Saturday, September 28, 2013

Method or Philosophy?

Next Wednesday, I will be making a presentation to the faculty of our high school on the Harkness Method, how I've been using it in my classroom, and what it has taken to implement it, with the hope being that it piques the interest of some of the other teachers to the point that they will pursue including more discussion-based methods of instruction in their classrooms.  However, the more work I've done for the presentation, the more I've begun to ask the following question: is Harkness really a method, or is it a philosophy?

The reason for the question is this: it seems to me that the real push behind Harkness is the discussions, allowing the students to dig deep into the material during the discussions and coming to a thorough understanding of the material through the discussions.  And even though the students need to prepare for the discussions, the actual shape of the preparation is not really defined.  The preparation my students need to do looks essentially the same as it does in the math classes at Exeter, with the homework exercises scaffolded so the students discover the material through them.  But is this the same way the preparation looks, or even should look, in the other disciplines?  For that matter, is this the way the preparation should look in other mathematics classrooms?

For example, there is the "flipped classroom" model of instruction, where the students watch a video lecture to prepare for class and then do the exercises based on the lecture during class.  Done correctly, meaning that the in-class work is dominated by discussion and problem solving, I can see this as fitting well with the Harkness philosophy.  I can also see the team-based method of instruction, a project-based method with a strong emphasis on in-class discussions, as really being just another form of Harkness.

It should be clear that I'm leaning toward Harkness as being a philosophy with the following components:

  • the in-class work is dominated by student-led discussions
  • student preparation for the discussions is vital
  • the teacher acts as a guide, both in terms of designing the course so that student discovery of the material is possible and in terms of  helping the students learn from their mistakes

Exeter says that Harkness is flexible to the individual style of the teacher.  Until I began to view Harkness as a philosophy, I didn't really understand what that means.  With this view, I'm hoping to be better able to help other teachers help their students by implementing the philosophy in their classroom.  Updates to follow...


  1. I graduated from a high school that used the Harkness approach, around Harkness tables, for most humanities classes. While facts are always necessary to support an argument, it was more important to identify and make connections among themes and concepts than to arrive in class with all facts memorized.

    As a math tutor and teacher, I have worked with many students who focus on memorizing and seldom get beyond the formulas to the underlying concept(s), or the nature of the problem at hand.

    The two most compelling approaches to teaching conceptual topics (such as Mathematics) I have come across are championed by Dan Meyer ( and Eric Mazur (Peer Instruction, ConceptTests: I perceive both to be entirely consistent with a Harkness approach, and very compelling.

    The difficulty is developing the curriculum and its associated support materials for such an approach (as you have experienced) if one seeks to use it to teach Algebra, Geometry, Pre-Calculus, etc. The traditional syllabi for these courses can make using such an approach quite challenging. The Exeter Math books deviate quite far from traditional syllabi - which can make them challenging to use if one is required to adhere to a pre-defined syllabus.

    Some of the NSF-funded texts (such as the COMAP series could work quite well using a Harkness approach to class time... the hard part is giving teachers who were not taught this way enough first-hand experience with this approach to begin feeling comfortable using it in class.

    My perception of the Harkness approach is that the teacher's task is to set the stage upon which the students can debate the topic, gaining insights and learning from one another along the way while the teacher helps keep the debate "centered" on core concepts when tangential ones arise. "Perplexing questions" and "being less helpful" (as Dan Meyer advocates) along with "Peer Instruction" and "ConceptTests" (as Eric Mazur advocates) are all part of such a process.

    In Math, I believe the goal should be for students to understand, and be able to apply, key underlying concepts. Plugging numbers into formulas becomes the final (and simplest) part of solving the problem. Yet most Math students I have met focus almost entirely on "what formula should I use" instead of the "why" questions.

    So yes, I see a Harkness approach arising from a constructivist philosophy. It is not a method that can be used with most traditional lesson plans, although one can certainly squeeze an occasional Harkness class or two into an otherwise traditional curriculum in an effort to help students master core concepts or confusing topics.


  2. What a wonderful question, and one that I have faced as well. Starting with the Harkness method over 8 years ago I definitely saw it as a method, and one that I held pretty strict rules about. But over time, and facing different groups of students - from struggling sophomores through incredibly accomplished seniors to ridiculously brilliant eighth graders, I realized that to view Harkness as a method makes it too rigid to adapt and be flexible with a variety of learners. In fact, since I feel that Harkness requires a teacher to be nimble, flexible, and adaptable in the classroom it seems only logical that the method should be as well. Once I stepped into the realm of Harkness as a philosophy - a constructivist and progressive one at that - it became easier to see how to adapt it in ways for all of my students to be successful. At least that is how I feel. Lately I have been reading the book Quiet by Susan Cain, and as an introvert myself I am starting to wonder how to adapt the Harkness philosophy to account for students who really do process and learn well on their own at times. At any rate, I think the components you cite sum up my feelings as well.