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New Approaches to an Old Form of Learning


It can be argued that what we call Harkness learning - a group of people learning from and with each other through discussion - is as old as humanity itself. It is also a cornerstone of academics here at Pacific Ridge. As a school, we constantly look to evaluate and improve our programs, and Harkness is no exception.
 
Over the summer, teachers Sarah Peeden and Susan Nattrass attended the Exeter Humanities Institute, a week-long conference dedicated to exploring Harkness education through experiential learning. While there, they played the role of students during discussions, led classes, and silently observed sessions. This modeling process helped attendees gain a strong understanding of Exeter’s Harkness program, refine individual teaching practices, and make connections with other independent school educators across the world who also use the Harkness method.
 
Sarah and Susan left the conference eager not only to integrate these new tools into their own teaching, but to share their knowledge with the faculty. And they aren’t the only teachers at Pacific Ridge with Harkness expertise worth sharing. Several of us focused on Harkness instruction for our masters theses or are currently engaged in Harkness-related research. Still others have years of accumulated experience from the classroom.
 
In an effort to create a forum for experienced faculty to share Harkness best practices, the three of us will be running  a series of faculty workshops this academic year. The workshops are designed to help Pacific Ridge faculty enhance and diversify the ways they employ the Harkness method.
 
The inaugural workshop took place during faculty orientation in August. We used the session to introduce some tricks of the trade we’ve acquired over the years, including how to set up a successful Harkness discussion, what a “silent Harkness” might look like, and how to employ a “fishbowl”-style Harkness discussion to invite students to critique and refine the process by which they communicate with each other during discourse.
 
The initial workshop also addressed the use of video in assessing Harkness. Video recordings of teachers in practice allow them to study all aspects of their Harkness classroom from the objective lens of the camera. Not only should this provide an excellent record of each teacher’s growth throughout the year, but also it will serve to build a library of videos that Pacific Ridge faculty can use for future professional development.
 
The faculty is abuzz with renewed energy to continually improve upon one of the keystone features that makes Pacific Ridge special, both as an institution and as a community of learners. As coaches, and as educators, we are excited to be a part of this process.
 
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