meaning of passages and the truth of the concepts, made connections to previous learning, and encouraged reluctant speakers to be more involved. My entire contribution amounted to two questions. Of course, it has taken three years of practice and training to get to this point, and it isn’t necessarily the ideal that the teacher would be so minimally involved—sometimes the teacher participates significantly, correcting misperceptions, adding connections to previous learning, even turning the discussion into a presentation, as needed. The point is that the seminar discussions have helped students reach a point where their education is largely their own. All education is essentially self-education, and the Harkness method requires students to make significant steps in their learning.

This emphasis on student responsibility in the discussion, by the way, is where we think our discussions deviate from ‘socratic’ ones, at least as that term is often applied. In some versions of the Socratic discussion the teacher, through a series of questions, leads the students inevitably to the truth; when it’s all over the students may be justifiably impressed at the wisdom and ability of the teacher, but may have very little idea of how they arrived where they did. Certainly they would be frequently unable to recreate the journey. In a Harkness discussion, the students are not following; they are required to help lead. This active engagement means that the students take more ownership of their learning, the result being that understanding is more fixed in their minds. These discussions are an outstanding method of checking for understanding, and provide students with instant and descriptive feedback on their ideas, as other students either confirm or challenge them. And, of course, the teacher will offer corrective or encouraging comments, as needed. One of the unexpected benefits I have seen is that retention of understanding of the topics from our discussions is  much better than when we used to merely ‘go over’ or even ‘discuss’ together in other ways. Harkness discussions require deep engagement and direct participation with the material in ways that lead to greater long-term retention. This helps most students make connections to previous learning very naturally, and others can be taught to do so.

Highly-engaged student discussions, with students required to not only answer questions but ask them, not only respond to teacher leading but to lead, develop in students a capacity for thoughtful, careful understanding of the text or subject at hand. Students improve their skills in presenting ideas effectively, but also in interacting with the ideas of others in a way that is collegial and respectful. The rhetoric stage does not always have to be about confronting and defeating error. It can be also be about working together in the search for, and application of, the truth of scripture in all areas of life. Harkness discussions provide students with wonderful opportunities to do all of this.

Monday, September 24, 2012

High-tech Irrelevance

As chalk and the chalkboard have been replaced in the classroom with high-tech, high-gloss so-called smart boards, they have resurfaced in the shop, the restaurant and the home, the texture and 'high-touch' proving irresistible. (In fact, 'blackboard' paints now make it possible to turn just about any surface into a blackboard or redboard or purpleboard.)

So, as distracted educators try to be so very relevant, shoehorning every new technology into classrooms in a vain attempt to 'keep kids interested', they in fact become less relevant. The truly fashionable now is chalk--dusty, textured, smeary, slow. The high-tech, instant and glossy, is so virtual and so fast that it outstrips our ability to stay connected to it. We can't touch it anymore, so we lose personal affinity for it. Of course we like the convenience, the connection to others that fast technology provides--even the intrigue of the new and the latest--but the speed and the visual orientation of it, with its illusion of touch (with the 'touchscreen' one touches only a screen and is never able to actually touch the object supposedly touched, the result being not connection but frustration), drives us to the slower and the tactile to balance our senses and surroundings. We seek equilibrium in slow, high involvement from our ever-faster, ever-sleeker virtual world.

Classical, Christian education is people-oriented, requires high involvement and is wonderfully low-tech. It is not, cannot be, instant because it insists on thoughtful consideration of ideas and words, not of images or activities to be manipulated on a screen. While the chalkboard may be gone for good in most classical classrooms (I am personally thankful for the dry-erase board), time and thought, human to human interaction, and the careful consideration of ideas are restored to their rightful place in the center of the interaction between teacher and student.

Monday, July 2, 2012

John Calvin on Sportsmanship

Well, maybe not quite. But here's a quotation definitely going into Veritas's Athletics Handbook and into our volleyball game program:

"Whatever gifts of God we notice in others, let us value and esteem both the gifts and their possessors, for it would betray great wickedness in us to rob them of their God-given honor."
- John Calvin, 'Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life', chapter 2

Sunday, April 29, 2012

From the Commonplace Book: McLuhan on the Arts

"The business of art recover the knowledge of that language which once man held by nature. The problem as to which of the arts should have priority in the work of explaining man and nature had arisen among the pre-Socratic philosophers."
The Classical Trivium, Marshall McLuhan

McLuhan is referencing the historical rivalry that existed among the advocates and practioners of the various arts of the trivium--grammar, dialectic, rhetoric.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

From the Commonplace Book: Petrarch on the Value of Studying Eloquence

"...for although ten thousand years may pass and centuries pile upon centuries, never will virtue be praised enough; never will there be enough lessons about how to love God and to hate sinful pleasures; never will the road to discovery of new ideas be closed to eager minds...Finally, even if love of other men should not compel us to it, still, I should think that the study of eloquence is the best and most beneficial thing for us ourselves, not something to be held in lowest esteem. Others may decide for themselves, but I cannot possibly tell you what value certain familiar and famous words have had for me in my solitude, words which I not only conceived in my mind, but spoke aloud, and which I have been accustomed to use to rouse my sleeping spirit."
(from Renaissance Debates on Rhetoric, Wayne A. Rebhorn, editor)

Monday, January 30, 2012

Johann Sturm: Selections from "Correct Opening of Elementary Schools of Letters", IV

"The virtues of the mind are ardor in understanding, zeal in searching, acumen in comprehending, industrious in accomplishing, and memory in preserving. For where these exist, there is also that integrity of mind of which Plato speaks--love of truth and hatred of what is false. It would be desirable if all such virtues were everywhere found alike in everyone, but this has not been ordained for man's nature which varies widely and is of many types. Those whose talents are found to be but mediocre, should not be rejected from school and elementary education. A judgment cannot be reached hastily and quickly. For some youths of keen mind and nature are at first slow to perceive, but in time and with practice later acquire speed in comprehension. Many youths display natures which lie asleep, oppressed by the dullness of the body. When informed and instructed they nevertheless emerge excellent and distinguished. In some there are excellent gifts of mental perception, but memory is at times slow and at times unreliable. Yet memory can be aroused by teaching and use. The primary concern is for the will which, when present, may be the hope for mental processes. If absent, it must first be stimulated with praise and promises, for many things that do not appear are merely latent...Yet the mediocre minds must also be endured and the poorer impulses of the mind can be improved with teaching and practice."

Johann Sturm (1507-1589), Johann Sturm on Education, Spitz and Tinsley (pg. 79)

Johann Sturm: Selections from "Correct Opening of Elementary Schools of Letters", III

"But in those teachers who are to be selected, three kinds of zeal should be observed: for the humanities, for virtue, and for teaching...Thus the teachers of letters should be not only learned but also endowed with virtue and be most avid for the fatherland and for public service...Furthermore, as to this point, care must be taken that, once the talent of those who are the best qualified is established, we always prefer those who combine ability to achieve with determination and zeal."

Johann Sturm (1507-1589), Johann Sturm on Education, Spitz and Tinsley (pp. 74-75)

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Johann Sturm: Selections from "Correct Opening of Elementary Schools of Letters", II

"The best kind of school, therefore, is one in which a system of teaching and of morality is scrupulously observed. For although the goal of our studies is a knowledge of the physical world, still, as we said before, if life if separated from teaching and letters,what usefulness does elegant and liberal education have? Accordingly, let piety and religion be set forth in schools and let the youthful spirit be trained for this through the cultivation of letters."
Johann Sturm on Education, Spitz and Tinsley (pg. 73)

Monday, January 2, 2012

Johann Sturm: Selections from "Correct Opening of Elementary Schools of Letters", I

"There are three things--and these are important--that produce prudence together with wisdom: namely nature, experience, and learning. The former two are common to nearly all people, nevertheless their nature is such that unless the third factor, i.e., learning and discipline, is joined with them, the one (nature) cannot be developed and the other (experience) cannot be employed in practical matters. For God has given us the power of mind together with life; some experience must exist in the man who has been given a rather long life and endowed with some diligence. But either one becomes worth more if a teacher of letters is brought in. When God has given to the teacher a good nature, he stands out always as useful and often as wholesome for the citizenry. But when literary elegance has been improperly applied to corrupted minds, frequently evil and very often wicked examples are apt to result.

For there is nothing more potent than learning. It has the greatest potential both for harming and for helping man. Many wise men have been nonchalant and contemptuous with impunity before threats of kings and tyrants who could not bear the enmity of poets or the shouting of orators. Therefore the arts and disciplines should be taught not only in conformance with the rules of the arts, but also in a way that promotes wholesomeness--both of which in our times have been vitiated."

Johann Sturm on Education, Spitz and Tinsley (pg 73)