The Harkness Method

I walked into my first "Harkness" method seminar in 2013, on a visit to Exeter Academy, the famous boarding school in New Hampshire. Exeter developed this seminar technique in the 1930s, and since then it's become the hallmark of their educational method. I was curious to see what was so special about this approach.

I sat down with 12 high school students, all seated around a wooden oval table in a small classroom, looking more like a dinner table with a family gathered around it. They had been reading Hamlet, and as the teacher approached the table and sat down, she simply noted the Act that the group had all read for homework, and asked a broad question about the motivations of the characters. Then, she stopped, and in fact barely spoke for the next hour. I turned to the students - what would they do with this?

One boy spoke first, describing his theory of why a certain character in the play was acting as he did, and I noticed something right away that was surprising. He was not talking to the teacher; he had heard her question, but was addressing his fellow students with his comment. Almost immediately, a girl in the group began to respond, acknowledging his point but then suggesting a different way of looking at it; she spoke directly to him, cited the reasons he had cited, and then interpreted them in a different way. Before I knew it, the group was in a lively conversation. No hands were raised to request the teacher's permission to speak. I lost myself in the conversation, laughing with the students as they imagined and joked about why the characters acted as they did, following debates that emerged with interest. 

Throughout all of this, the teacher was following the conversation closely, but she only spoke a few times. Once she nudged a student who had spoken little for his viewpoint; another time, she prompted the class to go deeper by asking a question that linked this part of the play with broader themes in our lives today. Once she reminded a student to cite evidence - in this case, the specific lines of the play - when he was making a point. In total, she spoke about 5 minutes in the course of an hour, making small but important adjustments to what was easily the best conversation of Shakespeare I've seen among students or adults alike.

So, what is the magic of the Harkness method, or a great seminar in general? First, they've experimented to find what they feel is the ideal size, and believe that 12 students around one table is perfect: enough diversity of viewpoints and personalities, small enough that everyone can speak, and no one can hide anonymously in the group (they even have what they believe are the perfect dimensions of the table!). Second, they've understood that to teach meaningful intellectual discourse, students have to address each other, not refer back to the teacher with every point and question. As part of this, students learn to cite evidence, always backing up their points. Finally, they've incorporated an element of social-emotional intelligence. They have a theme called "spreading the conversation," teaching students to be on guard against dominating the conversation, and engaging others who may be more hesitant to jump into the fray. 

I walked away struck by how powerful seminar experiences could be. The students were evolving and strengthening their ideas, drawing from evidence; they were motivated to prepare well in order to be ready to participate among their peers;  they were developing social and emotional intelligence by observing the conversation from a group perspective. Clearly, both this teacher and the school culture as a whole had carefully prepared them for this level of conversation. I came away feeling that for seminars to work this well, it has to build on a school-wide commitment to authentic inquiry. If you can build that base, as we hope to at Millennium, then the Harkness method offers a time-tested methodology to explore advanced academic material, while inviting students to understand how they relate to it personally.

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