Drawing Out a Discussion

As a systematic part of my school’s Professional Growth Program, teachers visit other teacher’s classrooms in order to learn something and celebrate the work of their colleagues.  Today, I visited a class where the teacher sometimes uses the Harkness Method to generate open discussions about relevant class material.  Our school does not subscribe fully to the Harkness method, so I wanted to see what it would look like.

The teacher started in what I thought was a great way — he asked the class to reflect on their prior Harkness-style discussions.  What had worked and what hadn’t worked?  The students were incredibly articulate about the parts of the process that were broken and what they might do to fix those parts.

In the end, in a nutshell, the problem was simple and actually quite positive: first, most of them wanted to share their ideas; second, most of them had moments in class where they felt passionately enough about an idea that they wanted to say it even if it meant that they would be talking over another classmate.  There was a healthy intellectual competitiveness in the room which meant that many of the students felt like they had to vie for air space.

As far as classroom problems go, that’s all okay with me . . . especially when the teacher is also trying to help the students understand the fact that (a) group dialogue is important and (b) by definition, group dialogue can’t necessarily include every single idea that every single person thinks at every single moment.  In the class, I could see intellectual passion bumping up against intellectual discipline.  I could see students beginning to understand the power of cohorts.  I could see very fine “school” unfolding.

When I left, I handed the students this diagram, which I sketched — coarsely — while listening and learning.


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