People often are curious about the lack of efficiency in Harkness teaching. If the students are controlling the directions of discussion – or if any group is determining a discussion trajectory – then it’s likely that the conversation will take a circuitous path. Yes, it is messy, I say. It is inefficient – if the goal is to transmit information. But, instinctively, I believe the juicy stuff comes with wading through the mess, and sometimes a gem is found that I could never imagine. But it takes patience, faith, and perhaps some skill in navigation.
Last week I was listening to an old Hidden Brain podcast episode and British economist Tim Harford was the guest, discussing his book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. He discusses themes like reacting spontaneously to changing circumstances. This seems really relevant to Harkness teaching, so I picked up the book. I have finished the chapter “Collaboration.” One takeaway: most of us know that a group reaches a better result when the group is “cognitively diverse.” (p. 49). I had assumed that this was because there is a greater variety of viewpoints, expertise, etc. This is true. But Harford points to research that shows that another factor is that those of the majority/dominant subgroup actually have improved contributions, less intellectual laziness, when they are a part of a group that in someway offers diversity to that dominant subgroup. Unfortunately, Harford also points out that test subjects did not believe this to be the case. They thought they did better work with the group of people similar to themselves, and they reported liking it better. If this is correct, what are the implications for our classes?