Yesterday I had the chance to talk with several inspiring teacher from a school quite different from Exeter. They are doing great work in trying to spread student-centered discussions throughout their school. At the end of the day we had a great group discussion, part of which included puzzling through whether Harkness classes are an end in and of themselves, or a means to an end. I think they are both. One thought I shared, that I will share here, is that in many classes, we can think of the Harkness discussion as a mini-essay. The discussions are very “drafty:” with circuitous logic and lots of cross-outs and arrows betweens sections. But they include everything that the essay-writing process includes: careful reading of the sources, weighing the evidence and counter-evidence as one tests a hypothesis, revising the thesis, conceding a point, adding specificity.
In many cases, our students know the essay topic they will be writing about well in advance. And they can start to see how each day’s discussion (not just the reading) will contribute to their evolving view on a topic. If I’m really on top of things, I might even save time at the end of class for them to jot down thoughts they are taking away from discussion that might pertain to the upcoming essay, or to re-annotate their text after the discussion. I have even seen students who want to cite their classmates’ discussion comments in the essay. That says something good, I think!