What is the Harkness Discussion? … Why I’ve Embraced this Method and How It’s Worked for Me

Michelle Areaux
Middle School Language Arts Teacher

If you are like me, you are always trying to find new and innovative ways to get your students engaged in your lesson...or at least to buy into what you are teaching. The daily "sit and get" or the constant shuffling of stations can grow tiresome. One new learning style I recently discovered is called a Harkness Discussion. Some might argue this is just another variation of the Socratic Seminar of Shared Inquiry teaching. While they all do share some similarities, Harkness differs in that the teacher plays more of a moderator and less of the ‘person in charge' role.

Misconceptions About the Harkness Discussion

Those of you who are familiar with the loose and tight method of teaching and classroom management might be rolling your eyes right about now. But, let me ease your concerns. The Harkness Discussion isn't just another fancy term for a class discussion. It goes beyond just talking about a subject or topic. When we try to have class discussions, the conversation is typically dominated by a few students or the conversation can quickly turn into an argument. This is not effective or helpful.

With the Harkness Discussion, students sit in a circle or oval shape. The conversation will begin with one student, but by the end of the discussion, every student has to pose a question and answer at least one question in order to receive a grade. Since the teacher is merely an observer, this allows him or her to watch and record interactions and summarize which students effectively understood the standards taught. For example: in my Harkness discussion, I sit behind the group and check off each student's name on my roster as they talk. Once I see that one or a few students have answered more than others, I will announce that they have to ‘sit out' a round while others get an opportunity to share. I also include a visual PowerPoint with each discussion and lesson that lists the rules of the Harkness Discussion and how they receive points (posing the question and answering questions) and how they lose points (by dominating the discussion or not talking at all).

The Truth About the Harkness Discussion

The Harkness Discussion method is more of an active, discussion-based learning style that requires students to take the lead and manage the lesson and discussions that follow. This method actually teaches students how to learn in a way in which they are not just simply sitting and taking in instruction, but rather, they are required to listen, observe, analyze, verbalize, and provide visual descriptions. Since all students learn differently, this method allows you to differentiate the lesson to fit all of your students' needs while helping each one develop new methods to help them learn in a way that makes sense to them. Don't get me wrong, this doesn't mean the teacher gets to hang out and search Pinterest all class period. Instead, the teacher will have to provide the students with resources (texts to read) and question-starters to guide them as they prepare for their discussion.

How Does the Harkness Discussion Work?

Now, you might be thinking, ‘this sounds wonderful, but how does it work?' Well, let me explain. First, the Harkness Discussion method can be adapted to fit any classroom and any curriculum. The teacher will assign a reading to their students. Students will analyze the material and develop a set of questions that they will ask their peers during the discussion. We all know those students who sit in the back of the class, hiding, and just praying the teacher never calls on them. They distrust their own ideas and answers and seek others for ‘right' answers for an assignment. The Harkness will eliminate that and give this specific student the pride and encouragement they need to believe in their own opinions and ability to succeed. In terms of assessment, think of the reading as the formative aspect as students have to find information that pertains to the unit of study and standards given and the discussion is the summative aspect as it requires students to display their learned knowledge verbally.

Next, as students begin to ask their peers their created set of questions, discussion will begin. Students will raise their hands to answer, just like they would in a normal classroom setting. However, the student who posed the question will direct the conversation. Now, this will be messy and difficult at first. So I advise you model this with your students before jumping into a full Harkness discussion. I have even shown my students videos on YouTube of other classrooms performing this so they can see just how easy it is to carry on a natural conversation without the teacher directing everyone.

Finally, as students begin answering the posed questions, the originator of the question (student who originally posed the question) will write down the correct answer given. This part of the process requires several levels of understanding for the student. Students have to create a high level question from the understood material given. They then have to listen during the discussion and know the answer they are seeking. This process allows the teacher to assess reading, writing, and speaking standards in one interactive and fun lesson.

How to Effectively Teach This in Your Class

Since all teachers styles are different, one of the main reasons I love the Harkness Discussion so much is you can easily adapt it to your own style, curriculum, or reading. If you teach a poetry unit, you can have the students read the text, analyze, and create questions in one class period. The next day, students will enter the class prepared to begin their discussion.

Social Studies: Students could read and analyze a chapter about the Fall of the Roman Empire. As students read, they could create questions like these: What caused the fall of the Empire? Who were the main players? When did this happen? Why do you think this event is important in history? Are there still any relevant themes from the lesson of the Romans to today's societies? Again, you will have to coach your students through the development of question phases, but once they understand, the process will run smoothly.

Language Arts and English: Students could read a chapter from a given novel in class. They could analyze the text and create questions like these: Why did the main character… Infer, do you think… Compare one theme from this novel to another text read in class. Identify one example of a simile or…

Art: Students could view and analyze a specific painting. Their questions could consist of: What does this painting remind you of? What other artists share the same style? Why do you think this painting is important?

Science: Students could complete a unit on the ecosystem. The discussion could lead as followed: Which aspect of our ecosystem is most important? Infer… Identify… Create an example of…

Types of Questions to Teach Students to Ask

As a pre-lesson for this activity, you must teach students how to ask the questions you want them to pose to their peers. Best practices suggest using question-cues and prompts.

Factual-According to the textbook...As stated by… Based on the events…

Remembering-List examples of…. Identify how._____ was used… Define the term___ found in the story… Name one character who…

Understanding-Summarize… Explain… Interpret… Infer...Restate in your own words...paraphrase what happened when...compare and contrast_______ in the story…

Applying-Apply one theme or lesson in this story to…

Analyzing-Compare and Contrast...Organize events by…

Evaluating-Defend a characters actions by… Justify the statement...Evaluate the effectiveness of...

The possibilities are truly endless. The above examples are only a few of the many ways teachers can use this method in their classroom. I hope you take a leap and try a Harkness Discussion in your classroom.

Michelle Areaux

Michelle Areaux

Michelle Areaux was born in Nicholasville, KY where she currently resides with her husband Anthony, and sons Connor and Cooper. She attended the University of Kentucky where she earned her Bachelor of Arts in Education and Asbury University where she earned her Master of Arts. Currently, Michelle is a middle school language arts teacher at Edythe Jones Hayes Middle School in Lexington, Kentucky and an avid reader. Her first novel, Wicked Cries, motivated her to continue writing and publishing novels for both young adult and new adult audiences.
Michelle Areaux