I had the chance to join a group of thirteen ninth graders for a day of fun and skill-building at the beautiful Browne Center for experiential education at the University of New Hampshire. The Browne Center facilitator was amazing in her true understanding of Harkness. She developed a day of low ropes and other activities that directly connected to the skills these students would need the next day in their first Harkness classes. Every activity revolved around communication and problem-solving, and as expected, the group made some mistakes along the way. There were downright wrong answers, circuitous but faulty attempts at solutions, distractions, correct answers that were ignored. And there were also moments of generosity, risk-taking, trust, vulnerability, question-asking, and effective direct communication as these students worked through the challenges. There was ALSO laughter, sunshine, and the beautiful New Hampshire woods. It was an environment conducive to “trying stuff out.” In fact, our facilitator emphasized that the group had a tendency to talk and plan too much and that this particular group needed to just take action and see if anything worked. They took that to heart, and it was just what they needed. Whether passing the penguin in record time (see picture), swinging across the lava pit, or solving a puzzle through a jumping rope, each activity illuminated a different element of successful (or unsuccessful) discussions. The facilitator asked us at the end of each activity, “What did you learn here that you want to remember for the Harkness table.” They added bit by bit to their Harkness table throughout the day.
At the end, they had a better list than I ever could have suggested, all rooted in real moments of learning. “Be humble.” “Take a step back.” “Trial & error.” “Understand the objective.” “Take ownership.” Wow. Such great insights that mean so much more because they can reference the moment they learned that lesson. Next week, after they have had several days of discussion classes, I will check in with my group and see if any of these skills and values are rising to the surface as particularly important or challenging. I’ll let you know what they have to say.