Sunday, January 13, 2013


It seems to be human nature that when things get difficult or uncomfortable, we look for ways to regain a sense of familiarity.  This was on display in my classroom this week as the students returned from the break.  It actually started before the break, as the kids had fallen into a pattern of having whichever students at the table completely understood how to do one of the homework problems go to the board and present their solution to the rest of the group.  This led to two (negative) things:
  1. they would skip exercises about which no one was absolutely confident, returning to them later but having an incomplete discussion, the lack of absolute confidence getting in the way of having a deep discussion; yes, someone would finally go to the board, but the good discussion simply wasn't happening; or
  2. one of the students who did understand the exercise would go to the board and essentially deliver a mini lecture about the discussion, few questions, just passively listening to the person at the board; almost invariably this ended up being the same students mentioned above going to the board, so we ended up with a small set of students going to the board over and over again.
My hope before the break was that this was a phase that would pass, that the lead-up to the break and the excitement were getting in the way, that after the break things would return to the way they had been.  That hope was dashed on Monday, so on Tuesday, for the first time ever in my teaching career, I numbered a set of popsicle sticks and randomly assigned students to present the homework exercises at the board.  Some of the students mentioned in the journals that they wholeheartedly approved of the random assignment.  Others, of course, were not thrilled with this, at least not initially, but the complaints in the journals actually appeared in two different forms:
  1. there were the students who had gotten comfortable with passively listening to the mini lecture who were now forced to go to the board and actively participate, working through a problem with which they were not necessarily comfortable at the board; and
  2. there were students who were used to going to the board a lot (and liked it that way) who now were sitting at the table while the another student who did not necessarily understand the exercises was at the board.
Both of these scenarios led to better discussions.  The entire table was involved in the presentation of the exercises, with those who understood the problem actively discussing the exercise with the person at the board, and those at the table who did not understand the problem actively asking questions, both to get the information they needed and to let the person at the board know they weren't the only one who needed help.  Even the students who were not happy about the change admitted that the discussions were more thorough, more detailed, short, better.

Since one of the big points of Harkness is to have the students take responsibility for their education, I plan on giving the students a few opportunities to fix the problem themselves, but the popsicle sticks will always be at the ready, just in case.

As a side note: it began to hit me just how many of the "best practices" I've heard over the years, and tricks to make them happen, are coming into play this year.  I've heard of other teachers using some sort of random assignment for presenting homework exercises at the board, but the time constraints that exist in a classroom where lectures are the predominant method of information delivery make this less than desirable (you need to leave enough time for the lecture, so wasting time sending a student who did not or was not able to do a homework problem to the board - essentially by themselves - is not a good idea).  This year, however (or at least this week), the random assignment made sense and promoted better discussions. Of course, the students at the board were not alone, and the lecture-induced time constraint is not there, so the popsicle sticks made sense.  There have been several of these revelations this year, pieces from different methods, parts of best practices, that all seem to be coming together in a seamless whole.  Put simply, Harkness seems to be the perfect blend of all of the best practices I've heard over the years.  Hopefully, it will continue to reveal itself as such.  And honestly, I have no doubt that it will.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for continuing to write about your experience. Great to hear the real ups and downs of the experiment. Well done student-centered teaching is a power tool.