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Harkness teaching and UK education
Head of VI Form and leading Harkness practitioner Dr Guy Williams on a US-developed pedagogy which is growing in use over here.
‘Harkness’ teaching is a pedagogy based on round-the-table discussion between students, in which peer-to-peer dialogue is emphasised. This is different from a teacher-led dialogue, in which points keep being referred back to or get directed by a teacher. The whole point is to get students talking to one another, so that they become responsible for the intellectual content of the lesson. To put it visually, you can imagine a teacher-led dialogue as a map on which all roads lead to Rome: comments and questions keep coming back to the hub of the classroom, the professional educator. A Harkness map meanwhile would look like a mesh of many intersecting routes, as the impetus for the dialogue comes from all corners.
This approach to teaching was developed by a small group of private schools in the US, starting with Phillips Exeter Academy, which put in place a new system of small group teaching in the 1930’s (naming the philosophy after a major benefactor: Edward Harkness). It spread among other prominent US schools (Andover, Lawrenceville, etc.) and now table-based seminars are fairly common in American private schools. Given this success, it’s curious that Harkness teaching hasn’t been much imported into the UK education system. In fact, the Harkness method itself is partly a product of UK teaching – staff from Phillips Exeter identified good teaching with the tutorials and seminars of Oxford and Cambridge while developing what would become their philosophy. One might imagine that it would made a natural fit in British schools.
At Wellington College, we see great value in promoting Harkness as part of our tool kit for teaching and learning. The advantages are many: it puts the onus on the students, requires independence and critical thinking, it works through collaboration and constructive discussion (not point scoring), and so it develops a lot of the intellectual and social skills that we require of our students. To be successful in Harkness, you must be a good listener, a thinker, empathetic, articulate, and unashamedly intellectual. Given all of these advantages, introducing Harkness at scale would seem to be a good move for any progressive school wishing to develop an open and academic culture.
However, there are a few hurdles to overcome before Harkness can take off over here, partly based on the way in which we perceive the educational cultures of our schools.
It could be argued that Harkness is skills-based and process-driven, chiefly interested in how students behave in a learning environment, whereas the UK system puts emphasis on performance and outcomes. Most teaching in US schools is not related to a specific, external, high-stakes assessment, whereas UK 6th formers are all taking A Level or IB courses. In other words, Harkness is how we would like to teach in an ideal world, but we are trapped in the iron cage of league tables, inspections, UCAS, and other performance-driven systems. Harkness is a luxury we cannot afford.
There are a couple of misconceptions at work here.
Firstly, it’s wrong to assume that student-led dialogue is light on content. Quite the contrary, successful dialogues are all knowledge-based. A good dialogical teacher understands this and so puts in place a consistency of expectation and assessment that prevents a blind-leading-the-blind scenario. A good Harkness lesson starts from significant preparatory work, student questions, rigorous standards for participation, and a teacher who guards the process carefully. Teachers who set the prep work and demand that students follow through will cover prescribed course content just fine. It’s not a soft regime, except where it’s misunderstood.
Secondly, it’s just an assumption that teacher-led lessons are necessary to meet performance outcomes. We often think this way: teachers ‘know the system,’ can ‘explain the exam,’ and so on. Teachers act as a kind of guide through dangerous territory. Perhaps there is some truth in this and there is something to be said for teachers speaking frankly to a class about their experience and insight of an assessment system, having been through it many times before. Nevertheless, it is also perfectly possible to construct a genuine dialogue around the system itself, with students taking responsibility for interpreting the course, its components, assessment system, etc. It’s a question of setting up that dialogue carefully and thoughtfully, rather than just leading the class on a guided tour.
So, Harkness can nurture genuine academic performance and isn’t just a cosy learning environment. But the question then arises of how schools can make the shift towards this philosophy. The most important step is obvious – just give it a go! Set up the parameters of your dialogue, explain your objectives to the class, and take the risk of trying something.
However, the wider process of introducing an educational philosophy is subtle and difficult. One interesting idea for engineering a school in which Harkness can succeed is the use of Harkness for admissions. At Wellington, we have started to use Harkness discussions as part of our interview process, putting less emphasis on plain interviews and taking more of an interest in the academic virtues on display in the classroom. Can candidates work constructively, engage with material, and respond positively to each other in discussion? Having run both admissions interviews and admissions Harkness sessions, I have a sense that it is actually the latter that is more revealing of candidates, rather than their thoroughly prepared interview pitch.
It might be better to see this in terms of shifting the academic culture of a school and setting expectations to students, rather than mastering a new ‘technique’ for teaching. Can you educate your students to be independent, confident, open learners? Can you get them to buy-in to the kind of change you want to make in teaching? If you can do that, your lessons will break out into serious academic dialogue of their own accord.
So, will we finally see Harkness teaching take off in UK schools? To some extent, I think it’s just a matter of time until we catch on to the importance of a grown-up learning environment, remodelling our learning spaces with seminar tables, and shifting some of the dynamics between the students and the teachers. Having said that, there are also fundamental challenges that should not be underestimated, not the least of which is financial. But with some creativity and investment, it may be possible to make positive changes to the academic culture of our schools through learning from and, as far as possible, implementing the Harkness ideal.
Guy Williams, Feb 2016
Want to find out more about Harkness teaching? Consider taking part in one of the exciting Harkness courses for educators taking place this summer. Both courses will be led by expert Harkness teachers from the US.
Humanities and Social Science: http://wctsp.org.uk/course-detail.php/Humanities-Social-Sciences-CPD-course-with-The-Lawrenceville-School-USA-69/
By Julian Thomas, Master of Wellington.
I wonder if you noticed the recent study conducted by researchers at Oxford University. It should have rung a loud alarm bell and yet seemed to slip by largely unnoticed in the Christmas rush. The findings of the study suggest that the UK are among the world’s worst (or best) at teaching students to pass the exam at the expense of nurturing deep and lasting knowledge and understanding. According to the leader of the research, Professor Dorling, UK schools focus on short term knowledge acquisition to help pupils to pass tests; knowledge which is quickly forgotten.
Then in recent days, the World Education Forum focused its conference around what it calls The Fourth Industrial Revolution: the digitisation and automation of the workplace over the next five years and the changing skill set that will be needed to thrive in the new landscape. The WEF thinking resonates with a view I expressed in a recent article for the Sunday Telegraph (hyperlink here), in which I argued that the UK education system, which began to take on its present form in the mid-19th century, has stopped evolving, and the result is that we are failing to fully prepare the young people of today for the world they will live in tomorrow.
It is clear that all schools have to genuinely commit to an education which goes way beyond simply the acquisition of grades A*-C. We have to equip our children with the skills and aptitudes they need to live, thrive and survive in the future. Skills such a critical thinking, problem solving, independent thinking and learning, leadership and creativity.
It all sounds very seductive so why does it seem so hard for schools to adopt this approach? It is perhaps easier to understand when we remember that our examination system – established in 1858, and little changed since – does not fully recognise these attributes but instead seems to place higher value on the recall of information and the application of the standard methods required to satisfy an overworked marker. I believe that it is time for government and leading educators to come together to create a new strategic vision of how school and student assessment could evolve to meet the needs of current and future generations.
The problem is compounded by the annual beauty parade of newspaper league tables, in which schools are numbered and ranked based on statistics which take little or no account of a school’s context or its success in creating well-rounded, interesting, inspired students. The same students who will be happy and successful in their lives beyond school.
Schools, driven by the need to hit targets, satisfy stakeholders and compare well with their competitors, are often tempted to withdraw to the safest and easiest method of achieving good grades – “teaching to the test”. Worse still, there is often a temptation to make educational decisions which maximise grades at the expense of the students’ best interests. The greatest betrayal of all.
All of which makes the school league table – at least in its current form – much worse than an unnecessary distraction but, in fact, a key driver for poor educational practice.
Who is to blame? J’accuse….me (and probably you too). Anyone who has ever used the tables of raw results to compare one school over another. Anyone who has ever thought that School A is better than School B because it is 30 places higher in the list. We should recognise that there are exceptional schools outside the top 200 just as there may be mediocre schools inside the top 50. We simply cannot tell from the information provided. Yet we all collude in this harmful merry-go-round through our seemingly unquenchable fascination with measurement and comparison.
I have higher aspirations for Wellington College students than top examination results on their own, which is why we will no longer be conspicuous by our presence in the newspaper league tables. This simply means that we will not be providing data on request to newspapers in the immediate aftermath of the exam results season. At the same time, we will make sure that our results are clear for all to see, no more than one click away from the home page of our website. If people wish to make comparisons they are welcome to do so, but our own focus will be on other, more important, indicators of educational success.
The irony of all of this is that outstanding results and outstanding education do not have to be mutually exclusive. Changes to the curriculum and assessment procedures would be welcome but with the will, it is not impossible to provide a great education within the current system. What is required is for UK schools to approach teaching in a way that truly nurtures and inspires every child’s all-round potential. Excellent examination results will follow naturally. It is a bold step away from the comfort blanket of “teaching to the test” but one that all educators must take if we are to fulfil the Secretary of State’s vision of the UK as a world leader in character education. We still have a long way to go.