Introducing and Using the Discussion (AKA Harkness) Table

International affairs expert Fareed Zakaria has recently suggested that America’s edge in education comes from its habit of making students think rather than just memorize and regurgitate (191-195).  Discussion based teaching (also called the “Harkness method,” after the oval discussion tables designed to facilitate conversation) challenges students to sit at the center of education, making meaning of new information together, talking, listening, and ultimately thinking.  While some schools have relied on the method for many years, others, like mine, have not.  In such cases, introducing this style of learning, in which no student can hide, can be difficult if students aren’t used to it, and making sure it’s productive also presents challenges.   However, once included in a curriculum it allows students to more deeply understand material and think for themselves.

When I began my job at an independent school six years ago, my pedagogical style was very open, but I held to one vow: no more teaching via discussion.  Having previously taught in university History departments, I had come to view discussion based teaching as slow death, doled out in fifty minute blocks characterized by silence, blank stares, and lidded eyes.  However, knowing that to perform well in college my high school students needed to be experienced in discussion (see the Center for History and New Media’s www.chmn.syllabi for a large repository of university syllabi that include discussion in the averaging of grades), I decided to integrate it into my syllabus.

The first step to consider if you wish to effectively introduce discussion is enrolling in the Phillips Exeter Academy Humanities Institute (www.exeter.edu/summer_programs/9398.aspx).  Held every summer on Exeter’s campus, teachers gather to share ideas about and model discussion based teaching.   Most helpful to me was the red binder of materials the Exeter teachers had collected, including articles about the Harkness method, and tools for assessing discussion.  In particular, the top-down diagram of the discussion table used to track who spoke to whom encouraged me to bring more discussion to class because now I could more accurately assess it.

I teach mixed ability 11th graders in U.S. History, some of whom would resist being forced to sit around a table facing each other and sharing ideas for a grade. They were used to participating in class, but not engaging in a totally student-centered, assessed activity. If I were alone in bringing this new and challenging style I’d look crazy, villainous, or both.  On returning to my school in the fall, I shared my experiences with colleagues, and two agreed to include more discussion in their English classes.  Enlisting others to include discussion is the next important step to introducing it: with two other teachers of the same grade level using discussion to teach and assess, it gained credibility and offered students practice in other classrooms.  When a couple of students decided they had “the right to remain silent,” saying that this was cruel and unusual punishment, they also saw that other teachers valued it.  It is important as well to get your superiors on board; I spoke to mine to explain why and how I was integrating it, so he could field any phone calls from concerned parents.

The next step was to prepare students for their first round of totally student-centered learning.  If they arrived to class cold, unaware of what was expected of them, silence would surely follow.  So, I designed each discussion day around one essential question, posed on my syllabus.  I then took a day of class to allow students, in pairs, to brainstorm about the first question (“Why would colonists want to wage war against Britain?”), jot down ideas, and think of other questions to ask the class.  I also gave them a handout titled “Guidelines for Discussion,” taken right from the Exeter red book (thanks to Ralph Sneeden) with important tips such as “collaborate, don’t compete” and “do not address everything to the instructor.”  This provided some friendly tips, and some ground rules.

On our first day of discussion, students sat around a large table facing each other, and I sat several feet away from it, allowing them to figure out where things would go while I charted who spoke to whom. One of the first tips offered at Exeter was “let go,” and it’s the next important step in discussion based teaching.  I’ve learned that my previous style of “leading” discussion was more Initiation-Response-Evaluation, in which a teacher offers Socratic questions in a call-and-response format, telling the student if he/she is correct, rather than a true discussion, where the role of the instructor is minimized to make room for student exploration (Levstik and Barton 21).  Now, I “let go,” and interjected only to move them from topic to topic, correct erroneous information, or to ask a student to clarify a point.  The class was initially silent, as the scenario was, to them, awkward.  But the silence was uncomfortable for them, especially since their performances were to be graded, and this forced them to think on their feet and address that day’s materials.

The initial results were better than I expected.  In a class of 17 students, approximately 15 spoke, some more than others.  At the end of class, each student filled out and turned in a confidential peer review of one other student, assigned by me at the start of the hour.  I then showed them my diagram of the table, noting that, on that day, students were more comfortable speaking across the table to each other than turning to speak down it.  The diagram allowed them to more fully understand the number of individual contributions (throughout the rest of the term I hung each subsequent diagram on the wall for comparison).  We ended with a five-minute discussion of the discussion itself, assessing strengths and weaknesses to think about for next time.  As the year progressed, students who previously loathed history told me they came to like it, because now it concerned ideas, not “just names and dates.”  One group of twenty asked that they be split into two sections of ten so that each student would have more opportunities to speak, and I supported their request by holding class over lunch.

After that first year of intermittent discussion in all sections, I moved my Advanced Placement U.S. History class to an all-discussion format, jettisoning lecture entirely.  As the year progressed, I witnessed discussions not only of past events, but watched students make connections throughout history, and relate the past to their lives.  They also began to discuss the textbook itself.  Knowing they would be evaluated on the quality of their participation, they read the text nightly (I suspected they did not when I lectured).  By mid-year, they were talking about the author’s perspective and voice, which led to discussions about how American history is viewed and written in a post Watergate and Vietnam world.  This showed me the benefits of discussion outside of merely preparing students for college.  The practice hones their interpersonal skills; they have to find collegial, mature ways to disagree.  They have to listen to others, connect points, and police their own conversations.  Shy students, while uninspired or terrified by group talks, can build their confidence.  Above all, students have to think.

Discussion based teaching has taken root at my school, but problems persist.  In my regular U.S. History courses I do not offer discussion every day, saving it for Fridays so I can differentiate my instruction during the week.  This leads to some students, knowing a grade is attached to discussion, to take it too seriously.  This can cause anxiety, competition, or chatter for the sake of chatter in hopes of a high grade.  I’ve moved from grading each weekly discussion individually, to assigning a cumulative grade at the end of each month to relieve pressure and encourage more natural discourse.  Some students are still shy, even when their classmates are warm and helpful to them (“Would you like to add something, Tommy?  It’s okay.”).  For the chronically shy, I tend to go easier on them the first term, but I tell them that I will not continue to do so after that, instead working one-on-one with them in my office prior to discussion to reassure them.  And I occasionally face a large section (16 really is maximum for this type of instruction), that requires me to police things more closely to make sure all can be heard, if they wish.

No longer do I eschew discussion, but seek new ways to make it more engaging, whether it be adding a few minutes of documentary or movie footage to get the class thinking, challenging them to “Make me interested” in a subject (then giving them time to huddle up and strategize before we begin) or handing out new primary sources on the spot to read aloud and discuss.  Should this teaching style appeal to you, consider the following:

  1. Don’t introduce it alone, if possible.  Try to get colleagues to offer this challenging approach with you.  It legitimizes the technique, and gives students practice in other classrooms.  Additionally, talk with administration. 
  2. Post essential questions ahead of time, and work to get students thinking about discussion before it happens.
  3. Silence is your friend.  Let students reflect and think before they talk.  Ultimately, “let go” so they can make sense of information.
  4. Assess discussion.  Students need feedback as to when they’re making thoughtful comments, and when not.  Track who speaks to whom, and have peers offer input.  It also motivates.
  5. Do it frequently, or forget it.  Including a discussion day every three weeks won’t do; students will become rusty, or will place so much emphasis on doing well that one day that it impedes the natural flow.

I still suffer from the occasional flashback of a baseball-hat clad undergraduate, half-asleep at 8am on a Friday morning during discussion.  But more often I experience the excitement of watching students talk, agree, disagree, stumble, and recover while making sense of the past.  Discussion based teaching has become a central component of my teaching kit-bag, not just because it is good preparation for college, but because it hones thinking skills.

References

Levstik, Linda S. and Keith C. Barton. Doing History: Investigating with Children in

Elementary and Middle Schools. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 2005.

Zakaria, Fareed. The Post-American World. New York: WW Norton, 2008.

Brian Mullgardt

Brian Mullgardt is the chair of the social studies department at The Prairie School (Wisconsin), where he has taught U.S. History and other classes since 2002. He earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Connecticut in 2008.