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/
Our Head of Sixth Form talks about his use of “Harkness” tables and teaching at Wellington
Last summer I spent seven weeks at Phillips Exeter Academy, New Hampshire. I was there to learn about their unique classroom experiment: Harkness.
Harkness means beautiful tables. But it’s not just about the tables; there’s an amazing philosophy too.
I worked with Harvard Varsity Knowles, a 35-years’ veteran of teaching around these tables. He recounts with authority the early days of Harkness development. On 9th April 1930 the philanthropist Edward Harkness wrote to Exeter’s Principal Lewis Perry. He had given a substantial donation to the Academy and was thinking about how it might be used:
“What I have in mind is a classroom where students could sit around a table with a teacher who would talk with them and instruct them by a sort of tutorial or conference method, where each student would feel encouraged to speak up. This would be a real revolution in methods.”
The result was the Harkness table: oval or round in shape to ensure all could look one another in the eye, its great smooth plane connecting students and teacher in mutual investigation. The principles underpinning the pedagogy are simple: teacher as facilitator; students as collaborative learners. Students work best when they forget the teacher is there; they own the issues being discussed and the learning that follows.
This is still true today. Every Exeter classroom is a Harkness classroom; every lesson is taught according to the original specifications of its benefactor. Students arrive at the lesson having laid the groundwork for their explorations through independent reading and research. Journal keeping is commonplace. At Wellington we call homework “Prep”. Here I saw prep as genuine preparation for the lessons.
In a Harkness lesson the teacher often rarely comments. And many struggle. As one teacher told me: “My own enthusiasms are sometimes hard to contain. Put another way: my ego is always ready to get between the students and their explorations.” Teacher contributions are carefully tailored. At Exeter they call this “listening pedagogy”. Teachers challenge; then they listen as open-minded witnesses to the students’ conversations.
The teacher makes observations and asks questions. But they do not tell the students what to think. They focus on how the student is learning rather than obsessing over what they are learning. The students sense the growing respect the teacher has for their ideas and over time the students feel safe and nurtured. An ‘answer’ becomes merely one solution to a problem, one result of a thoughtful process.
The first time I saw Harv Knowles teach, he used this analogy: exploring a text in English is like walking into a darkened room. At first it might seem like all is obscured from sight, but after a while shapes and textures begin to appear. The students have to let their eyes grow accustomed to their new environment and work together to make sense of the fabric of their surroundings. The teacher has to resist the temptation to turn on the light.
I now use Harkness in all my classes. Not every lesson is a Harkness lesson (yet) but I aim to create a cultural shift over time. Word on Harkness is spreading within our community: our eyes will soon grow accustomed to the possibilities that lie ahead.
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