Fostering Civil Discourse through the Harkness Method

Whatever happened to discussions that center around deeper understanding? Whatever happened to listening as a valued skill? Whatever happened to constructing meaning cooperatively instead of the competitive need of having to be right?

I often wonder what has happened to the art of conversation, where several perspectives are valued and truly heard. It happens often not just with my students but with adults as well that people I am attempting to have a discussion with aren’t really listening. Instead, they are impatiently waiting to say what they have to say disregarding the current thread of topics.

The Harkness Method revitalizes students learning from one another during a discussion. Imagine a Socratic seminar but even more collaborative in the sense of honoring everyone’s voice. In fact, learners are evaluated on inclusion of all voices and how these new perspectives shape understanding.

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Teachers can provide questions to guide the discussion. Learners come with notes they prepared for those particular questions. For each question, I ask my students to respond, find multiple pieces of evidence supporting those responses, ask questions and find personal connections. I, then, step out of the process spending most of my time annotating the discussion I hear. I jot down, thoughtful responses, supportive remarks, facilitation, questions, personal connections, and text evidence.

It is, however, the learners who are doing the heavy lifting: understanding the task at hand with the goal of reaching consensus about possible responses to open questions, inviting the valued voices of each and every learner at the table, managing time, checking for understanding, maintaining a respectful space where real work is being done. That’s so much. It’s exhausting just thinking about it.


Here’s the sad thing: learners do not come into my class feeling their ideas or voice matters. Learners do not come equipped with careful, generous listening. Learners are not accustomed to collaborating for a deeper understanding. Somehow, most of our youth are conditioned to seek their own answers to questions. They may learn research skills to help them, but they believe there is one “correct” response, and it’s a race to see who can get to it first.


How, then, can we make that jump from singular voice, idea, thought to collaboration, iteration, and innovation? The Harkness Method helps with all of this in my classroom.



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