Less Tech, More Talk: Moving To A Discussion-Based Classroom

harkness-method-fiLess Tech, More Talk: Moving To A Discussion-Based Classroom

by Emily Long

Sometimes I feel like the integration of new technology in the classroom is being pushed on me from all sides.

And though I may not fall into the “neo-luddite” category, I don’t believe that new technology is the answer to keeping students engaged in their education. I think that stems from a genuine love of learning. Of course therein lies the real question: how do you get students to love learning? While I certainly don’t claim to have figured out the entire answer, I have noticed several things that seem to consistently boost students’ engagement.

For instance, incorporating discussion-based learning has made a considerable difference in how students at my school view their time in the classroom. I hear kids say that they wish all of their classes used this style of teaching because they get so much out of it. Here is a look at how we have implemented the Harkness method in our school and the impact it has had on the students.

What is the Harkness Method?

The Harkness method of teaching and learning is a discussion-based education method involving small groups of students (usually 8-12) seated around an oval table to share thoughts and ideas and to learn good reasoning and discussion skills. These discussions involve minimal interjection from instructors in order to encourage student engagement.

The challenges for each participant in a Harkness discussion will vary. For example, students who are naturally outgoing and comfortable speaking in front of their peers are challenged to listen more and encourage introverted students to share their thoughts. This educational method requires students to share their unique insights while listening to the insights of others and treating each other with respect.

Outcomes from the Harkness Table

The Harkness table offers many valuable benefits for both students and teachers. Here are just a few of the outcomes I have witnessed at our school as a result of discussion-based learning.

  • Improves communication skills: Students learn to articulate their thoughts as part of a larger discussion with their peers and instructors.
  • Boosts confidence: Students are encouraged to put forth their ideas in a supportive and engaging environment. This is particularly beneficial for students who are naturally introverted.
  • Builds mutual respect: No one person is in a position to govern the conversation; students learn to listen to their peers and offer their own insights without dismissing opposing viewpoints.
  • Requires independent preparation: Students must come to class ready to discuss the assigned topic. If a student is unprepared, it will be very apparent to his instructor, and he will get far less out of the discussion than his peers.
  • Encourages critical thinking: Because students must play an active role in learning through discussion, they are required to exercise more critical thinking than is typically needed in a traditional lecture setting.

Incorporating the Harkness Method in Your Classroom

So far I’ve mentioned how the Harkness Method requires students to keep up with their reading and come prepared to class. But discussion-based learning also requires considerable effort from you, the educator.

Chances are, your students are not accustomed to this style of learning and may not take to it naturally, so it’s very important that you guide them through the process until they have a clear understanding of what is expected of them and how they can succeed in a discussion-based classroom. Here are some tips for preparing your students to learn around the Harkness table.

  • Get your administration on board: Explain how and why you are integrating the Harkness method into your classroom so administrators can be confident fielding any phone calls from concerned parents or students.
  • Lay out a few key guidelines for discussion: Provide students with a handout of important discussion tips such as “engage with peers rather than addressing everything to the instructor.”
  • Create a discussion schedule: Design discussions around a few central ideas or questions so students have time to form their thoughts and prepare for class. This schedule should not be too granular so as to avoid limiting a student’s thoughts on a given topic.
  • Let the students lead: Allow students to present their ideas and questions to their peers, interjecting if necessary to guide the discussion.

Consistency is Key

While some classes will benefit greatly by using the Harkness method every day, others will experience the most overall success through a combination of discussion-based and lecture-based teaching. The important thing to remember when incorporating the Harkness method along with a lecture schedule is to remain consistent. If you hold these roundtable discussions sporadically or with several weeks in between sessions, students will struggle to get comfortable engaging in this type of learning.

If you have ever used a Harkness table in your classroom and have some advice regarding this teaching method, or if you have questions about discussion-based learning, please feel free to leave a comment below. I know there is much more that can be said about this method, and I’d love to hear what some of the thoughts are from the TeachThought community.

Emily Long is proud to be a part of Lancaster Country Day School. LCDS is an independent, college-preparatory school serving Lancaster, PA along with Hershey, York and Reading from preschool through 12th grade.

The Harnkess Method: What Happened When I Created A Discussion-Based Classroom; Less Tech, More Talk: Moving To A Discussion-Based Classroom

5 Comments

  • I think you need to learn how to use technology to enhance this method of teaching and I think you would get even better results. I give you just one example that works for me: Take a copic and using a Gogole Form, students collect ideas, data, or other background information and submit it on a Google Form before the scheduled discussion. Then the discussion is stimulated by a collaborative analysis and synthesis of the data that comes in. Suddenly, there is something substantive to discuss rather than just tossing out ideas. I call this the development of collaborative intelligence. Your teacher librarian can be a great coteacher if you include the expertise they bring to such a method.

    • “Suddenly, there is something substantive to discuss rather than
      just tossing out ideas”

      I think that this statement reveals a misunderstanding of what a good seminar discussion entails. Students who are examining and discussing a text are generally given guiding questions to consider, a good set of habits (considering context and authorial point of view, for example) and the freedom to take the discussion in directions that they deem relevant. “Tossing out ideas” is not at all the task of a collaborative, text-based discussion.

      While I respect teachers who use elements of technology that enhance what they do, I would like to counter that a good seminar discussion is in no way diminished by a lack of tech use. In fact, one may argue that an environment of sustained and close
      examination of a text or idea in an environment free from distraction can be a useful component of student experience. Tech use in the classroom does not need to be all-or-nothing. I wish that the worldview of ed-tech proponents included more respect for teacher choice about when and in what context to use technology. Too commonly,
      the assumption is that teachers who eschew ed-tech are “digitally illiterate” and aren’t aware of, or familiar with, technology rather than that they are making a considered choice about what techniques are most effective in promoting learning among their students and in their subject. It is long past time for us to move past the era of uncritical enthusiasm for ed-tech and toward a more nuanced appreciation for its uses and limitations.

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