One of the defining problems in the British education system is the significant distance that exists between phases and sectors. Secondary teachers can mistrust primary colleagues (“They’re not really Level 5 are they?); state teachers can resent teachers in the independent sector (“Of course their results are great. Look at their facilities! And they’re selective!”); mainstream colleagues can patronise special school teachers (“Ah, you must be so patient.” *Cocks head to one side and wrinkles nose up*).
“So what?” you might say. I know that I have much to learn from colleagues working in schools very different from my own. More importantly to me, though, the stratification of our system entrenches the social isolation that children with learning difficulties face. Not only are they out of mainstream education but they are, consequently, out of sight and mind to most children, teachers and, crucially, policy makers.
Future health and wealth indicators for children with learning difficulties are dire. Research shows that they die younger1; they are more likely to develop mental health problems2; and as adults they are poorer3. Less than 10% of adults with learning difficulties work, and most of those that do work part-time.
Poverty also increases the likelihood of a child having a learning difficulty. Emerson and Hatton5 reported that exposure to poverty and disadvantage appeared to significantly increase the risk of acquiring intellectual disabilities. It is unsurprising, therefore, to find that there are children in my school whose parents attended the same school a generation ago.
The gradient that our students have to climb to secure paid employment means that our curriculum is geared towards doing what we can to improve their chances in the job market. Mencap4 identify the attitudes of others as one of the biggest barriers. Society expects precisely nothing from people with learning difficulties so we need to make ourselves highly visible and secure opportunities for our students to show others what they can do.
My colleagues and I from Carwarden House, a school for students with learning difficulties, have worked hard to build a solid partnership with Wellington College that is blossoming. Both schools are at the extremities of the educational continuum in England. 7% of all children in England are privately educated and 1.1% of all children go to a special school. We appear poles apart but the reality is that our schools, whilst looking superficially different, have much in common, share the same values and are ultimately trying to achieve the same things.
Our partnership started with the recruitment of one of the senior teachers at Wellington to our governing body as a parent governor (he’s now our Chair and has been joined by another Wellington colleague); we hosted a Wellington teacher as part of their PGCE; I sit on the board of the Wellington College Teaching School Partnership; I have delivered a speech at one of their chapel services; we hold our annual Prize-Giving Evening at Wellington College. All good, but not a Carwarden student working with a Wellington student in sight. If our partnership was to have any real strength it needed children to be involved.
This is where Ed Venables and Maria Ramsay come in. Ed is the Housemaster of The Stanley and an Old Wellingtonian and Maria teaches sixth formers at Carwarden House. Each week a group of students from each school meet and students from Carwarden House now undertake work placements in the Stanley boarding house. Ed and Maria have created an inspiring set-up that is led by the students. The staff involved are conscious that the world view of our students will be broadened considerably by spending time getting to know others they would not naturally gravitate towards.
In the first term of the partnership Maria and I were kindly invited to an assembly at The Stanley where the students involved in the partnership explained their learning to the rest of the boarding house. The students had taken the time to learn more about autism, fragile X syndrome and Down syndrome. A common refrain was, “I’m learning more from him than he is from me.” This is precisely the kind of outcome I’m looking for. The social confidence of my students is rocketing and I can see such maturity, fun, sensitivity and creativity in the Wellington students.
The students are all now firm friends and any hesitation or trepidation that may have understandably existed initially is now long gone. As Ed said recently, “When the students are together there is no sense of sector – they are simply teenagers.”
Ed and I recently discussed the progress the students have made this year. It is very hard to quantify but we have an exciting research project in the offing with Simon Walker from Human Ecology on assessing the improvements in heuristic cognition6 of the students. However, much of the dividend of this work will never be seen. It may manifest itself in the career choice of one of the students after university; it may make such a profound impression on them that in years to come they become the governor of a special school as is the case forAntony Power,a governor atCarwarden House. It may be the boost one of my students needs to their social confidence that they manage better in the workplace. It might convince them that they can make lasting friendships with people that they think are different from themselves.
Alvaro from Wellington recently commented to Maria that from now on he would never use the words special needs or disabled. James from Carwarden House recently interrupted a teacher when they commented on the link with Wellington. “It’s not a link. It’s a friendship.”
When I was 15 I spent some time finding out about life in the army. I met another student there who asked me what school I went to.
“Brakenhale,” I replied.
“I’ve never heard of that school. I go to Pangbourne College.”
“It’s a comprehensive in Bracknell,” I said.
“I spent a day in a comprehensive once. It was horrible.”
At the very least that kind of conversation is not going to be repeated with the students who spend each week working, laughing and joking together. They are simply teenagers.
Jarlath O’Brien is Headteacher of Carwarden House Community School, a special academy in Surrey.
Guest post by Dr. Christina Hinton, Catherine Glennon,
and Abeer Alam – Harvard GSE faculty
In classrooms, on playgrounds, and in homes, students continually hear messages, implicit or explicit, about intelligence. The kinds of praise we offer students, the way we respond to their mistakes, and how we react to their successes, all impact their beliefs about intelligence. As a result, students hold implicit beliefs about intelligence, their own abilities, and the abilities of others.
Dr. Carol Dweck has carried out groundbreaking research on students’ understanding of intelligence and how it influences school success. Her work shows that students tend to possess one of two belief systems – or ‘mindsets’ – about intelligence. Students with a fixed-mindset believe that intelligence is innate and unchangeable. By contrast, students with a growth-mindset understand that intelligence is flexible. Growth-minded students realize that with dedicated effort, their skills and abilities can develop over time. These students tend to approach challenges as ‘bumps in the road’ while fixed-minded students tend to view set-backs as ‘roadblocks.’
Students’ mindsets significantly impact their success in school. Years of mounting evidence shows that growth-minded students tend to have better academic outcomes than their fix-minded peers. In addition, they are more likely to be intrinsically motivated, enjoying learning for the pleasure of learning rather than just to reach an external goal. Moreover, recent research suggests that having a growth mindset is associated with both self-esteem and self-compassion as well. Clearly, the beliefs a student has about intelligence have important consequences for his or her own learning.
Does a student’s beliefs about intelligence impact his or her classmates’ learning as well? Researchers from Harvard Graduate School of Education partnered with the Wellington Learning and Research Centre to explore the relationship between students’ mindsets and their attitudes towards helping classmates. Researchers collected data from 2,627 students in year groups 7 – 13 in a diverse network of UK schools, including The Bulmershe School, St. Crispin’s, and Waingels College, and Wellington College. These students took an online survey that was designed to measure their mindsets as well as their attitudes towards helping their peers.
Results reveal that students with a growth mindset are more inclined to help their classmates with academic work and beyond. There is a statistically significant positive correlation between growth mindset and helpfulness. Moreover, growth-minded students are more likely to respond that they care deeply about their peers, would go out of their way to help them, and genuinely enjoy helping others. These intriguing results suggest that if students believe intelligence can change with time and effort, they are more likely to find it worthwhile to invest time and effort in helping others improve. As one growth-minded student explained, “Helping another student contributes to improving their intelligence.” With this, we see that a growth mindset not only benefits those students who have it – but also supports other students to succeed.
Blackwell, L., Trzesniewski, K., & Dweck, C.S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78, 246-263.
Mueller, C. & Dweck, C. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children›s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1), 33-52.
Dockterman, D., & Blackwell, L. (2014). Growth mindset in context content and culture matter too. International Centre for Leadership in Education. Retrievedfrom www.leadered.com/pdf/GrowthMindset.pdf.
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.
Putting aside serious pastoral issues, the most challenging and frustrating issue that I deal with year-in, year-out when running a boarding house is a handful of boys who simply fail to discover or demonstrate any motivation towards academic work. Often they will have no lasting motivation towards anything despite, perhaps, their social lives. In every sense they are wasting a fantastic opportunity but they fail to see this and end up suffering sanction after sanction from the school and from their parents.
It has therefore been an issue that I have been working on this year in conjunction with Wellington’s research group’s work on growth mindsets and resilience. These boys essentially appear to have fixed mindsets with very low levels of resilience. Below, I will attempt to describe how I am using the notion of ‘service to others’ to try to change the mindsets of these boys.
I have experimented with various approaches, from pure punishment to pure encouragement, from direction to coaching, with little sustained success. The pupils appear not to appreciate the bigger picture, they have no goals to aim for and hence really do not see the point of putting themselves out; they lack resilience in this sense. The vast majority of the boys in this situation come from supportive families and so it seems to me to be, in most cases, an issue intrinsic to them. Of course there may be historical factors that I have missed or am not aware of and this may merit further investigation.
Knowing these students as their housemaster I felt that I wanted to experiment with seeking to get them a better appreciation of where they stand in the world. I have therefore changed the way we introduce ‘service’ in the house this year. The main group that I am working with is my Year 11 group, mainly because it was possible to timetable a weekly service session for them and I could also take advantage of the time they have when they finish their GCSE exams in the summer. They are doing two things which I hope will increase their inclination towards a growth mindset and their resilience. As a research project in itself it is not ideal because the evidence gained is only anecdotal this year but we hope to measure the impact more scientifically next year. I hope that I will have fewer boys lacking motivation in the sixth form as a result of this.
The weekly service session has involved them being visited by or visiting students from a local school for children with medium learning difficulties. Ten of my students have got to know personally ten students from Carwarden House School and have designed activities to do with them each week. The learning curve has been very steep for both sets of students. The Wellington students have spoken about being very unsure beforehand and the early sessions were certainly awkward. Two terms later, however, they greet each other as friends and the atmosphere between the groups is relaxed and easy. The Wellington students speak about how they have really discovered the personalities of their peers at Carwarden. Their genuine frustration is simply that time has precluded the Carwarden students really discovering their full personalities. It has amazed me, however, to see how the similar characters in the groups have been drawn to each other – as with any teenage group! The Carwarden students have gained immensely in social confidence and will hopefully come across as such when seeking employment in future. What makes this project different, in my opinion, is the direct relationships that have been built. It has been about seeking to make friends rather than simply ‘serve’ in an abstract way. It has involved the hearts of all involved and this has been so special.
The second challenge – three days climbing the 14 1000m peaks in Snowdonia (aiming to raise a significant sum of money each for their chosen charity helping children with special needs) – was designed to give them the realisation that through their efforts they can change other people’s lives. This walk takes place in late June.
I have gathered feedback and reflections from my students via peer-led video interviews and via a harkness-style classroom session. The vocabulary that they use to describe their thoughts coincides strongly with that expected to be used by students with a growth mindset and I hope that this is an early indication that progress has been made. I haven’t been targeting any particular student this year but my colleague from Carwarden House, Maria Ramsey, has noticed big changes over the course of the year in some of my students – especially those who might be future concerns – and this seems to me to be a good indicator of success.
As above, I hope that this method of grounding my students a little more will have a positive impact on their mindsets and this in turn will help them academically and otherwise now and in the future. Next year I hope to use Simon Walker’s heuristic model to identify and quantify the impact this project (and the fund-raising challenge) has made on both my students and those from Carwarden House School. Ultimately, I hope that we can show that ‘serving others in a wholehearted way’ really can be a realistic and scalable way to help students change their mindsets.
Two recent education news stories, the proposal to introduce ‘base-line testing’ for 4 year olds*, and the argument about whether 40% of PGCE students drop out within a year*, or whether it’s ‘only’ 20%, confirm my growing suspicion that we’re caught in a data trap*, and that much of what passes for educational debate is centred around the benefits, or otherwise, of measuring stuff just because it can be measured. The pre-occupation with data provides an ideal bait and switch: instead of debating educational philosophy or the ideas and ideals that brought us into teaching in the first place, teachers find ourselves arguing over whose numbers are correct, as if defending or disproving the numbers defends or disproves the validity of claims about the meaning, purpose and effects of the way we do schooling. The idea that properly empirical qualitative research can shed some light on seemingly intractable problems is an attractive one for those of us who consider ourselves academics, but in the hurly-burly of popular prejudice, political manipulation and personal preference which attends every aspect of our schools, the latest bit of data all too often just generates more heat.
I have my views like anyone else, and they’re increasingly informed by the realisation that, on any given stage of education from pre-school to post-grad that you care to type into Google, there is already enough data to drown in. Schools of Education, not to mention departments of Psychology, Sociology and Economics, have been crunching the numbers for decades, drawing conclusions and arguing over the ramifications of the studies they’ve set up to explore, disprove or develop whatever great pedagogical innovation or totalitarian government imposition we’re excited about this year.
I’m not implying that subjecting educational claims to at least theoretically verifiable research is necessarily a futile or unhelpful exercise; it’s worthwhile if only to keep us teachers, susceptible to trends, fads and the influence of plausible charlatans as we are, honest and critically evaluative, if not sceptical. Nor would I wish to suggest that anyone doesn’t want ‘what’s best for the children’, even as we accept and impose the latest round of management/government directives in the drive for raised standards through increased accountability. Most teachers aren’t sadists, just as most politicians aren’t soulless technocrats who actively pursue a policy of churning out compliant factory fodder to compete in the global economy. But when the debate seems to be driven by the the complaints of business leaders that our children are not (even) good at the skills (mainly, but not exclusively, STEM) they need to compete in the global economy, and by methodology-focused reactions and in-fighting among the pedagogues, it does seem that a question is being begged. It’s almost as if we accept the at least debatable, if not dubious, premise that what’s best for the children is a process of ‘education’ that renders them ‘fit for purpose’ for lives as working adults in ‘the global economy’, a dehumanised concept carrying ideas of inexorable and essentially competitive striving that appears to bear little relation to everyday teaching experience, but nonetheless looms threateningly over us all – God forbid I might be the teacher whose lack of adherence to a rubric, whether through incompetence or misplaced idealism, condemns my pupils to future lives of being uncompetitive in the global economy! Even if we don’t accept that premise, and many of us don’t, we tend to get so caught up in the ‘hows’ of teaching and learning that we lose sight of the ‘whys’.
What is it all for? (I could just as easily ask who is it all for, because while much that is written purports to be about the children and young people who are the objects of all this ‘educational’ endeavour, there is little evidence that the children and young people themselves are the intended audience: they’re hardly ever consulted and their views hardly ever appear to be required.)
Asking ‘What is education for?’ takes the spotlight off practice for a moment and re-focuses it on educational ideals. It allows us to engage with each other not as methodological adversaries, but as allies in a common cause, having some view about what that common cause might be. It’s not about retreating into an ‘ivory tower’ either (a dead metaphor resting on a false dichotomy, applied to the academic field by those who fancy a world view defined by economic Darwinism to be the ‘real world’): the question ‘What is education for?’ concerns itself precisely with real life; it moves us away from an atomised and mechanistic view of education comprised of component parts like ‘literacy’ and ‘numeracy’ to which other bits like ‘citizenship’, ‘SRE’ and even ‘character’ must be bolted on, in response to a perceived social problem re-framed as a failure of schooling.
Asking ‘What is education for?’ allows us to ask questions about reasoning and critical thinking that inform our practice. It invites explorations of our ability to communicate ideas to our pupils, and of what ideas we may be communicating without intending to. In an election year, it raises awareness of ourselves as citizens with agency in society, rather than mere classroom practitioners with no wider or more general educational concerns than getting through the next batch of coursework marking. Asking the question ‘What is education for?’ compels us to shift the debate away from instrumentalism and towards questions of human flourishing which should be, and (backed up by the relevant research) I hazard, are the reasons most of us became teachers in the first place.
Dr Simon Walker is Director of Research at Human Ecology Education, a company researching the contribution of heuristic cognition to the educational outcomes of primary, secondary and tertiary pupils.
Heuristic cognition, from the Greek ‘to discover’, refers to how the brain engages with the real world. For the past 100 years, education has focused narrowly on IQ as the critical cognitive capacity that drives academic outcomes. IQ gives a decent account of the brains’ ability to perform complex computations with knowledge it already has; however, it is less relevant to how the brain tackles novel challenges and real world situations. For example, thinking about going shopping to a supermarket and how to shop most efficiently. To achieve that, the brain has to process many different kinds of data simultaneously- about prices, store layout, people’s movements, signage. It has to track down maybe 100 specific items from a range of many tens of thousands; it has to filter out noise, distraction; it has to interpret offers, judge against budgets; it has to work out when to ask for help, whether an offer is a real offer, how to select the shortest queue…. All this requires heuristic cognition; the cognitive process that directs how we navigate and engage with the world as it comes towards us.
Education needs to prepare young people for the world they will live and work in. That world rarely comes in the form of paper-based tests and long essays. Many employers these days are complaining that graduates are un-ready for the tasks and skills actually required in the work place, despite getting good degrees. Those employers need schools to develop not just student’s academic ability but their real-world cognitive abilities.
We are running a large scale research programme called ‘Measuring the Mind’ to understand the contribution of heuristic cognition to both academic and non-academic student outcomes. For example, from our research, we know that it is a critical and early indicator of mental health risks- an increasing problem in high performing students, especially girls. We also know that it contributes up to 20% to academic outcomes in some subjects at GCSE and A Level. We know some schools are better at fostering it than others. We think there may be a potential dividend for schools by developing student’s heuristic capacity that is currently untapped and unmeasured.
Currently we have 22 schools and 10,000 students involved in a cross-sectoral secondary school study which was endorsed by the Wellington Learning and Research Centre and sponsored by Sir Anthony Seldon. We also have a primary and prep school programme launching in a group of schools in London next year, as well as an international programme. It’s a multi-year study and each year, new schools can get involved. There is a modest annual registration fee and school leaders should get in touch if they would like their school to take part.
I’m very excited about them. My hopes are that schools will recover their confidence as places of learning as well as outcomes. A relentless focus on outcomes have made some teachers forget (or lose confidence) that they too are learners; I see the school-based research agenda as rebuilding teacher’s confidence, curiosity and energy in discovering and learning about their craft for themselves. However, research is always a cost: in time and money. It needs brave school and governmental leaders to recognise the benefit of this investment.
To find out more about whether your school could be part of the ‘Measuring the Mind’ programme go to
I’ve long thought that one of the weakest proxy indicators of effective learning is engagement, and yet it’s a term persistently used by school leaders (and some researchers) as one of the most important measures of quality. In fact many of the things we’ve traditionally associated with effective teachers may not be indicative of students actually learning anything at all.
At the #ascl2015 conference last Friday, the always engaging Professor Rob Coe gave a talk entitled ‘From Evidence to Great Teaching’ and reiterated this claim. Take the following slide – How many ‘outstanding’ lessons have been awarded so based on this checklist?
Now these all seem like key elements of a successful classroom, so what’s the problem? and more specifically, why is engagement is such a poor proxy indicator – surely the busier they are, the more they are learning?
“Our research shows that students can be busiest and most involved with material they already know. In most of the classrooms we have studied, each student already knows about 40-50% of what the teacher is teaching.” p.24
Nuthall’s work shows that students are far more likely to get stuck into tasks they’re comfortable with and already know how to do as opposed to the more uncomfortable enterprise of grappling with uncertainty and indeterminate tasks. A good example of this as Alex Quigley has pointed out is that engagement in the form of the seemingly visible activity of highlighting is often “little more than colouring in.” Furthermore, teachers are more than happy to sanction that kind of stuff in the name of fulfilling that all important ‘engagement’ proxy indicator so prevalent in lesson observation forms.
“Learning requires motivation, but motivation does not necessarily lead to learning.”p.35
Motivation and engagement and vital elements in learning but it seems to be what they are used in conjunction with that determines impact. It is right to be motivating students but motivated to do what? If they are being motivated to do the types of tasks they already know how to do or focus on the mere performing of superficial tasks at the expense of the assimilation of complex knowledge then the whole enterprise may be a waste of time.
Learning is in many cases invisible as outlined many times by David Didau and is certainly not linear but rather more nebulous in actuality. As Prof. Coe reminds us, ‘learning happens when people have to think hard’ but unfortunately there is no easy way of measuring this, so what does he suggest is effective in terms of evidencing quality?
Ultimately he argues that it comes down to a more nuanced set of practitioner/student skills, habits and conditions that are very difficult to observe, never mind measure. Things like “selecting, integrating, orchestrating, adapting, monitoring, responding” and which are contingent on “context, history, personalities, relationships” and which all work together to create impact and initiate effective learning. So while engagement and motivation are important elements in learning they should be seen as part of a far more complex conglomerate of factors that traditional lesson observations have little hope of finding in a 20 min drive-by.
This is where a more robust climate of research and reflective practice can inform judgements. It’s true that more time for teachers to be critically reflective will improve judgements but we also need to be more explicit in precisely what it is we are looking for and accept that often the most apparent classroom element may also be the most misleading.
Project Title: Pedagogical approaches to delivery of a knowledge-led, content-rich GCSE and A Level curriculum: Learning from Independent Schools. Subject: Maths, English, Biology, Chemistry and Physics Key Stage: 4 & 5 Project Description: The project will link state and independent school teachers together in order to identify and utilise the strategies used by independent schools to ensure high levels of knowledge and achievement for GCSE and A-Level students.
Christ the King Sixth Form College has been chosen to lead an innovative new project, working in partnership with Eton College, North London Collegiate, St Paul’s Boys School and Wellington College. Google are also a partner, who will help the project develop a number of virtual networks for teachers. This exciting initiative is part of the Mayor of London’s Schools Excellence Project.
The two-year project will be investigating the strategies that independent schools utilise to ensure their pupils achieve top exam grades, and how they secure places for their students at Russell Group universities in such large numbers. The aim is to understand whether these strategies are transferable to the state sector and whether than can they be scaled up to be made available to a wider community across London.
The London Schools Excellence Fund was launched by Boris Johnson in 2013 and the CTK project is one of the largest within the scheme. It will involve Christ the King maths, English and science teachers working with a number of prestigious independent schools. CTK staff will undertake lesson research with their independent school counterparts, and hosting similar visits from the independent school teachers. The intention is to identify best practise in subject-specific teaching, recognising and harnessing teacher strengths wherever they are seen.
The use of new technologies will be explored in partnership with Google and innovative ways to share subject and teaching expertise will be modelled. A London-wide independent state School brokerage will also be launched, so that partnership between the state and independent sectors is encouraged, supported and sustainable.
“With the right mindset, we can motivate our kids and help them to raise their grades, as well as reach our own goals–personal and professional. Dweck reveals what all great parents, teachers, CEOs, and athletes already know: how a simple idea about the brain can create a love of learning and a resilience that is the basis of great accomplishment in every area.”
The chapters on Mindset, Self-Regulation, Deliberate Practice, and Talent are particularly relevant. The book is an accessible and informative read that consolidates the latest research. Recommended to all people starting out their research on grit and growth mindsets.
“The basic strategy we use for raising children, teaching students, and managing workers can be summarized in six words: Do this and you’ll get that. We dangle goodies (from candy bars to sales commissions) in front of people in much the same way we train the family pet. Drawing on a wealth of psychological research, Alfie Kohn points the way to a more successful strategy based on working with people instead of doing things to them. “Do rewards motivate people?” asks Kohn. “Yes. They motivate people to get rewards.” Seasoned with humor and familiar examples, Punished By Rewards presents an argument unsettling to hear but impossible to dismiss.”
“For students who have had trouble in school, or who have had a negative summer, it is especially important to get the school year off to a fresh start. And for all students, having a positive mindset makes learning much more likely. Here are three activities to help accomplish these goals.”
“Stanford University’s Carol Dweck on the Growth Mindset and Education”
“There is a major disconnect between schools and the real world on the notion of failure. School teaches us there is only one answer for every problem. And if we don’t get it, we are a failure. This dissuades students from trying — they fear failure. We need to teach students how to make friends with failure.”
“What’s Your Learning Disposition? How to Foster Students’ Mindsets”
“Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindsets has dominated much of the attention around how students can influence their own learning. But there are other ways to help students tap into their own motivation, too. Here are a few other important mindsets to consider.”
“New Research: Students benefit from learning that intelligence is not fixed”
“Teaching students that intelligence can grow and blossom with effort – rather than being a fixed trait they’re just born with – is gaining traction in progressive education circles. And new research from Stanford is helping to build the case that nurturing a growth mindset can help many kids understand their true potential.”
Brené Brown studies human connection — our ability to empathize, belong, love. In a poignant, funny talk, she shares a deep insight from her research, one that sent her on a personal quest to know herself as well as to understand humanity. A talk to share.
Shame is an unspoken epidemic, the secret behind many forms of broken and fixed-minded behavior. Brené Brown, whose earlier talk on vulnerability became a viral hit, explores what can happen when people confront their shame head-on. Her own humor, humanity and vulnerability shine through every word.
By Rachel Trafford, Head of Geography at Wellington College.
During the academic year 2012/2013, having taught at Wellington for a couple of years following a PGCE, I chose to write a Master’s dissertation on the use of Harkness teaching to develop students’ discussion skills. My primary aim was to shed some informative light on its role as a pedagogical tool to promote the “holy grail” of student-centred independent learning and intellectual discovery. I used my Third Form (Year 9) Geography class over a single academic year as my subjects and adopted a semi-quantitative methodology: content analysis of discussion transcripts, supported by outcomes of a retrospective student questionnaire of participants, and with the intention of deriving a suitable framework for coding discussions in order to assess (or, at least, compare objectively) their relative quality and hence the class’s progress over time. In the absence of a “control” group (i.e. a parallel class not exposed to the Harkness method whilst studying the same material) for comparison, and a relatively small sample size (22 students), the study tended towards providing a rich source of information – and, in fact, probably raised more questions than it answered – rather than offering robust, unambiguous conclusions.
Harkness teaching is a pedagogical strategy pioneered in the 1930s by the Phillips Exeter Academy (PEA), New Hampshire, USA and adopted wholly by that school ever since. Whilst it is difficult to provide an exact definition, at its philosophical heart is a way of learning whereby the class (usually of 12 students at PEA) come together to “share, discuss and discover” (http://www.exeter.edu/admissions/109_1220.aspx) based on whatever preparatory material they have worked on individually in advance: anything from a passage of Shakespeare to a series of complex algebraic problems, for example. The class sit around an oval-shaped table to facilitate a Socratic style of learning driven by the students (i.e. rather than the teacher, whose primary role should be as observer: this is key): by sharing and exploring new knowledge; verbalising and communicating their thoughts; accepting new ideas and questioning old ones; considering and analysing a variety of viewpoints; listening carefully to one another; challenging each other intellectually; and grappling with complex concepts through collaborative, deep discussion. The beauty of Harkness, therefore, is that it inherently promotes student independence and responsibility, as well as their ability to interact, communicate and collaborate, and develops higher-order thinking skills such as analysis and evaluation. In its purest form – as at PEA – every lesson is in a Harkness style; at Wellington (where it was first introduced in 2008), it represents just one implement in a teacher’s “toolkit” of various strategies and hence is used periodically rather than regularly (in most cases). As a result, Wellingtonians tend to be relative “Harkness novices”; but increasingly relish the challenge of the elevated level of responsibility they take on in a Harkness lesson. The difficulty for us as teachers – hence the nature of this study – is to enable students to learn how to equip themselves with the skills necessary to conduct a high-quality discussion and so to derive the various benefits of this style of learning. However, it is also worth noting here that the actual discussion lesson is just one strand of PEA’s “share, discuss, discover” philosophy and therefore the success of Harkness teaching depends on the wider school ethos engendering a culture and attitude towards learning which enables preparation of a sufficient quality to permit a productive discussion.
The purpose of my research was not simply to measure whether the class achieved a significant improvement in the quality of their discussions, nor to assess the impact of Harkness teaching on learning compared with an alternative pedagogical method. Rather, of particular interest was to examine the nature of the changes in the skills students demonstrated over the course of the year: to identify (if possible) what characteristics or features could enable an assessment of a discussion’s “quality”; and, if successful, to apply these criteria to analyse how the students’ discussion skills changed (and, hopefully, improved!) over time. Moreover, the greatest benefit might be simply the product of detailed and thoughtful observation: its potential to offer some practical implications for teachers seeking to enhance students’ discussion and thinking skills using the Harkness method; and to provide some useful input on how effectively it is (and could be) used at Wellington.
The class conducted three discussions over the course of the academic year, on a variety of topics from the development of China to conflicts associated with urban planning and development in the local area. Each discussion was centred on one overarching question and the class was split in half to hold two simultaneous (in two different classrooms; I recorded the discussions on dictaphones to enable subsequent transcription for analysis) “11-a-side” discussions since keeping all 22 students together would have been a rather large group. In preparation, students were initially given stimulus materials as well as a scaffolded worksheet to organise their ideas and guide their research: since they were early on in their “Harkness careers” the level of support was relatively high but was gradually removed over the course of the year. The discussions lasted for between 15 and 30 minutes and were retrospectively transcribed and then coded: to differentiate between participant contributions which were primarily descriptive vs explanatory vs expressing opinion; to identify contributions that made reference to the support material vs other secondary material; and – most crucial in ensuring the quality of a Harkness discussion lesson – to identify contributions that asked questions of other participants. In addition to this semi-quantitative analysis, I also compiled and circulated to all the student participants an anonymous survey to capture their perceptions of the experience.
In summary of my findings, a sample size of only three discussions makes it difficult to draw robust conclusions about the extent to which the class (let alone individuals) made progress in improving their discussion skills over the course of the year. However, a sense of progress was recognised by the students who commented that they grew in confidence and were increasingly willing to participate in Harkness discussions, as well as deriving greater enjoyment from that style of lesson over time. The vast majority of students reported that they found the discussion lessons “extremely useful” in enhancing their communication and critical thinking skills, as well as helping them to learn more effectively since it requires greater independence, so it was reassuring that some of the Harkness method aims were both valued and – to an extent – achieved by students. There are three outcomes worth noting in particular that arise from the study.
First, the impact on students’ listening skills was less well recognised and, from a teacher’s perspective, was also a significant area for improvement. Students need to work on their ability to interrogate a topic in depth – rather than skipping over detail – and to challenge each other intellectually, both of which require careful listening in order to respond meaningfully so that a series of apparently rather unrelated points becomes genuine dialogue. The transcript analysis revealed that students were far more likely to make statements than to ask questions of each other, suggesting that encouraging a greater frequency of questions could offer a route to success – in addition to helping students to recognise and therefore value the art of listening – in achieving a higher quality discussion as a result of greater intellectual depth. That applies not only to “evidence-seeking” questions challenging others’ opinions but also to “knowledge-seeking” questions for more effective academic interrogation of a concept. Having said that, the frequency of questions as opposed to statements did increase over the course of the year, indicating some progress was made.
Second, the type of contribution most commonly made – as would probably be expected, given the nature of the discussion topics – was that of “expressing opinion”, but the frequency of references to support or secondary material did increase over the year, as students learnt to provide justification for their opinions rather than merely stating their point of view. This is another area with significant room for improvement, though, as statements still tended to be unsubstantiated and to go unchallenged; which ties in with my previous point about effective listening and questioning to achieve greater intellectual depth.
Third, the frequency of “procedural” contributions – i.e. those referring to the structure and procedure of the discussion – increased over the course of the year as students gradually recognised the need for a purposeful thread to avoid the “beginner’s curse” of a Harkness discussion characterised by a collection of unrelated statements. The discussions did tend to rely on a chairperson, though, which provided a sort of “halfway house” between a teacher-centred and a student-centred classroom in terms of power and direction: a more desirable, genuinely student-centred model to work towards would be one where that responsibility is shared collectively amongst the group. That transition is probably one of the most challenging for students, as indicated in the questionnaire which revealed that the relatively passive role of the teacher in the lesson is, for the majority of newcomers, the most striking characteristic of a Harkness classroom. It is worth noting that all three outcomes – promoting depth of understanding, providing evidence in support and the value of structure – are particularly significant aspects of the Harkness method since they have the capacity to have a tangible impact on students’ written work where those traits are similarly desirable.
So, I have highlighted several tangible outcomes of the research which – rather than providing robust measurable indicators of Harkness discussion quality – offer potential practical ideas for teachers to use in the classroom which may help to achieve desirable educational outcomes. Given the capacity for variation in interpretation of the concept of Harkness teaching, it is important to view Harkness not as a “magic solution” but instead to appreciate that it is likely to vary in its implementation from one classroom to another, dependent on – amongst many factors – the prior experience of the teacher and the class as well as the institutional context. At Wellington we are collaborating with experienced colleagues from PEA to work collectively towards our own, workable “brand” of Harkness since it is not adopted here in the same, pure form. Beyond the differences between the US and UK education systems (arguably characterised by significantly less freedom here thanks to prescriptive national curricula and a results-driven exam culture) one of the greatest challenges for us at Wellington is to reach greater consistency across subject disciplines to help students adjust to the relatively unfamiliar pedagogy, whilst our Harkness teaching continues to evolve as we gain experience. The biggest task, particularly when students are not faced with a Harkness approach every lesson – though at PEA teachers face the same challenge when students are new to the school – is to be able to help students to succeed in making progress by giving them practical, tangible techniques (such as to develop the habit of asking questions more frequently) to sow the seeds of accomplished Harkness practitioners. Helping students to recognise the value of desirable habits which can be difficult to articulate and define – such as the ability to listen effectively; to be able to challenge someone else intellectually rather than aggressively; to be able to respond to someone else’s challenge thoughtfully rather than defensively; and to be able to comprehend the meaning of deep understanding – is the first hurdle.