The Ultimate Guide to Using Harkness Debates in Your Classroom.

Discussions and debates are an essential component of learning, sense-making and the development of essential understandings. Once beyond the initial textbook theory, we find that the application of knowledge, models and theories into the complexity of the messy real-world is not so simple. The world is not black and white. We use class discussions to unpick these complexities and to support our students in the development of their own higher-order critical thinking skills. However, over the years I have found the process of guiding classroom debate to be rather hit and miss.

Some of the common frustrations include:

Knowledge gaps- Students simply don't know enough, or at least not securely and fluently, to get stuck into these complexities. Debates can become more like a series of soapbox style rants. This is useful for the teacher to gauge the level of understanding and identify misconceptions but the quality and fluency of the debate remains weak.

Domination- some students love giving verbal feedback, others don't. It's difficult to give 20+ people a voice in a limited amount of time.

Guess what’s my head- students are not getting what I want them to from the debate no matter how much I interrupt or ask random questions. Once again, this suggests a lack of understanding or time spent with the material.

One way that I've started to get more hits than misses is by using the Harkness style of debating. This blog will outline the process I use, why I feel this is an effective strategy, the mistakes I've made along the way and how I've attempted to address these.

What is a Harkness Debate?

Put simply, a small group of students and a teacher sit around a table and discuss an issue.

Crucially, students lead the discussion themselves with minimal input from the teacher. The teacher is in a mode of observation, ready to feedback on the performance of the group.

The discussion will focus on a shared stimulus; be it a chapter from a book, an article, a podcast or video clip.

One approach to Harkness is to get the students to formulate their own questions and opinions from this stimulus. However, I prefer to set a question that a discussion can be framed around.

Steps to Success: Rules

The teacher should provide some guidance and ground rules to help the students in their quest to lead their own discussion. I have found that, on the whole, students do respect them and they do help to create an atmosphere of positive discussion, inclusion and support. Furthermore, they are useful to refer back to if the discussion goes off-piste.

Here are some of the rules I present before each debate.

Listen carefully and be open- the discussion is about different viewpoints and reaching a deeper, shared understanding.

Don't address everything to the teacher- this is your discussion. Look people in the eye, use names and try to include people.

Focus on the question- If you feel that the group has gone too far off topic then look to refocus.

Evidence-based- Try to keep the original text in mind, use evidence from this and your research. This is not a memory test. If you don't know something, it is better to admit it than bluff it.

This is not a competition- It should not be confrontational. Please work towards a shared understanding and be open to changing your viewpoint.

There are no expectations on the format- The discussion can flow around the group any way you choose. It's ok to pass occasionally if directly asked to contribute.

Clarity is good for the discussion- Ask good questions and dig deeper. Try to fully understand a person's thoughts and ideas before rushing back to your own viewpoint.

Challenge politely if you disagree.

Practise self-control- If you feel you are dominating, can you step back? If you feel someone has not contributed, can you give them a fair opportunity to do so?

Steps to Success: Preparation

This is of vital importance. Although we will initially read through the stimulus material together, I will always give the students preparation time at home beforehand.

I provide students with the template below. This encourages them to organise their research, thoughts, and opinions before the discussion. There are also columns provided to take notes during the activity. If students have already engaged with the issues and formulated their own opinion then this leads to a more fluid conversation and higher quality outcomes.