What the ninth graders said: part II

Here comes the second installment of the results from surveying the ninth graders of their experience with Harkness, just six weeks into the school year. This post refers to their responses to the question: What specific things have you noticed your teachers do that were effective in teaching Harkness skills, or in making Harkness classes go better? (You do not need to name your teachers).

The most overarching sentiment is, essentially, the teachers let us shape the discussion. Many of their responses in one way or another simply acknowledge what for most of them is a new sense of power and control in the classroom: most of it is on their shoulders. The photo above captures these kinds of responses: questions to get us rolling, patience with letting the class create the discussion, nudges us when we need it, keeps us from going too far off topic. By and large, the students did not mention “activities” or “strategies” in the way you might imagine. They essentially said: teachers are effective in teaching us Harkness by letting us go at it and then nudging and questioning us, when we need it.

Deeper dive on the responses:

I roughly categorized responses to this question into 1. specific events/techniques (which, I think, the question invited); 2. less specific ways of building community at the table; 3. general facilitation techniques (meaning the students didn’t go into specifics); 4. more granular facilitation techniques.

I thought that I’d see more in category 1, since the question asked for specifics. Students did mention games that controlled how much each person said (using cotton balls, apparently, in one class), and games that were used as warm-ups for discussion. They also mentioned tracking the discussion (with the Oval, etc), the Harkness demo, the list of sentence starters, etc. However, what they seemed to notice more was the general manner of the teacher: trust and patience in the students, working to include all students, ways to move the discussion without saying a lot, asking broad or thought-provoking questions.

Some students started to note more specific teacher moves to build community and help the discussion progress. (For example, “making sure the person who was cut off has the chance to speak,” or “reminding us to use names and to have eye contact.” And yet, two of the most interesting comments were:

“They kind of threw us into it and taught us as we went along.”


“I haven’t noticed too much.”

Granted, these were just two comments out of seventy-one. But it made me think that at this early point in their Exeter careers, what they are noticing most is the overall shift in the classroom, and what stands out is how much less the teacher talks than, perhaps, in their previous schools. Yet, the teacher is doing so much that is subtle or invisible. They are just starting to tune into that. One student answered this question by pointing out that teachers pick out engaging readings, and he even mentions that this must be hard for the teachers to do. I imagine if we were asking seniors, we would see much more awareness from them about this in particular, as well as more of a sense of how teachers can subtly, yet specifically, alter the flow of the conversation. I imagine also that seniors would have more to say on the amount of time the teacher speaks and the way in which the teacher participates. To read these ninth grade responses would almost give the impression that the teacher is nearly silent. Maybe teachers do speak less in ninth grade classes, so as to make clear the expectation that the students do the heavy lifting. Or, maybe with the experience of more teachers, seniors just would see more variety and say more about this. It’s just a hunch.

The biggest, clearest point here thought, from these novices, is that they feel their teachers hold them responsible for the discussion, and trust them with it, even if the route is circuitous or bumpy.

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