At The Noble Academy in Chicago, students don’t sit in rows of desks facing the teacher at the front of the classroom. In fact, the teacher is not even part of the discussion most of the time.
The charter school in the Near North Side operates almost entirely on the Harkness method of learning.
The Harkness technique, which originated at Phillips Exeter Academy in 1930, is a learning method in which students and their teacher sit at a circular “Harkness table” to discuss ideas in a supportive, unbiased environment. The main goal of Harkness is for students to learn mainly from one another. Instead of a teacher posing questions with predetermined answers, students can share their ideas with each other to help everyone get a better understanding of the material.
Multiple teachers at Harwood have begun to use this method in their classrooms. Kathy Cadwell, a history and philosophy teacher at the school, worked to bring the technique to Harwood.
HELPING STUDENTS, TEACHERS
Throughout the school year, Cadwell and her Strategies for Classroom Dialogue class have been helping students and teachers implement Harkness discussions, coming into classrooms to teach “soft skills”: eye contact, body language, sentence starters and how to respectfully argue a point.
As Harwood classes have become more comfortable with the Harkness method, Cadwell and her students thought it would be a good idea to invite a group from The Noble Academy for a visit.
On Friday, April 27, four students, all juniors, and a teacher from the academy arrived at Harwood. They spent their day at the school moving from class to class, sitting in on Harkness discussions to provide feedback and answer questions.
The students were able to attend multiple classes with students of all ages and a class at the Harwood Community Learning Center (HCLC).
Noble students provided each class with suggestions and plenty of praise.
“When we went to the HCLC,” explained Noble student Matthew Jimenez, “their Harkness was great. It was phenomenal. It was exactly what Harkness should be. They really embrace the silence; they see it as a time to gather their thoughts.”
ON THE RIGHT TRACK
Abel Parra, a classmate of Jimenez’, agreed that Harwood students are on the right track with their Harkness discussions.
“The ninth grade was good, but there was room for improvement. I just assumed that was what the 12th-grade classes would be, but when we saw the 12th-grade classes we were totally surprised. I saw myself in them; their discussions seemed so experienced,” he said.
The Harwood classes appreciated the feedback of the Noble students and jumped at the opportunity to ask questions about their unique school.
Noble students explained how math and science courses were conducted using the Harkness method, in response to one of the most frequently asked questions.
“We learn the material on our own, by videos, packets and books. At home, we solve equations or problems for homework, and then in the classroom we discuss our methods with each other. We share how we got our answers, why they make sense, and ask lots of questions. ... We are not kidding when we say every class is in Harkness,” Parra said.
“Well, except for band,” he laughed.
ONLY A HANDFUL
Currently, only a handful of classrooms at Harwood use Harkness discussions a few times per month. They gather to debrief readings or recent lessons, and students always leave the table with a deeper understanding of the material.
“I really like using Harkness. Sometimes, I come to the table a little nervous, because I don’t fully understand the topic we’re discussing. After hearing my classmates’ interpretations, I walk away with a much better understanding,” said Halle Joslin, a Harwood sophomore.
Although Harkness is a successful educational method at The Noble Academy, it takes a lot of work for it to become a primary source of learning. If even just a few students are not focused on the discussion, it can be hard for the rest of the group to get much out of the conversation.
“Everybody carries their own weight. We are all responsible, and you have to remember that, or else it’ll go nowhere. Everyone thinks ‘I have to bring my best to the table today.’ I share the knowledge that I have, because I know others will do the same for me,” said Noble student Justice Wysinger.
They admitted that it takes time to get the hang of the method, but students from the academy agreed that Harkness discussions are always worth the effort.
“Harkness is important because it allows you to discuss topics without being aggressive. It encourages you to push your thinking. Maybe you disagree with your peers on some points, but that disagreement lets you see that point in a new way, from a new perspective,” explained Minerva Lopez.
When the bell rings, students at over 200 schools across America rush to fill Harkness tables rather than desks. This number is projected to rise in the coming years, and Harwood staff and students are looking forward to seeing that happen.