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.

Steps to Success: Organisation

I have found that the optimal size of group for a fruitful debate to be around 10. Obviously, this doesn't normally work for class sizes of 20+ so I split the discussion into two rounds.

I think carefully about who will participate in each round and where they will sit at the roundtable. I ensure that the first round is populated with higher ability and confident speakers. This allows the less confident students to observe and see how things work.

Those sitting out can either continue their own preparations or better still, observe the debate with a view to feeding back.

Questions observers can consider include: Are the group focused on the question? Are certain students dominating? Are points clear? Etc.

Steps to Success: Scaffolding

Students do not find this process easy, especially at first. Students who are shy or still developing their English language can find this extra challenging. For them, making one or two short points during the whole discussion might be real progress.

To help all learners, I use the following sentence starters.

‘I agree with you because…’

‘I don’t think that is true…’

‘An example of this would be…’

‘So your argument is…’

‘I agree with you because…’

‘Do you mean…?’

‘Can you give me an example/evidence…?’

‘NAME, what do you think about this…?’

‘Let’s move the discussion on…’

‘That is true today, however,…’

‘NAME, hasn’t said anything yet…’

‘In the short term…’

‘In the long term…’

‘Overall, I feel that…’

Furthermore, I do find these useful for confident speakers. They often use the sentence to help with leading the discussion and encouraging fair participation.

Steps to Success: The Role of the Teacher.

The teacher’s role is to step back and trust the students. Silence is not a bad thing. It lets students reflect and think before they talk. Ultimately, “let go” so they can make sense of the information and arguments.

Students appreciate feedback as to when they’re making thoughtful comments, and when they are not. Teachers can provide this feedback thorough assessing the discussion by tracking it methodically.

A heat map can be created by drawing a line between two students who are interacting.

This helps to see who is leading, dominating or not contributing. Codes can also be used to track the type of contribution being made. Halfway through the discussion, I show the heat map under the visualiser so students can make adjustments based on their contributions in the first half.

Here is a list of codes I use

M - Making new valid points that move the discussion on.

S - Supporting other people’s points effectively.

C - Challenging other people’s points effectively.

Ev - Specific evidence is used to support/challenge points.

Eval - Evaluating the significance/importance of points/factors that are discussed.

L - Making links between topics (could be between different examples and different theories)

J - Reaching judgements.

I - Involving people who have not been involved so much.

D - Dominating discussion.

One other tip would be to generate some higher-order questions or as I call them 'thought bombs' that you could 'throw' into the discussion if you feel that consensus has been reached too quickly or that important aspects of the argument have been missed. I only use these sparingly and try to keep out of the process if at all possible.

Steps to Success: Reflection.

The final step is to ask the students to reflect on their performance in the debate:

What did you do well in the debate?

What would you do differently next time?

What did the class do well?

What could the class do differently next time?

What did you enjoy?

What could you have done before the debate to improve performance?

This helps students to recognise their strengths and areas for development.

Overall, using Harkness results in high-quality discussion. It gives students ownership and a chance to develop those wider 21st Century skills.

I have found them an excellent way to get to know the students, especially the quieter ones.

I'm currently trying to use Harkness 2-3 times each year with my classes and I have seen considerable improvement over time. Finally, it does take time for teachers and students to get into the flow with this approach but I do believe that, over time, this results in much better outcomes.

A Harkness style debate is included in my resource on Food Shortages in Somalia.


And could be used in this one on climate crisis solutions (although I don’t think you need to purchase these resources to create your own effective debate.)


Some questions that I use to frame debates:

- Who is most to blame for climate change? (business, governments, individuals, population growth etc)

- What is the biggest problem facing the country of Nepal?

- Trade or Aid? Which is the best for development?

- What was the main cause of food shortages in the Horn of Africa 2011? (drought, economics, conflict, politics)


365 views0 comments