The independent school world has always prided itself on an approach to learning that was effective and well-suited for smaller class sizes. It is popularly known as the Harkness method, named for the inventor of the oval tables (1930) that were used to promote self-directed class discussions. The belief was that students could be trained to participate regularly and substantively in discussions that were designed to ferret out the answers to essential questions of the daily lesson.

Harkness Method

Harkness Method

For three quarters of a century, the Harkness method has worked well in educational environments where the faculty believes that students are capable of discovering and constructing knowledge with well-crafted coaching from the teacher. As I reflect on my experiences with what we tend to call “discussion-driven” classrooms, I see some challenges with today’s students that might be addressed with minor modifications to the original concept. These changes are based on two assumptions:

  • Not all students participate in discussion for a variety of reasons, even if it is an expectation of the course.
  • Even though class sizes are smaller in independent schools, discussions of 12-16 students almost guarantee that not everybody will be able to participate regularly.
The hybrid model is not an original idea. Others have proposed several iterations over the past few years, so this proposal is simply a variation on a theme:
  • Divide the class into two random groups of similar size.
  • One group engages in a traditional class discussion.
  • The other group participates in the discussion through a live blog such as CoverItLive that is projected in the classroom (they are not permitted to speak).
  • On a daily basis, students shift frequently between the spoken and written contribution, but both groups are expected to participate together and in concert.

There are several benefits to this strategy (if it works) that might speak to the individual needs of some students. Those who are intimidated or prefer not to speak in class will have the opportunity to participate. Those who prefer to reflect on a question before responding will have the opportunity to do so in the written genre. Those students who dislike writing as a form of expression will write more frequently, and about topics and viewpoints that they feel strongly about (the same motivations for speaking in class).

Will there be challenges implementing the hybrid discussion? I can anticipate several. First, the logistics of ensuring some continuity between the two camps may be complex. Traditional discussions sometimes move at a pace that would be difficult to match for writers. On the other hand, slowing down discussions to encourage more depth might be a benefit. Second, students may not like the hybrid format, both because it is different (and therefore risky) and because they will not always be able to play their stronger suit, depending on the group to which they are assigned. Again, alternating groups might strengthen both spoken and written skills over time.

After I have experimented with the hybrid discussion in my class for a few weeks, I will report back in this blog with anecdotal results and student feedback. I am hoping I can add the hybrid discussion to the “teacher toolkit for increased student engagement” that I am building this year.

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