Sunday, April 6, 2014


As the year has progressed, and the more comfortable I have become over the last two years with using discussions in my classroom, I have struggled with trying to keep track of everything.  I have become firmly convinced that the most important thing I do in the classroom is pay attention to the kids: find out what they know, what they don't, and determine what is preventing them from making the progress they need to make.  Admittedly, the opportunity to do all of this is a huge advantage of running a Harkness classroom (or a "flipped" classroom, for that matter) as opposed to a "traditional" one.  In the past, the amount of information I was able to get from the kids on a daily basis was extremely limited, mainly because I was the one doing most of the talking.  Now, I have the opportunity to get a good feel for where each and every one of the kids is every day.  However, trying to write down notes in enough detail that I can remember and then act on what I am observing has proven to be a huge undertaking.

My solution so far has been to make a spreadsheet on my tablet and carry it with me from table to table.  The spreadsheet has the names of the students down the first column, and the skills they are to be learning during the course of the trimester across the top row.  During class, I mark an "x" in the appropriate cell when one of the kids presents a solution on the board or when they make a solid summary statement about one of the concepts to the group.  After each test, I go through the spreadsheet and mark a "t" in the appropriate cell if the student earned at least a "B" on the exercise that was on the test that relates to a particular skill.  All of this has been very helpful, and some patterns are certainly emerging in terms of who goes to the board to do only review exercises, who rarely goes to the board at all, and who has a reasonable mastery of all of the skills to the point that they are willing  to go to the board at any time.  It's not perfect, because I still feel I miss a lot of what happens at the other tables when I get deeply involved in the discussion at one table, but it's certainly better than what I was able to do in the past, when most if not all of the feedback I got from the kids came in the form of a formal quiz or test.

This leads me to one of the other big revelations I've had recently.  There has been a lot of talk at our school recently on the topic of "feedback", mostly in the form of discussing the work of John Hattie.  Initially, my reaction was, "OK. how can I give the kids more information about what they're doing right, about where they still need some extra practice,..." etc.  However, it occurred to me that the only way for me to give feedback to the kids is if I'm getting feedback from them.  Trying to give them feedback every day requires that I get feedback from them every day.  This kind of interaction, the give-and-take in both directions necessary to allow the two-way feedback happen, is precisely what was missing from my classroom in the past.  This interaction is not only promoted by a discussion-based classroom, it is the very heart of it.  Whether the classroom is running on a Harkness model (which I would classify as discovery-based discussion), a true Direct Instruction model (brief lecture followed by lots of closely monitored in-class practice in the form of exercises or activities done in small groups), or a flipped model (somewhere between Harkness and DI), the important part of the time in class is when the students and teacher are getting and giving feedback to one another.

In short, the most important part of any classroom should be the real interaction between the teacher and the students.  Discoveries can be made anywhere, and lectures can be delivered by online videos, but the frequent feedback necessary for the teacher to know where the students are in their learning and for the students to receive affirmation of or correction to their progress and conclusions can only happen during real dialogue, and this happens best in a discussion-based classroom.

Is it easy to keep up with everything?  No, but it's certainly worth the effort.  And I'll definitely take this over the only-way dissemination of knowledge that used to take place in my classroom.


  1. "The most important part of any classroom is the REAL interaction between the teacher and the students."
    I love this post. It reminds me of my classroom and helps me to not feel so overwhelmed about formal quizzes and tests. The interaction is important too. Thank you.

  2. You are more than welcome, and thank you for the kind words.