Saturday, December 15, 2012

Work, Work, Work...

We are now one week away from the beginning of our winter break, and I haven't been this ready for a break in a long time.  Put simply: I'm exhausted.

When I describe the Harkness Method to some people, they mistakenly get the impression that all I do is sit around and listen to the students while they do the work.  And while on the surface that description is true, just sitting around has turned out to be more exhausting than lecturing for several reasons:

  1. Lecturing involves preparing a set of notes and, after careful editing and polishing, delivering the information to the students.  Every once in a while, you evaluate the students' work, whether this is homework or a quiz or a test.  It is stressful on your voice for about two weeks at the beginning of the school year, and it can be stressful if you have not taught a particular course in a while, but once things settle in it's really not that bad.  Harkness, on the other hand, involves constantly evaluating students' work in class, and in my classroom, that actually means evaluating the work of at least three students at a time.  Yes, it is easier on my voice (this is the first year in a long time that I have not needed cough drops at the beginning of the year), but mentally, it is constantly taxing. 
  2. Lecturing involves being prepared for an essentially predictable set of events.  And after teaching a course a few times, even the questions that the students have becomes essentially predictable, to the point that a good teacher will change the lecture to address the anticipated questions before they are asked.  It also involves doing the homework exercises.  Since you have shown the kids how to do the exercises, the way you do the problem on your sheet will almost always match the correct answers on the kids' sheets, and the kids who don't get the correct answers will either have something that strongly resembles what you have on your sheet, or they will have a blank spot on their sheet.  Quite honestly, if you have to teach the same class more than a couple times a day, this can often get a bit boring.  Harkness, on the other hand, involves preparing the worksheets for the students, designing the questions so they are led to discover the material.  Initially, you think it involves preparing for the questions the students will have or for the mistakes they will make.  However, you quickly realize that you can't predict the many different ways the kids will devise to solve a problem.  So instead, being prepared involves knowing the material you are teaching so well that you can quickly analyze the vast majority of what the kids put together and respond accordingly.  It involves doing the homework exercises so you have the correct answer along with a way to get the answer, but a lot of the time the method the kids use to answer the problem won't match yours.  Even if you teach the same class several times a day (as I do), this doesn't get boring, ever.  The kids in one class normally don't use the same methods as those in another class, so the evaluation of whether or not they are doing an exercise correctly, or are at least going down a path that will lead them to discover  correct method, never ends.  Again, this is way more mentally taxing that lecturing.
  3. For many people, lecturing involves following a textbook and assigning problems from a textbook.  Little to no thought goes into the order in which to teach the material because the book provides the order for you.  Little to no thought goes in to choosing which exercises to assign because the teacher's edition of the textbook suggests which exercises are appropriate.  (To be fair, I do know a number of teachers who, despite the fact that they lecture, do not necessarily take the textbook "in order", who make their own worksheets, etc.  However, I also know a lot of teachers and administrators who believe that "the textbook knows best" and would never even entertain the thought of doing something that was not prescribed by the textbook.)  Harkness, on the other hand, involves knowing your material well enough to be able to teach it without a textbook.  It involves thinking through the entire course and planning the delivery of the material in the order and at the appropriate depth for your students.  It involves writing your own worksheets because the exercises in the textbook are inadequate in that they do not lead the students to discovered the material, nor do they encourage the students to do anything other than repeat the processes you have shown them.  

In short, Harkness involves more work, both in terms of preparation and in terms of the day-to-day work in the classroom, which is only fair.  After all, if we're going to ask the kids to start thinking for themselves and not relying on being spoon fed by us, then it only makes sense that we, the teachers, should start thinking for ourselves and stop relying on being spoon fed by the textbook companies.

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