Harkness – the fad that’s worth the fuss

This post is written by VBA

Harkness: what and why

Harkness may not be the newest idea in the teaching world, but I feel it is one that has been unfairly overlooked. I came across it while on an Edexcel A-Level History teaching course about 3 years ago, when the leader of the course mentioned they had begun to trial it in their A-Level History teaching, and it seemed to have visible results on students’ marks. Intrigued by the idea and its seeming simplicity, I researched it further on getting back to Norwich.

It’s an idea taken from Edward Harkness, an early 20th century philanthropist and educational reformer, and the concept is based on Harkness’ own education. He felt that the traditional approach of sitting in rows whilst the teacher taught from the front created a hierarchy which did not support those who had less confidence or needed more support. Harkness came to favour a ‘conference’ pedagogy where students engaged in conversation on a topic they had prepared before coming to lesson, rather than answering specific, narrow questions directed at the few from the front. Harkness ‘gifted’ this idea to Phillips Exeter Academy in the United States, where they developed it and adapted it into a workable educational approach, and now use it as their sole teaching method.


In its purest form, a Harkness discussion will take place around an oval table (school budget permitting) to allow a Socratic style discussion to take place i.e. driven by the students rather than the teacher. The primary role of a teacher in this scenario is as an observer – although the topic has been dictated by the teacher, the direction of the conversation and what is discussed is driven by the students and the preparatory reading/note taking they have undertaken. A Harkness discussion provides the opportunity for students to share and explore new knowledge from their peers whilst also expressing their own ideas and thoughts on the topic. It should provide the appropriate environment to question and challenge ideas, and to evaluate and analyse a variety of viewpoints. In addition, students will have the opportunity to work collaboratively on a question or topic whilst also being able to listen to each other carefully and communicate effectively. Its appeal as a technique lays in how it promotes student independence while also encouraging them to think and discuss analytically whilst providing the opportunity for them to grow in confidence in challenging and supporting ideas.

How I use it in History lessons

Buoyed by the potential of the technique I have used it primarily with my A-Level Historians to get them thinking about a ‘big picture’ and their opinion on that particular topic. After using it a lot in the past, I revisited it recently after a lull in using it and (hence the title of this blog) was reminded of how effective it is as a technique. My attempt at it is below:

My current Year 12s have been struggling with analysis, and particularly the idea of challenging established views. This is a new element in the OCR A-Level where for the thematic study students must analyse two passages from historians and decide how convincing they are. I was finding that there were two key issues arising from this that my students were struggling with – firstly, what makes a passage ‘convincing’ and secondly, having the confidence to say which elements they find convincing/unconvincing and why. Once we had got a grasp on the concept of ‘convincing’ we had to tackle the next issue, and on discussion with the pupils, it seemed to stem from the fact they were struggling to formulate their own opinion on the question focus. If they couldn’t have their own opinion, how were they going to be able to challenge another’s opinion?

At the same time as this, their class dynamic was changing and becoming more open – I noticed in class discussions they were becoming happier with challenging each other’s views in class. I thought I would harness this with a Harkness discussion. The focus was the motives of the Egyptian leader Gamel Abdul Nasser between 1952 and 1970: which motive was the most important in explaining his actions in those decades? I divided the class into groups, and gave each group one of the ‘motives’ identified by historians (Defying the West, Arab Nationalism, Personal Motivations). Their task was to prepare notes on why their motive was the most significant in explaining Nasser’s actions.

Both of my Year 12 classes participated in a Harkness debate in the next lesson. As advocated, I stepped back and told students that they were in control of the direction of discussion and intervened only when it seemed the discussion was going off on a tangent or it was getting a bit too ‘heated.’ The only instruction was that everyone was to contribute, and the discussion had to be held with a level of decorum. I was expecting that perhaps they could sustain a Harkness discussion for 10 minutes, 15 minutes at most as it was their foray into it. Both groups kept the discussion going at a high standard for over 30 minutes with minimal intervention from myself which was both surprising and pleasing. Points raised were of a high standard, clear additional research had been undertaken, and students were happy to challenge each other and concede on their points if a flaw had been identified. At the end of the task, I asked students to write their opinions on the board – they were far more analytical than in any work we had done so far. Many of them felt that the discussion had helped them form an opinion early on; many felt that their opinion had expanded or now included other factors due to points raised by other individuals too.

A valuable approach

In the follow up lesson, we looked at a set of passages on Nasser and his motivations. I was still wary at this stage – although it was clear that students had their own opinions now, and could challenge each other, would they be confident enough in challenging established historians? Due to having their own opinions, it seemed to galvanise this concept of ‘convincing’ more – they could say what was convincing according to their opinion and at the same time being more confident in saying why the historian wasn’t being convincing (examples included being because it overlooked a key factor, didn’t focus enough on the question topics in its details and so brought nothing to the argument, that too much emphasis was being put on the element of Arab Nationalism and not how he used it for his own benefit). It felt like a real turning point was reached in their understanding of how to tackle the interpretations. This was unfortunately after a written assessment so it hard to measure what this impact would have had on their written work, but my students and myself feel much more confident in tackling what was previously a tricky concept and assessment for everyone involved.

At the request of the students, another Harkness discussion is being planned on the reasons for Arab-Israeli conflict at the end of March. An essay will follow this discussion where I will have tangible evidence on how the time spent discussing the topic will affect their written piece on the topic. I am hoping an analytical discussion will allow students to formulate their opinion and line of argument prior to writing the essay, giving a much clearer direction to the examples and analysis they include in their writing.

Advice for anyone thinking of trying a Harkness discussion

  1. It works better in an environment where there is a culture of sharing and challenging each other. It is key to identify the most appropriate groups it would work with to give it the best chance of success. My Year 12s were only ready at this point (February) because they had become comfortable enough with each other to not worry about being self-conscious in making points or challenging each other. I don’t think I would have tried it any earlier with them.
  2. Group size is key. The general Harkness advice is about 12 students. I pushed it a bit – one of my Year 12 classes has 15, the other has 19. Unsurprisingly, the class with 15 reacted much better than the larger class. It was easier to make everyone accountable for contributing, and the students were confident in putting their views across. My larger group seemed to rely on one or two speakers, and saw it as a group debate rather than as a discussion. In the next debate I will be breaking the bigger group into two smaller ones who will be looking at different elements of the topic to ensure everyone can contribute.
  3. The idea with this is that it is student directed with minimal teacher influence – I would suggest removing teacher intervention gradually. Begin with sitting at the table to observe what is going on and to direct the conversation/make the most of the good points being raised. Gradually move to the outside of the table with occasional ‘devil’s advocates’ questions, to eventually no contribution at all. I have previously delegated a ‘chair’ in the group to direct conversation if I feel like the group need it, but again that is student led rather than teacher led and often they have volunteered for that role. They often need to know the most! I have also heard of the teacher using their role to score the ‘level’ of contributions to encourage engagement. 1 point is awarded for providing an appropriate examples, 2 points awarded for an analytical point, 3 points awarded for a substantiated challenge. Students are unaware of the exact details of the point system, otherwise it would become competitive and detract from the point of the discussion, but students with the ‘best’ contributions are acknowledged at the end and rewarded on an in-house systems. I think that idea is good in countering a flaw with Harkness – it is of course built to avoid having passive students; everyone arrives prepared, ready to talk, expected to contribute. You can still have ‘passengers’ though, with some students contributing minor points and sitting there for the rest of the discussion. I have found tackling those students directly at the end of the lesson is also a good way to do it, and setting them a target on the number and type of contributions you want to see next time gives them something to aim for.
  4. Work out the big questions you want answering in your course/topic and use a Harkness to tackle them. It could be an event that is multi-facetted and students need to look at all the different contributing factors; it could be students need to understand the variety of techniques a writer uses in a literary piece. Harkness discussions can be utilised on almost any topic, and provide a different approach where students are responsible for deciding what to focus on. In my experience so far, students rise to the challenge – they like feeling responsible, they like working collaboratively, they like challenging each other.
  5. Build up the level of prep work they need to do before the discussion. With my one above on Nasser it was based entirely on own knowledge and ‘optional’ additional research. As they get more confident, I have short texts of historian’s perspectives to get them to read and incorporate into their opinion, and already being built into the Year 13 course I have whole articles for them to read and process before the discussion. I find getting them to read historians’ work makes them write and phrase their ideas more like a historian would.
  6. Try it – it really is worth the time. You might use it once a year, or you might use it six times a year. Some schools (See links below) base all their teaching around it. I cannot praise its outcomes highly enough. I haven’t perfected it yet still advocate its benefits. There will be times where it doesn’t quite work but that doesn’t mean you should try it again. I think taking into consideration the above points will give it the best possible opportunity for success.

Links Harkness sources I’ve found useful:







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