Harkness teaching: a small-scale study

By Rachel Trafford, Head of Geography at Wellington College.

Screen Shot 2015-01-01 at 13.09.41


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.