Well, year two of Harkness has come to an end, which makes this a good time to reflect on what has gone well and what could go better. I’ll start with the positives:
- I’m basically happy with the problem set we created two summers ago and have been editing ever since. There is still work to be done, and honestly I don’t think it will ever be “finished”, but I’m happy with where it is and how well the questions have moved the students where we needed them to be.
- The kids who buy into the system and do what we ask them to do are being successful in lots of ways. By “doing what we ask them to do”, I mean preparing for class, participating in the discussions, and reflecting on their work every day. By “succeeding”, I mean learning the material, period. The evidence for this is not only provided by their grades on the tests and on the exam, but also on their day-to-day work and on their standardized test scores. As examples of this, three students mentioned to me that their ACT score rose by 5, 7, and 8 points respectively compared with their previous scores, and they attributed the increase to the critical thinking and problem solving skills they gained from my class. I don’t know how much credit the class actually deserves, since there are most certainly other factors involved, but the kids gave the credit to the class.
- My management of the class has improved. I’ve reached a point where I have the paperwork I need to get the daily information I need, and I’m able to do it in a way that allows me to spend more time with the kids at the tables. Keeping track of everything that goes on simultaneously at 3 or 4 tables was (and is) a huge task, but I’ve finally reached a point where it’s manageable and doesn’t take overshadow the time I get to spend with the kids.
- Some of the other teachers are beginning to include more discussion-based methods in their classes. Is it completely Harkness? No. Should it be? That’s up to them. But at least they’re giving it a try and having some success.
- There are still kids who don’t buy into the system. Some kids want to be told what to do and how to do it (a few said this to me directly in those words). Others try to get by with only the in-class discussions and none of the preparation. Still others try to memorize everything instead of truly learning the material. The one theme that runs through all of these students is that they are focused on the grade and not on learning. Of course, they’ve been in school for 10+ years now, and breaking them of something that has worked for them in the past isn’t easy. Somehow I need to impress upon the kids early on next year that my classroom is focused on learning, not on grades. And I have evidence at this point that if you do what I ask in the way I ask, then not only will you learn the material, but the grades will fall into place as well.
- There are still plenty of skeptics when it comes to any “non-traditional” method (i.e., anything other than lecturing), and any shortcomings the kids have are placed squarely on the shoulders of the non-traditional methods. Besides Harkness, some of the methods used by teachers in my building include the flipped classroom model, team-based learning, and competition-based learning. All of these have received their fair share of criticism, even when the shortcomings noted in the students are just as common if not more so in the students in one of the traditional classrooms. Somehow, we need to remove the stigma. A good place to start may be to find a way for the traditional teachers to accept the invitation to observe our classes.
Over the summer, I will be heading back to Exeter for the Greer conference, and this year the other honors pre-calculus teacher will be with me. During the week, we will have the opportunity to refine some of the questions from our problem sets. We will also be working on ways to incorporate more discussion-based learning in the algebra 1 classes in our building, since we will both be teaching that course next year as well. Finally, I’m thrilled that the Exeter Mathematics Institute will be coming to my school for a week to share Harkness with teachers from several schools in the Cincinnati area. The goal, of course, is to help the kids succeed. My contention, of course, is that discussion-based methods, whether flipped, team-based, competition-based, Harkness, or otherwise, are the best way to make that happen. Hopefully we can find a way this summer to get the momentum moving in what I would consider to be the right direction.