How to Harkness:
Strategies and Advice for Implementing Harkness into Educational Practice.
In my last blog, Why is Classroom Dialogue so Important?, I put forward numerous articles of research that demonstrated the positive impact Harkness and other dialogical approaches can have on our pupils mastering subject knowledge. Without dialogic pedagogies, we risk that a pupils’ knowledge may become limited to knowledge regurgitation, as they have simply learned to transfer information without developing a coherent or holistic understanding of it. A teacher must deliver outstanding content but should also seek lesson time to promote conversation, questioning and discourse. This gives them a greater opportunity to remember information and to strengthen their ability to use and adapt it successfully.
So, how do you effectively implement Harkness? When do you start it and when is the best time to trial it? This blog simply takes you through these questions.
When can you Effectively Implement Harkness?
The following diagram is something I have touched upon in a few of my pedagogical talks. It is a summary of our purpose in the classroom and presents a visual map of how our methodologies must change as our pupils aim to master their subject knowledge. Harkness is a teaching strategy that can be implemented effectively into practice when you become a coacher (stage 3) and/or a refiner (stage 4) of your pupils’ understanding. It is not always effective earlier as modules and topics may require a basic understanding of core material which you might have to explicitly teach them.
I initially felt most confident implementing Harkness when pupils were consolidating their knowledge at the end of a topic or section from a literary work. However, I recently observed a Harkness between Phillips Exeter and Wellington students on Hamlet that demonstrated how Harkness can work to coach pupils into understanding the work. For this, teacher still needs slight input.
The audio below was recorded during this and demonstrates Harkness in Stage 3 where the teacher effectively coaches the students into their knowledge development. You can hear in the following recording that pupils are working through the extracts of Hamlet. Here, the teacher is still steering the conversation by asking questions to evoke the discussion and facilitates it towards language. The coaching style is non-threatening and the teacher is clever in his approach: he asks pupils what they do not understand to open the table up to the idea that there might be gaps in their knowledge at this point. What is most effective here, however, is that before answering the questions himself, he enables pupils to explore it. Therefore, the teacher plays a minor role.
But Where to Start?
It is important to remember that scaffolding is key. In order to make Harkness as effective as possible, you must train pupils on how to do it. It is essential to remember that they are not used to leading prolonged academic conversation and (in a surprisingly scary admittance), we usually haven’t taught them how to ask good academic questions. As a result, you cannot expect them to understand this level of independence instantly.
When first starting, it is useful to the follow three key steps: Preparation, Practice and Praise and Direct.
- Preparation: You have to guide them to the accurate material that will assist them in building a conversation around a subject.
I recently taught my Year 10s How to Harkness. This involved 2 lessons of ‘set up’ or Preparation before we organised the official Harkness lesson.
Lesson 1 involved gathering knowledge and material for the Harkness that they would bring to the discussion. Normally, I find this is much easier if you quantify the knowledge they need to prepare and give each pupil a role.
For this activity I asked one pupil on each table to find different knowledge of Macbeth. Pupil #1, for example, was asked to explore what they considered the most significant 3 sections of Lady Macbeth’s character. This encourages their own personal view – which might differ from their classmates. It also forces them to individually reflect on and actively critique the text; it involves them personally refining their knowledge and understanding.
Preparation for this task is vital. It is also a good homework activity to give them. You could put a few leading questions at this stage depending on the independent ability of your group. For example, you could further break down each section: Find 3 key images from each section and be able to explore the devices used by Shakespeare in these. It will depend on how comfortable with the task you feel your group are at this stage.
- Practice: You have to allow them space to vocalise their knowledge for an extended period of time.
The second lesson for this group that I gave was a Harkness practice lesson. It involved each pupil leading a ‘mini-Harkness’ on their tables (groups of 4) for 15 minutes. This encouraged their tables to add any information or key vocabulary that the pupil leading may have missed but also built their confidence in vocalising their ideas to each other before the whole class.
- Praise and Direct: You must stop every now and then to praise good, intelligent ideas and direct where pupils may have a gap in their knowledge – or are applying their knowledge incorrectly.
In my 5th form, I intervened every 20 minutes just to guide pupils to really vital information that had been raised. I would stop the discussion but still took a minor role when I drew attention back to something mentioned. In this following audio, you can hear how a quotation was mentioned in discussion and I coerced the pupil who had made the point to highlight it again to the class. In this sense, it was student led – I simply acknowledged that it was effective knowledge to have.
Don’t implement it too early: Ensure students have enough preparation time.
Don’t be afraid to give them a week to get their information together. It would be a superfluous exercise to implement Harkness if students do not have the groundwork to develop their understanding. As mentioned in my previous blog, classroom discussion is effective in heightening subject knowledge; it furthers critical thinking skills and forces students to adapt what they know into a coherent, cohesive argument. If they do not know anything, the impact of Harkness is arguably threatened. In such a case, the pupils may simply continually repeat their previous knowledge without deepening their understanding.
Don’t feel threatened by silences:
One of my outstanding colleagues, Tom Hicks (blog: here), said a student once told him:
“Sir, don’t worry about our silences… that’s when we are thinking.”
In the audio below a silence in the Harkness of my 5th form occurs. I do not intervene and you can see how a more confident pupil decides to move the learning forward:
At times, as practitioners, silences are the moment we are taught to intervene as it signals alarm bells for a lack of knowledge. If pupils fall silent throughout a Harkness, let the silence happen. It often happens that another pupil will add onto a point, complete their point or move the conversation along. Teach them to do this by giving them the sentence starters:
- ‘Now we have seemed to finish that point, I’d like to draw everyone’s attention to…’
- ‘I have a question for the group. I’d like to ask everyone what they thought…’
- ‘Do you agree that…’
- ‘I would like to raise a new point discussing…’
- ‘I would like to add on from that point to mention…’
Allow Debates to Happen:
We have also unlearned the healthiness of a good debate in our classroom. We believe it demonstrates rowdiness, or that pupils are out of our control. In Harkness, when pupils feel more comfortable, there will be times they appear to talk over each other. You will most likely find that this is diffused quite quickly. It should also be a good indicator that students are clearly passionate about the subject material enough to explore it in depth. If it does not diffuse, do not underestimate your ability to step in. Again, praise and direct pupils to vital points and give them time to explore how or why an argument occurred – all of which can be extremely interesting!
Below is an audio clip of a Harkness debates. It is quite interesting as it shows how passionate the pupils feel about the content but the debate is also very quickly diffused as pupils begin to reason with each other:
Harkness is a great tool to assess a student’s understanding of content.
Some students have a good knowledge of content material but simply need work in the skills to apply this knowledge in an exam format. Harkness is a great way to build the confidence of these pupils and also identify whether it is examination skills they’re missing or subject knowledge.
Finally, teach them that Harkness is not answering a question, it is about exploring it. Knowledge is about knowing the ‘right’ answer but also knowing why something is ‘not the right answer’ and accurate knowledge is an ability to understand in depth (and width) rather than simply on the surface.