Friday, December 7, 2012

They Get It

I have been waiting for this week to arrive.  I wasn't sure when it would arrive, but I was confident that it would, and at long last it is here.

I have mentioned before that I have the kids turn in a journal each week.  So far the journals have been pretty straight-forward, telling me about the material we covered, the successes and struggles they are having with the material, and how the groups they are in are working...the usual stuff that I have requested from the students for years.  However, this week the kids in my "part A" class (the first half of the two-trimester honors pre-calculus class) took their first test.  And while there is plenty of room for improvement as far as the grades are concerned, there were two very positive occurrences.  First, the vast majority of the mistakes were either simple arithmetic or not answering the question (i.e., not reading the directions), so from a content standpoint the class is in great shape.  Second, and this is the "event" I have been waiting for, the journals contained passages such as the following:
"This week, the advantages of using the Harkness method became evident for me, especially for our first test. Instead of having to go back and study things that we learned two weeks ago and never talked about again, we built on those things to the point where we were still incorporating some of our preliminary topics into tougher problems. It really benefited me during the test because I didn’t have to go back in my mind to a few weeks ago and think of things that we discussed. Also, instead of having all teachers show us one method to solving a test problem, I was able to use some “shortcuts” that some of my classmates showed me throughout the week(s)." 
"Lo and behold, you somehow pull out [...] an A! A miracle! And I truly believe that it is all because of the Harkness method. In the nights leading up to the test, unlike in past math courses, I was not looking at review problems and having no idea where to start.  Yes, I had a few topics that I needed to reexamine, but I wasn't going into the test stressing that I didn't know that information.  I understood the information with a much higher retention rate."
"I feel much more confident in my ability to succeed in the class.  More specifically with the discussions, I feel that I am contributing my ideas well, and taking a lot out of the processes of my peers.  For example, when we discuss the features of a particular graph, it is always reassuring to have multiple people explain the different aspects of a function - quite frankly, some people are inevitably going to be better at simplifying and furthermore, explaining their process."
What else is there to say?  They get it.  They get the whole point.  They get that it's about understanding the material.  They get that having a discussion makes for a deeper understanding of the material.  They get that it's OK to admit when you're having difficulty with the material and to ask for help.  They get it.  Amen.

Now admittedly, not all of the journals contained such passages.  But the only negative comments in the bunch were about ways to make the discussions even better.  None of them...literally none...were negative to the point of wanting to return to lectures.  Despite the admissions that this does take more work than "the old way", there was the immediate follow-up that it was worth it.

Hopefully this attitude will not only last the rest of the term, but will make it's way into the other sections of the class and have a positive impact beyond this trimester and possibly even beyond this year.  I'm well aware that once a class or a teacher gets a reputation, be it good or bad, it's hard to shake.  And at this point I'm optimistic that Harkness is starting to get a positive reputation.


  1. Its great to hear your reflections on the process. Pretty amazing that you've been able to pull this off with 30 students in your room.

    I generally refuse to lecture and get much of the same feedback from students - but I still get comments in math of "the test looked different" which has put me back into a reflective mode... I'm not sure how much is my own teaching and how much is how they have been trained to "see and repeat."

    If I may ask, what was the tipping point for going with Harkness rather than the traditional lecture based style of math teaching?

    How heavily are you leaning on the Exeter Math problems? Or did you guys largely write your own problems and cherry pick from Exeter?

    I'd love to hear more about the logistics in class. How are you grading? Sounds like you are giving grades for assignments, is that based on discussions? Are the table leaders doing the grading?

    Keep up the good work. I look forward to hearing more.

  2. Great to hear from you.
    I would say there wasn't really a "tipping point" so much as there was a "perfect storm" (these are in no particular order):
    (1) There was an emphasis last year on what the common assessments from PARCC are going to require from the kids. At the time no sample questions had been released, but it was clear from the information we were getting that the tests are going to require the kids to "think on their feet" and not just have a certain set of algorithms memorized.
    (2) There was a push in the PD to really individualize the instruction. I had always struggled with this, if for no other reason than the fact that the time required to get to know the learning styles of 30 kids exceeded the time I have with them.
    (3) My PhD advisor, with whom I am still working, moved to DC in the fall of 2011 and her son attends a school that uses the method and worksheets from Exeter. She is the one who directed me to their website and this introduced me to the Harkness method.
    (4) There was an initial push to not give a student any grade lower than 50, even for assignments that had not been turned in. I understand the premise that a 0 out of 100 can devastate a student's grade and make it look like the kid doesn't know as much as he does, but giving a kid a 50 for simply being enrolled in the class didn't make sense to me. The 11-point scale used at Exeter helped resolve this for me.
    (5) I had a student teacher last spring, and while he was "in charge" of the class, I prepared a set of discussion questions for teaching the conic sections. When he left in early May, I began teaching the class with Harkness, knowing that if it failed, the lack of knowledge of the conic sections wouldn't hurt the kids in calculus (to me, the conics are more of an advanced algebra topic rather than a pre-calculus topic). So, I had the opportunity to "test" the method in a relatively safe environment, and the results were very positive, both from my perspective and from the kids.
    Putting all of the pieces together, the other honors pre-calculus teacher and I spent the summer creating the worksheets we are using this year. The problems on the worksheets are mostly our own creations, though some are “tweaks” of exercises we found in various textbooks and a few are from the Exeter sheets.
    As for the grading, there are the weekly journals, the discussions, and the tests. For the discussions, I have a sheet on which I keep track of as much as I can, and then each table has a small sheet on which the “table leader” for the day keeps track of as much as possible. I then combine the two together and, along with credit for preparing for class and the “group dynamics”, the students earn a daily grade. The average of the daily grades is what I put into the gradebook.
    Finally, about “the test looked different”, I made it clear from the beginning that the emphasis of the course was on problem solving. That, along with the fact that the worksheets don’t have repetitive exercises, set it up so the kids weren’t expecting the test to be “the same” as the homework.
    I hope this helps, and look forward to continuing the discussion...