Sunday, October 14, 2012

Discussion vs. Debate

One of the things I have been watching in my classroom during the past week is the dynamics of the different classes.  Two of my classes are very much into discussing the material, making sure every one understands an exercise before moving to the next one, putting different methods of solution to the same exercise on the board for comparison, and in some cases even putting an incomplete solution on the board so the group can finish it together.  For lack of better terms, these two classes "get it", and I couldn't be happier with the progress they are making.  The students in one of my classes are still very hesitant about putting solutions on the board unless they are absolutely certain they have a correct answer.  This has led on many occasions to one person putting multiple exercises on the board, and rather than having a discussion it becomes a student lecture.  Because of this, on Monday a "new rule" will be put in place: no one is allowed to put more than one solution on the board on a given day.  Finally, there is my remaining class, a group that is very much into debating one another, trying to prove "who's right" and, by implication, "who's wrong".  Unlike the other classes, solving the exercises in this particular class has become more of a competition rather than a collaboration.  Though they make a reasonable amount of progress each day, they are nowhere close to as productive as the other periods.  It often takes then a lot longer to complete an exercise, if for no other reason than neither side will "give in".  This really becomes a problem when both of the students are actually correct, but have used such different methods to solve an exercise that the answers they get look as different as their methods, despite the fact that the answers are actually the same.

The difficulty for me is that, despite the extra time and the difference in "styles", the discussions being had by the debate class are still really good.  The students are getting into the depths of the exercises and as such I don't really want to stop the debates, if for no other reason than debating really does seem to fit the personality of the class.  They come in each day, ready to state their case (or if they are unsure of their answer, to take sides between two people who are sure of theirs), they work through the exercises, and leave at the end of class still liking each other.  Who am I to complain about that?

On the other hand, the students have gotten used to completing one worksheet every day, and there are times when a debate that occurs makes that impossible.  And there is the matter of making sure this group makes close to the same amount of progress during each class period as the other classes.  Several of the students are very uncomfortable with falling behind (and told me so in their weekly journals), so Monday I will need to try to strike the balance between making sure the discussions go just as deep, but that they are doing so in a more efficient manner.

Despite it all, I am seeing the benefits of Harkness.  I am seeing how much better, how much more permanent the students are learning and understanding the material.  And because of that, I'm more than willing to continue to work through the difficulties, and work with the students to make the class everything I know it can be.


  1. Now that you are in your third trimester of Harkness, how have you handled keeping your different classes on pace with each other? Today is my fourth day, and the groups are starting to spread in terms of the number of problems covered each day...

  2. What you are describing happens regularly within the same class, with one group completing a couple more questions than the other groups. One of the adjustments we made this trimester was planning for six worksheets to take ten days: six worksheet days, three review days, and a test day. And one of the driving forces behind this was that if a class got a bit behind, the adjustment to seven worksheet days, two review days, and a test day was no big deal, and thus far that as been true.

    That being said, in general there has been an ebb and flow, so that even though we have normally ended up with seven worksheet days, two review days, and a test day, the "extra day" has not been caused by the same thing in each class.

    Another thing that I think helps is that I don't have the kids in the same groups each day. In fact, they are never with the same group on two consecutive days (it's pretty much a four-week cycle, so they are with the same group of kids once every four weeks). What this does is allows the kids from the fast group on one day to help the more deliberate kids in the other groups the next day, and that at least helps the individual class stay together.