I tried Harkness in AP World… it went great!

It’s easy to get formulaic with teaching after a while, particularly if its with the same course year after year. Moving to a new school has pushed me to try a number of new things even while I retain certain core practices that have always worked well for engagement and learning.

Getting good classroom discussion going can be a challenge, especially if the class personality tends towards silence. Although I have tried a number of discussion strategies in the past, they have always been one-off activities or assessments. A number of teachers at my school use the Harkness approach, so the other AP World teacher and myself decided to give it a try.

We finished up the content for both units 3 and 4 in AP World and wanted to use the Harkness discussion to pull together some of the main concepts of both units while giving students a chance to compare and contrast both land-based and sea-based empires. In order to give students some formative practice (and to practice the strategy ourselves) we did a formative discussion a week prior to the summative one. The driving questions we used are below, the first for the formative and the second for the summative.

  1. To what extent have rulers used similar methods to legitimize their rule during the period 1450-1750?
  2. To what extent did societies change as a result of land and sea-based empires?

I liked the concept of legitimacy in the first questions, but the addition of a time frame limited the directions students could go. With the second questions there was definitely more range for making connections across history. With both questions, students did a lot of great comparison and contextualization, which were part of the goals of the entire process.

In the formative discussion many students had a tendency to rely on their planning notes, seeming to focus on what they wanted to say next instead of listening to what others were saying. A bit of feedback and coaching in that regard helped push them to get to analysis quicker and to actually listen to what other students were saying. This produced better discussion in the summative Harkness. I was pleasantly surprised how each of my three groups went in different directions even though they started with the same driving question and content. I thoroughly enjoyed listening as opposed to driving or leading the discussion. I was able to focus on taking notes and coming up with really good feedback for each student about both their engagement and their ideas and analysis.

I hope students appreciated it as much as I did.

Scoring

There are a lot of scoring rubrics available online for Harkness discussions. Many of them are quite exhaustive and complex. We decided to keep the scoring simple for the first attempt, settling on a 2-2-2 format. That is, each student was responsible for 2 questions, 2 comments, and 2 connections. Simple enough, however, the 2 questions was the hardest for students to fit in and led to a number of awkward conversation shifts as students tried to meet their quota.

We wanted to push them more towards quality over quantity, so adjusted those expectations within a single-point rubric for the summative Harkness. We attached points to each criteria that were based on quality instead of quantity, which worked substantially better. A Harkness guru will likely find much to critique here. I like the simplicity of this rubric, and I think students appreciated it as well. As we do more Harkness discussions in the future I hope to continue to find better ways to both score students and provide feedback.

Student Preparation

I don’t know if some of these resources are heretical to a true Harkness expert. The desire was to scaffold the preparation for students and ensure things went as smoothly as they could.

For each discussion I required students to complete a preparation sheet; It was essentially their entry ticket. I noticed several students over prepared and had to be coached a bit so they did not lose themselves in their notes. However, the majority of students used the notes more judiciously and did not allow them to be crutch. Eventually, I expect students would be able to prepare on their own with just a driving question to guide them.

After this experience both of us AP World teachers have put ourselves on the waiting list for the official Harkness training at Phillps Exeter Academy. Our attempt was successful and has provided something exciting to dig into more. I do enjoy the “high” that comes with just jumping into a new idea and discovering it works really well. We still have a lot to learn and fine tune, but this is what teaching is about; finding new ways to constantly improve our practice for students!

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