What have you learned about yourself as you have adjusted to Harkness classes at Exeter so far this fall? This was the first question on a survey I distributed (via English teachers) to all ninth graders about six weeks into the fall term. Having observed a bunch of ninth grade classes in the beginning of the term, I wished for the chance to know more about what each of them was thinking. This anonymous google form was a chance to get some insight. I had 71 responses from about 200 ninth graders. A couple teachers had their students respond during classtime, so that helps with selection bias because students are pretty randomly assigned to classes. Other students responded completely voluntarily, so there probably is some bias there. Anyway, this wasn’t meant to be scientific so much as offering windows for further inquiry. The survey consisted of three questions, all free response.
Here’s what I noticed in the responses to this first question: What have you learned about yourself as you have adjusted to Harkness classes at Exeter so far this fall?
The students had a really positive tone about Harkness in general. And, even as they described challenges, those were mostly described with a mindset of, “This is something I need to work on.”
Lots of kids used this question to make a comment about their frequency of participation. Not surprisingly, many said they need to speak less, and several said they need to speak more. The most fun-to-read responses (and there were several!) said something like this student, “I have learned that I have a lot more to share in a Harkness discussion than I ever thought I could. I also learned that while I’m shy outside of class, I feel that I can be more comfortable with what I’m saying around the Harkness table.”
There was an interesting mix of “I need to be more self-conscious” and “I need to take more risks” (which I take to mean: be less self-conscious). This makes a lot of sense to me, but I had not thought of it before! Here are thirteen and fourteen year olds who arrive here somewhere on some theoretical spectrum of self-awareness. Some are very self-aware, perhaps paralyzingly self-conscious. Others are oblivious to the impact of their behavior on others in the classroom setting. But clearly all of the discussions by this point in the term had the effect of illuminating that and nudging everyone to find some sort of balance. I think this would be an interesting place for more inquiry.
Even though most comments were about them as individuals, already the issues of group dynamics are taking hold. While the question might lead one to think mostly about oneself, I also think this is the natural place where ninth graders reflect in the beginning. Most of their takeaways at this point weren’t so much about others. But some offered comments on the importance of trust in the group, the actual techniques with the group that aid in creating good discussions, and a few used words like “open-mindedness” and “collaboration.”
They mostly like Harkness classes, and they notice lumpiness based upon their degree of preparation, their interest in the material, and where their preferences are on “objective” or “subjective” subjects. They notice the extra effort they must put in compared to their previous/traditional classes, but they also seem to really feel like they are learning more.