Each week for many years now, I have had my students write a one-page journal that serves two purposes. First, it allows them to summarize the week in terms of the mathematics, and to reflect on what has gone well and on what they need to focus. Second, it allows them to tell me how things are going. The response in the journals last week was unanimously positive, and this week pretty much continued the theme. However, there was one comment that appeared in several journals that I honestly loved seeing: "I don't feel like we're learning anything."
Now, I could list off a number of skills that, while they were certainly introduced to the students in previous courses, the students have brought to a level of mastery during these first couple weeks of the year. I could also list off several brand new skills and concepts of which the students have achieved a level mastery during these first two weeks. But, in good Harkness fashion, I'm going to let them figure out that they are, in fact, learning a good amount of new material. Happily, one of the students has already figured that out, stating in his journal that he "really likes the fact that we are learning without it feeling like we're learning".
This is part of the beauty of the Harkness Method. Like learning to walk, you don't realize just how much progress you've made. It seems as though you've always been able to do this, and even though you can now walk more confidently and walk on slightly more difficult terrain, it's still just walking so you've not really learned anything new, right? It's not until you take a good, long look at it that you realize just how well you're doing and just how far you've come. In writing our worksheets, we tried our best to imitate what we saw as one of the essential aspects of the worksheets at Exeter: it's not about gaining complete mastery of something new every day. It's about making a little progress on several things every day. Over time, little by little, the progress becomes substantial. But since it's little by little, the students don't realize that they are making progress, let alone making progress on so many different things at once.
The test on Thursday went well for most of the students...about right for the first test of the year. The first test sort of marks the end of the "introductory" phase of any class, with the students now seeing how they will be formally assessed. Many of the students mentioned that now that they have seen a test, they have a better idea how to study and prepare through the next couple weeks as well as how to study the last day or two before the next test. Specifically, several students said that they wish there were formal notes for the class (i.e., lecture notes, which are not coming...I'll be talking a bit about this at the beginning of class on Monday), while others said they now have a clearer picture of the kinds of notes they need to take during the discussions (i.e., they "get it").
Finally, open house was this week. A few parents were curious how the students were going to be able to learn the new material "on their own". Of course, they're not on their own...the careful writing of the worksheets and my participation in the discussions are more subtle than me standing in front of the room, but it doesn't mean they're on their own. However, it was during these discussions with the parents that I realized one of the necessary shifts is that the students need to get comfortable with the homework not being the practice of new skills they have seen (and through the practice, the skills are solidified) but rather the homework is where the skills they need to discover are cultivated, and that the in-class discussions are where the new material is solidified. Also, a few parents were very supportive of the "new method". I heard more than one story of college graduates who are very knowledgeable when it comes to skills and "book information", but who don't know how to creatively use the information they have to solve the problems they face in their job. Harkness certainly addresses this weakness, and give the students the problem-solving practice they need while delivering the required new material.
So, overall a successful week...nothing to deter me from continuing having a Harkness classroom. In fact, plenty to convince me that this really is the right thing to do.