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It’s time to discuss how we use Harkness

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It’s time to discuss how we use Harkness

Illustration: Katya Sjaastad

Illustration: Katya Sjaastad

Illustration: Katya Sjaastad

Katya Sjaastad, Staff Writer

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Harkness tables surround students at Saint Paul Academy and Summit School almost as much as we surround them. Students and alumni have etched pictures into their surfaces, struggled to get past them in classrooms, and have sat at them in countless discussions. At what point did these discussions become so dreaded by students?

These discussions are seen to be overly stressful and ineffective by many students, yet the SPA website emphasizes how these massive wooden tables encourage students to learn about the importance of participation. Originally, the Harkness method was used at Phillips Exeter Academy, a boarding school on the East Coast. The goal is to make learning more democratic by giving everyone an equal voice. Discussions were led by the students and were designed to leave behind right and wrong in order to discover as a group. Frequent discussions took pressure off individual comments and gave quieter students a chance to get comfortable speaking while teaching students who tend to dominate the conversation to listen. These ideals made Harkness’ productive.

However, this isn’t the manner which it is being implemented in many humanities classes at SPA. There are practices that we haven’t included in our Harkness experience which need to be addressed. First, while it depends on the teacher, most classes have graded Harkness assessments once every couple of weeks. Students are graded on participation, which is to say the content of the things students say and the number of times they speak. Both introverted and shy students struggle to raise their hand, much less interject into a large conversation. They don’t have time to get comfortable speaking in front of their class due to the limited number of discussions. In addition to this, they feel as though they are being graded on every word that comes out of their mouth. They spin sentences around in their minds only to realize that the conversation has moved on without them. Almost 50% of people in the U.S. identify as introverts. This means that introverts need to either force themselves to speak up or face the sinking grades that follow.

Students are graded on participation, which is to say the content of the things students say and the number of times they speak.”

While quiet voices are muffled out, the same three people dominate the conversation. Every student is desperately trying to say something meaningful and not listening to other contributions. The same ideas get repeated over and over while they jump from mouth to mouth. This reality falls short of the Harkness Method’s original goal.

However, Harkness discussions are still a useful classroom tool. Teachers will always need to grade and students need to learn how to have a constructive conversation, but Harkness needs to be used to its fullest potential. Harkness needs to be used differently at SPA. Discussions must be happening more often without a grade stapled on. If humanities teachers set aside time each day for simple discussion quiet students a chance to get comfortable with speaking and to learn how to interject into the conversation. Teachers and students need to find variations that work for their curriculum. So don’t just sit around the Harkness table, dive in and explore.  

 

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