Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Adventure Begins

I just began my 23rd year of teaching, and in many ways, I'm starting over.

Last fall I was directed to the website of Exeter Academy ( by a friend, who told me that I really needed to look at their curriculum, the worksheets that they use (all created in-house) and, most importantly, their method of delivery.  What I found has had a profound impact on my philosophy of education.

Exeter uses what it refers to as the Harkness Method, named for a visionary benefactor who made a substantial donation to the academy with stipulations as to how the money was to be used:

"What I have in mind is [a classroom] where [students] could sit around a table with a teacher who would talk with them and instruct them by a sort of tutorial or conference method, where [each student] would feel encouraged to speak up.  This would be a real revolution in methods." ---Edward Harkness

This method, which I can best describe as a student-directed Socratic Method, is described in greater detail on the Exeter website and relies on several things:

(1) the questions the students are asked must be worded in a way that allows them to discover the material rather than relying on the teacher presenting the material to t he students; this requires a lot of prep time, and in particular, the textbooks do not have questions appropriate for this purpose;

(2)  the teacher must observe and redirect the conversation the students have about the material, rather than leading the conversation; this requires a major adjustment for the teacher, especially one who is used to lecturing;

(3) the students must take responsibility for their learning; in particular, they must do their homework and take an active role in the in-class discussions; this can be a major adjustment for the students, especially those accustomed to passive participation...or no participation.

I wrote the worksheets and  piloted the method in my Honors Pre-Calculus class last spring as we did the unit on conic sections.  The feedback was overwhelmingly positive (a few students still wanted to be spoon-fed, but played along since this was the only way they were going to learn the material), so the other Honors Pre-Calculus teacher and I spent the summer writing worksheets for the first half of the course, and this year we are using the Harkness Method pretty much exclusively in our classrooms.

This is where the folks at Exeter will think we're crazy: we have around 30 students in each of our classes.  The method, as it exists at Exeter, relies on a maximum of 15 students in a class, so that the teacher can hear, note, and respond (if necessary) to everything that is said.  So, we have needed to tweak the method for 30 in a class.  To do this, the students are separated into groups of 10 and seated around three "tables".  I rotate   around to each of the groups...not ideal, but at least there are only three groups, so I can spend a decent amount of time with each of them, especially if one group gets into a particularly engaging discussion.  So far this year, the feedback from the students has been essentially unanimous and positive. We'll see what happens after tomorrow's test...the first test of the trimester.

Anyway, my plan is to update this blog on a weekly basis, both for personal reflection and in the hopes that some others who have more experience with Harkness will be able to give advice, share wisdom, and commiserate.  So, please feel free to ask questions, give feedback, etc. ...that's part of the point.

'Til next time...

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