SHP2014: Neil Smith and Simon Orth

Neil and Simon are explaining the Harkness idea of collaborative learning.

It involves a bit of the flipped learning idea, where students read and complete tasks before the lesson and then discuss it in class, tackling tasks set by the teacher. This encourages co-construction within the course of the lesson: students are passing ideas around and building them up in the classroom. The teacher acts as the facilitator and inquisitor – they are not there to deliver knowledge. One example of a teacher task would be to map the contributions made to the discussion, possibly identifying connections or discussions between each pair of students, and then feeding back to students on their contributions at the end of the lesson. The teacher might be directly involved in the debate, asking questions and adding their own ideas.

Why do it? It helps to create better historians, for a start. Chris Husbands, director of the IoE, in Great teaching and how to get it; Hattie; EEF Toolkit all provide educational research to back up the benefits of following the Harkness method, in terms of promoting things like collaborative learning, peer feedback, meta cognition etc. It solves perennial A-level problems: not enough reading, difficulty in constructing analysis and evaluation. It provides opportunities for different types of feedback, builds in modelling of good work and develops greater independence of thought and action. Finally, it increases student accountability.

We role play the method by reading a few extracts (not a proper example of a Harkness lesson, we are told, but necessary to model the method in a short time slot). Reading should be purposeful: read and annotate with a question in mind. Then we have a discussion in which we all take on different roles, while one member of the group maps the connections between the participants and notes down what sort of contributions they are making. This is helpful for identifying which students perhaps haven’t done the reading/work or who, perhaps, is not feeling especially confident about participating in the discussion. Suggestions about this include doing it by passing a ball of string around and apparently now there is an app you can use to do the mapping.

Groups of 12ish work for this, but a class could be split into 2 groups, or two circles, with the outer circle being observers or navigators. Neil has used it lower down the school, splitting classes into groups of eight and having a student moderator within each group. When it comes to ensuring students prepared, they tied it to essays to give it a really clear point; practice and training helped too, because after a lesson or two students found they didn’t really like having nothing to say in the discussion.

In its purest form, students would use Harkness in every lesson, necessitating 3 or 4 hours of reading every night, which is not really realistic. At MGS, units were planned and the Harkness session was built in to each section of the SoW, so that the reading was more likely to happen and had a clear point to it at the end. It allowed for the summing up of each section in a meaningful way and for consolidation prior to writing a practice response.

St Philips Exeter, where this method originated, runs a week’s course on this every year, which provides intense CPD (week in America to study a pedagogical idea – remind me to request that from the inset budget next year). MGS sent a member of staff there this year, who gathered information about the impact that the method had. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence, plus some suggestion based on scores on essays that using this method helps students to achieve better grades. It does help them to formulate an argument,; as my current method of balloon debates does.

There are variations on the Harkness theme. Chairmen lessons; policy advisers; thesis statements – come with an argument and be prepared to defend it; student takeover; standard essay prep. Using ICT can help a lot too – Padlet, Edmodo, Twitter etc.

With younger students, several seminar groups based on adapted reading and images. It can be difficult to manage as the teacher, but by providing roles, such as setting four questions and asking students to chair in turn for five minutes, students can carry out some really profitable discussion.

As I replan what I’m teaching year 12 next year, this has been very helpful.

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