Tuesday, August 18, 2015


Summer is over, and the new year is off to a good start, with this year's docket consisting of four honors pre-calculus and two algebra 1 classes. It was a full and enjoyable summer, with a week at Exeter, a week with EMI in Mason, a four-day weekend at Deerfield Academy participating in a PBL Summit, and lots of family time riding roller coasters, including a few days at Holiday World for our 25th anniversary.  The PD was inspiring, to say the least, and provided the impetus to take the discussion exercises created last year for algebra 1 and organize and expand them so that this year the course can include the discovery and inquiry that were, in many ways, missing last year.  In other words, Harkness has fully arrived in algebra 1.  There are several of us using the new algebra 1 materials this year, and the focus of the blog this year will be on the implementation and the adjustments as we go.  And after four days...

(1) Yes, the kids can do this.  The conversations have been good, the kids are making discoveries, and today they were already putting their work on the board before the bell rang to start class.

(2) No, not everyone is on board yet.  Some of the kids are trying to get by in the same way they have in the past, where not doing work at home and not participating in class menat that the teacher would swoop in and save them by giving them notes and finding other ways to spoon feed them the information.  Needless to say, that's not happening this year.  On the good side, each day another student or two has gotten with the program, so hopefully it won't be too long before we have everyone in the fold.

(3) Yes, there is a slight difference between what I'm doing in algebra 1 and what I'm doing in honors pre-calculus.  Namely, we spend the last five or so minutes of class in algebra 1 discussing the day's exercises as a whole group, as a way of summarizing things and giving the kids a chance to check their notes and make sure they caught the important information for the day.  Honors pre-calc doesn't receive this from me on a daily basis, as part of the point is for them to begin to discern  this for themselves...a college-readiness skill if ever there was one.

In addition to this, the way I'm reporting grades is changing this year.  Specifically, we are going to a more standards-based model, with only formal assessments (which we're calling "checkpoints" this year) contributing to the semester grade.  Homework, participation, etc., will be reported online but will not be included in the calculation of the semester grade.  If a student does not show proficiency on a particular topic, we have laid out a process (at the heart of which is them finding or creating exercises that cover the topic in question) by which they can continue to work on the topic, show proficiency, and replace the grade from the checkpoint.  My hope is that this will nudge any holdouts over to doing the necessary work to learn the material "the first time" (i.e., in class through the daily preparation and unit checkpoints) rather than having to work through the make-up process for the old material while trying to learn the new.  Either way, I'm trying to place the focus squarely on learning the material and not on the grade, and I'm certain that a few posts will be updates about how this process is going as well.

Finally, as a result of presenting "Harkness for Thirty" at Exeter and Deerfield over the summer, I have had a few email conversations with teachers from across the country providing requested information and advice as they make their first attempt at discussion-based learning.  It is a bit humbling and a bit overwhelming to think that my advice is worth asking for.  It has also got me thinking about putting together a workshop that I could do for math departments who would like help putting together the materials to implement discussion-based learning.  Not sure if there's a need for this, but it's probably worth considering at the very least.

So, a lot to work on this year.  Just the way it should be.


  1. Hi Johnothon.

    Heard you had been at Exeter this past summer. Tremendous respect for your efforts! (I attended the EMI in PA.)

    As I start my second year trying to implement a discussion-based classroom, I'm planning to reread your blogs and may well be in touch with some specific questions. However, I also have an idea.

    Are you on LinkedIn? My thought is to set up a "Harkness Math" professional group on LinkedIn. Interested? Perhaps this way we could get more teachers involved in the discussion.

    Thanks for posting (and providing me with such inspiration :-).


    1. Hi Coleman!

      Facebook or Twitter would work better foe me, as I already have several "professional groups" on those sites.

  2. Hi Johnothon,

    Are you using the Exeter math problem sets for your precalculus course? If so, where are you starting?

    Coleman, I'd be interested in a Harkness Math group on LinkedIn.

    Rick Thompson

  3. Hi Rick!

    Actually, we wrote our own problem sets, not because the ones from Exeter aren't great, but because they weren't a "perfect fit" for our curriculum.

  4. Hi Jonothon, I've started a little list of PBL / IBL / Harkness materials explaining or documenting the method. You may not need them anymore (since you're so established!) but here's the link. If you know of any others I should add lemme know. Look forward to seeing you at PEA this summer.