November 04, 2018

Prince Classrooms Enriched by Harkness Discussions

Written by: Amy Frierson


As I stepped into the room, I could hear animated discussion sprinkled with laughter.  “Do you really think so?  My impression was completely different.”  And from a different student, “If you look on down in the text, you can see where that is the point he was trying to make.”  Then another response, “It’s not exactly like the guy was a saint. I mean, look at what he did.” . . . laughter all around. 

There was not a teacher at a podium at the front of the room.  The desks were not in rows.  There was no power point or notes on the board.  This class was different.  This class was completely student-led.  And these students, sitting in a circle with text open and computers on, were motivated, engaged, and invested in a conversation not about the weekend or about pop culture, but about literature. 



This was the classroom of Miss Elizabeth Sadler, Prince high school English teacher, and these ten students were in her Dual Enrollment English 102 class.  As they talked, Miss Sadler was at her desk, “mapping” the discussion on a piece of paper.  There were lines to show when the students responded to each other as well as notes for when they made contextual references or asked questions.  Her map was a fascinating visual of the conversation taking place in the room. 

The discussion I witnessed is formally called a Harkness Discussion, and the students had been taught the process by Miss Sadler. This unique classroom model is used in many of Miss Sadler’s classes as well as the classes of Mrs. Karen Barrett who teaches History and Economics at Prince. 



Harkness Discussions originated in 1930 at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire after philanthropist Edward Harkness gave a sizeable donation to the school.  It was his desire that the money be used to promote this method of learning.  Miss Sadler learned the technique at a previous school.  “During in-service week at my last school, a representative from Phillips Exeter came for a day to teach us how to use the model effectively. I was skeptical at first, but once I saw how much my students grew from the discussions, I realized this was a very useful teaching tool.”

The advantages to this model are many.  Miss Sadler explains that when students know the discussion is their responsibility, they take more ownership of the assignment and come more prepared for the day’s topics. They are also more motivated because they guide the discussion themselves making the discussion relevant to ideas that are important to them.  The model also requires equal participation so those students who are more quiet are forced to interject while those who are more talkative must learn when to hold back. The effort is collective as participation affects the entire group’s grade. 




Perhaps one of the most beneficial ways Harkness Discussions benefit students is the way the discussions prepare them for real-life scenarios. Miss Sadler explains, “Since the students are interacting with each other, it also teaches them how to have lively, but polite, conversations with differing viewpoints and perspectives. They're required to be respectful of other views, as well as avoid interrupting peers and not speaking over peers whereas more traditional classroom discussions are facilitated by a ‘hands up’ approach. A Harkness Discussion more closely mirrors the discussions students will have in the real world.”

And this advantage has already been proving itself in the real world.  Prince alumni have been sharing with Prince faculty that although Harkness Discussions were a difficult skill to master, they have truly prepared them for college. Addie Lee Frierson (Prince Class of 2018) is in her freshman year at Samford University.  She explains that Harkness uniquely prepared her for the admissions process, scholarship interviews, and college classes.  “Harkness Discussions were a unique way to prepare us for college. I learned skills that I didn’t even know I needed such as how to keep a conversation going about a reading and how to get other people engaged in the topic. It forces people out of their comfort zones, helping them interact with their fellow classmates.”

And current students are equally as enthusiastic.  Prince senior Abby Frost says, “There will always be people who notice different things than I do, so I find it refreshing to get new ideas from my peers. I’ve learned that people can surprise you; my classmates have come up with things that I never would have noticed.”  Another senior, Daniel Harper, concurs.   “Harkness Discussions allow me to hear my classmates' perspectives which allow me to further understand the topics that we discuss from multiple angles.”

For Miss Sadler’s part, she says the most rewarding aspect is seeing students grow in confidence as they participate in Harkness Discussions throughout the year.  “During the first Harkness, students are unsure about sharing their ideas, but by the end of the year, they're more daring in the topics they'll explore; they more readily share ideas; they're more willing to laugh at themselves if they are ‘wrong.’ They also realize that their peers are being just as vulnerable as they are, so since they are all in the same boat together, no one will judge them for their ideas.”