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How To Bring This Private School Teaching Method Into A Public School Classroom

Students sit around a large, round table in their English class at The Bishop...

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Above: Students sit around a large, round table in their English class at The Bishop's School, March 28, 2017.

More like dinner with intellectuals than a class, students learning through the Exeter Academy's Harkness model sit around a table and discuss a text or question.

It has educated Nobel Prize winners, Olympic athletes, and a president. Elite New Hampshire boarding school Phillips Exeter Academy is in San Diego this week, sharing its Harkness teaching method with local teachers.

More like dinner with intellectuals than a class, students at Exeter — and host of the week's workshops, The Bishop's School — sit around a table and discuss a text or question. The teacher is a gentle moderator, allowing the students to take it where they want and make meaning themselves.

That works for an elite private school, but what about a public school classroom with 20 or 30 kids?

"I think what you want to do is take what you value from Harkness, which is usually allowing students to venture into new territory, to work collaboratively, to make connections, and to come out with something bigger than they came in with," said Exeter trainer Jane Cadwell. "Not everybody has a table with 12 students in each class, but I think everybody can figure out how to arrange students in smaller groups."

KPBS sat in on a session on implementing Harkness in large classes and brought back these tips.

Step 1: Surrender

"I think that the teacher has to surrender," Cadwell said.

"A lot of teachers are successful being sort of star of the show and it’s difficult to sort of give that over to the students," she added. "But I think the satisfaction will come in that they will actually end up where you wanted them to end up. Or they will end up somewhere even more interesting."

Part of that surrender, said trainer Meg Foley, is preparing students to take responsibility for the conversation. Teachers should ease into it, she said, focusing first on basic social etiquette and getting kids comfortable with the process. Foley suggested breaking students into groups of four and practicing with low-stakes prompts that will not show up on a test, encouraging students to give one another feedback.

That practice may seem like precious time away from required curriculum, but Pacific Ridge School teacher Jen Bicknell said it is the essential work of teachers these days.

"(Students) have knowledge and content at their fingertips with technology, so they don't really need a teacher to feed them information in school anymore," she said. "They really need to be taught how to think for themselves, how to work collaboratively in a group, to have those skills to move forward in college and life."

Step 2: Prepare

Both the teacher and the students need to do a little prep work for Harkness to work.

Aimeclaire Roche, head of The Bishop's School, said while Harkness is about empowering students to draw their own conclusions and connections, teachers are responsible for choosing discussion materials that will help them learn what the state or colleges want them to.

"The types of readings I’m asking the students to do, the types of problems I’m asking them to think through and work on must prepare them well for all of those sorts of national assessments," Roche said. "(The students) bring and refine every day the skills of grappling, of problem solving. And that's ultimately what tests are asking for in the end."

Students must then, obviously, consume that material. But trainers also suggest asking students to write questions in advance and set goals for the upcoming discussion.

"Preparation is the fuel for discussion," Cadwell said. "If they don't have any fuel, it's a long class of silence."

Step 3: Move Some Desks Around

The ideal setup is one circle so the teacher can track each student's understanding of the material. But with dozens of kids and a limited class period, it might make more sense to split students into smaller groups.

Foley said there are three options for that.

Photo by Megan Burks

Diagrams of three Harkness model setups are drawn on a whiteboard at The Bishop's School, July 12, 2017.

One is to arrange an inner and outer circle. The inner circle has the discussion, while the outer circle is assigned tasks, such as taking notes or acting as a coach for someone in the inner circle. The coach might just observe and offer feedback, or slip suggested comments to their partner. But Foley warned this setup could get boring for kids in the outer circle.

Another option is to have multiple discussions at once. In this scenario, Foley said, students need to take on the roles the teacher might play, since the teacher can not be at every table at once. Those roles include a scribe taking notes on a whiteboard near the group so the teacher can reference it before hopping into the conversation, a facilitator to keep everyone on track, and an observer who can lead a reflection on how the discussion went.

Foley said a third option, and one of the better workarounds, is splitting the class in half. One group does the Harkness circle while the other prepares for their circle or completes a different task. She said it cuts the circle down to a manageable size, ensures the teacher will not miss hints that students are not grasping the material, and can help teachers work around different skill levels.

Step 4: Relax

Cadwell's final advice for teachers:

"Relax, and be able to listen without waiting for a pause to pop in with your pod of information that you can deposit," she said. "Respect students and believe in them — that they will do what you want them to do and they'll do much more than you thought they could do. I think that's where the satisfaction comes, as opposed to, 'I filled you up with this information, now could you give it back to me so I can make sure you know what I think you should know?'"


Perkins Elementary School, a San Diego Unified campus in Barrio Logan, uses student-led discussions in its classrooms. See a fifth-grade math class in action here.


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