Friday, December 21, 2012

Fundamental Differences

Well, today was the last day of school before winter break, which in my classroom means we eat waffles and "celebrate" Undiramahanukwanzrohgurmas (I'll let you try to figure out the combination of holidays and Holy days). It also means it's a good time to reflect on the half year that has passed and the "lessons learned" about the Harkness Method:

(1) Harkness requires the students to be prepared. The daily discussions don't work if the kids aren't prepared. The class doesn't move forward if the kids aren't prepared. And I mean this in a very positive way, because the class shouldn't move forward if the kids aren't actually learning the material. Their preparation or lack of preparation, and their subsequent progress or lack of progress, are more obvious in a Harkness classroom, and that's a very good thing.

(2) Harkness requires the teacher to think of the course as a whole, instead of planning chapter by chapter or topic by topic. Good teachers already know that this should happen, but in a regular classroom, if you fall behind and need to take things day-by-day for a few days, it's ok. Not so in a Harkness classroom. The planning that we had to do over the summer was absolutely crucial, and there is no way that we could be teaching this way without having the overarching vision of the entire course in mind. In a set of e-mails last week, the other honors pre-calculus teacher and I were planning for the bulk of what we need to do in terms of pace and timing when we return in January. This long-term planning is not a is essential for Harkness to work.

(3) Harkness requires the students to truly understand the concepts, and not just memorize a few facts and algorithms. The whole point is to have the students learn how to solve problems, and as such the questions on the worksheets and on the tests need to use the skills and concepts in ways which they have not seen before. The basic mechanics must be solid, but just using the mechanics or using them in word problems the likes of which they have seen repeatedly in class and in the homework does not help the kids learn how to problem solve and does not test to see if they are learning how to problem solve. This shift from "the students imitate the teacher and the textbook" to "the students creatively solve problems" is difficult for both the students and the teacher. Students are used to being shown how to do the homework exercises and required to do strictly similar exercises on the tests. Teachers are used to telling the students how to solve the exercises and directly answering any questions. Harkness requires the students to struggle with the material and through the struggle put the pieces together. It requires the teachers to lead the students to the answers through carefully constructed questions on the homework and responding to their questions with questions in the classroom. It is unfamiliar territory in many ways, but the resulting understanding of the material is well worth it.

(4) Harkness takes patience, both from the students and from the teacher. The students need to understand that we are slowly building the material for the entire course during the entire course, so some questions they may have will not be answered for a while (though encouraging them to seek the answers on their own is a great idea). The teachers need to understand that requiring the students to put the material together will take more time than just telling them what they need to know. They also need to fight the instinct to save the kids when they are struggling, and instead lead them through the struggle by solid questioning techniques. Both need to understand that the short track only leads to a surface-level, short-term understanding of the material, whereas the slow but steady patient discovery of the material is both deeper and more permanent.

(5) Harkness is harder than being in a "regular" classroom, both for the teacher and the students. The focus, the creativity, the mental energy, the ability to handle frustration, and the perseverance required in a Harkness classroom are all more difficult. But the rewards are more than worth the extra effort.

A quick story to wrap up the week, and the year: a student whom I had in class first trimester came to me today to tell me that he had retaken the SAT a few weeks ago. Despite the fact that he had forgotten his calculator, he earned a better math score this time. I know it's just one piece of anecdotal evidence, but I see the benefits of Harkness all over his success. The problem-solving skills promoted by a Harkness classroom, along with the fact that we have relegated the calculator to its proper place as a tool to be used as necessary and not a crutch upon which we rely without questioning, deserve at least some of the credit for this success. This student's story was the perfect way to start my break.

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