Harkness in the Middle School

Luke Michel
Last week at Pacific Ridge, we held our fall Parent-Student-Teacher conferences. Chatting with teachers afterwards, I was not surprised to hear that Harkness was a common topic of conversation, as it is a central tenet of my class and talking point in my conferences. Most PRS parents did not experience a middle school education focused on civil discourse, around a table, driven by student input rather than teacher.  In my eleven years of practicing Harkness, I have heard and been a part of many discussions with teachers, students and parents about what Harkness is. I have come to recognize that Harkness looks different depending on the school you are in and what age students you are working with.   

Harkness in the middle school has its own look and feel, due to the age and development of students and the amount of scaffolding used to support discussions. Conversations at the beginning of the year may be short and limited in scope compared to upper school Harkness,  but the process is more important than the output at this time. Although often not given credit for being able to, seventh graders (a few months into the year) and 8th graders are quite capable of deep Harknessing about difficult issues in American history and in current events.   

Where do we start?

The first step is to develop and agree upon norms for Harkness discussions. Below is a guide I share with students to help them understand how their participation can promote or detract from a constructive conversation. 

Mr. Michel’s Harkness Rules: General Rules & Tips

  1. Be respectful to all by sitting up, making eye contact and using first names when addressing someone.
  2. Respect all opinions, especially those that are different from yours.
  3. Let each speaker finish their point. Do not interrupt someone just to get your point across. If you missed your window, write down your point and hopefully we can get to it later.
  4. Make specific text references whenever possible to support and strengthen your points.
  5. Make sure your contribution is going to further the conversation. Your comment should relate to or build off a previous comment, rather than just saying the same thing using different words. Contributions can and should bring us to other areas of the reading or topic.
  6. Recognize the power and importance of good questions. A good question can help solidify understanding but also change the trajectory of a discussion in exciting ways.
  7. Listen carefully during discussions. You make great contributions after you have heard questions and points raised by previous speakers. Your understanding of the material is largely determined by how well you hear the points made by your peers.
  8. Prepare for discussions by reading carefully and actively. Come to class with ideas and questions about the topic or reading.

What role are you playing in the discussion?

We talk about what makes a good Harkness topic or question and learn how to use text, facts and good listening to bolster our statements. We get the hang of confidently and respectfully challenging others’ ideas and having others challenge ours. We apply what we learn to each new conversation.

I recently had a 30-minute seventh-grade Harkness on the potential influence of peer pressure and the digital landscape on the development of our identities that included many characteristics of a great middle school Harkness discussion. The students referred directly to the materials we looked at for that lesson and connected the topic to other materials and examples, including the summer reading book, I am Malala. Their comments built off of each other and they challenged each other respectfully, allowing me to be just another participant at times. The discussion went to an exciting place that I was not predicting it would.         

Seventh- and eighth-grade Harkness discussions are in turns earnest, clumsy, and brilliant.
Like the rest of middle school, they are opportunities for growth. Over time, our students’ understanding becomes more sophisticated, their contributions grow stronger and their learning becomes deeper. By the time they enter 9th grade, they are ready to apply their critical thinking, listening and speaking skills at a higher level. Correspondingly, by the time they graduate, the valuable skills promoted by Harkness are second nature. 

Our alumni report that they are more prepared to engage in the college classroom than many of their peers. Those who have graduated from college find the same skills often set them apart in the workplace. 

Why do we teach Harkness in the middle school? One of our founding alumni puts it quite well:

“Harkness learning and what it does to a young mind to help you understand how to be communicative and participate in large group conversations is one of the most unbelievable life skills that I’ve been able to gain. It was helpful to me in college and it has been helpful to me in every work scenario that I’ve been in.”
Alex Rodrigues ‘11      
University of Pennsylvania ‘15      
Google Product Manager