Tag Archives: harkness

The Table

Before the year began, I planned to write a post outlining my goals for this school year. Because of a healthy does of laziness, procrastination, and the need to get it just right, that post never materialized–and now it feels too late.

Let me share one goal, however–one exploration, one success, one reason for excitement. One of my main goals this year has been to teach less, talk less, instruct less, deliver content less, and to guide more, listen more, give more voice to my students. I was very excited  at the beginning of the year, when my amazing new colleague Paula, suggested we use the Harkness method for discussions.

Okay! So we don’t have oval tables and our groups are clearly too big, but the main idea, as I see it, is to give ownership of ideas to students. I have been having at least one discussion in every class, each lasting anywhere from 30mins to an hour. We have been exploring understandings and sharing ideas on such topics as: Blogging, social media, peer editing, global political struggles, why we share, marriage and more.

Here is what I have learned so far:

  • If you give kids a chance to speak they will.
  • If you don’t jump in and answer your own questions kids will do it.
  • They will surprise you with what they know.
  • Kids learn routines and rise to responsibility.
  • Seventh grade boys can sit still and listen and participate, give them a chance.
  • Silence is okay; it means people are thinking.
  • You don’t have to fill every silence with your expertise.
  • Allowing students to get lost in tangents can be more fruitful than pulling them to your destination.
  • Not every class need end up in the same place
  • Sometimes you end up in places you never expected.
  • Content is moot. Ideas matter.
  • Let the students guide where they want to go.
  • I need to learn how to question better, not spout answers.
  • Asking questions to which you do not have answers makes for a good conversation.
  • At the table we are equals.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. This method has been great. Paula assures me that, we are only at the early stages. Soon we will begin to assess and monitor the way students participate. I hope to help the quieter ones gain confidence. I am doing my best to change my style and learn from  the lessons I mentioned above. It is not easy. My natural inclination is to steer and control the conversation.

You can see the guidelines we have been using here. I’ve been trying to keep the method very simple to start. Someone makes an observation or assertion, or maybe they ask a question, then others can affirm the statement or challenge it. We are learning to build meaning by synthesizing, summarizing and combings what each member adds to the conversation.


You can access some image cards I created to help visualizes these guidelines on this Flickr set, feel free to use, share or modify.

Last week, while we were discussing blogs a student said

Sounds like our blogs are like the table. It can be a space where we can continue our discussions.

How can I not be excited? How do you run discussions in your class? What strategies do you use to create an environment that fosters student inquiry and critical thinking?