Why We Use the Harkness Method

“When we arrive at the Harkness table, everyone’s voice is heard and this is what I love the most about Harkness.” – Caroline Chen ’21

At Lakefield, we have used the Harkness Method for years. Related to the Socratic Method, Harkness discussions involve loosely structured group conversations about course material and concepts. At Lakefield College School, our Grade 9 and 10 students are often led by their teachers, who provide questions to guide discussion and learning. By Grade 11 and 12, students create their own inferential and applied questions to drive the discussion.

The Harkness Method is not focussed on a “right” or “wrong” way of learning or understanding material; it is a powerful exercise in collaboration and self-expression. During a Harkness discussion, our teachers take an observatory approach. Students lead the discussion themselves, asking each other questions, and prompting new avenues of inquiry. 

The Harkness Method is a powerful tool of verbal exploration. Through discourse, our students are exposed to new ways of thinking. They learn that the way they approach an issue is compounded by their own frame of reference and experiences in the world around them. By discussing texts and other course materials together, they learn to take on alternative perspectives and critically analyze information from different vantage points. This type of learning helps students develop life-long skills required for effective collaboration and communication–with their peers, teachers, family, community, and eventually, coworkers, bosses, and employees–to work through problems and identify solutions. 

LCS English teacher Tina St. John has seen the benefits students realize by practicing important communication skills. “Sometimes students act as leaders at the table by posing questions and insight from their readings. Sometimes, students gain more from actively listening to their peers’ ideas and asking questions or building on concepts. Students are encouraged to actively engage in discussions, but sometimes this means they simply listen and take notes from their peers’ observations.” 

The Harkness Method also prepares students for postsecondary education where they will be required to contribute in seminars, tutorials, and workshops. By practicing their communication skills, learning how to discuss issues thoughtfully, and experiencing real-time feedback from their peers, students gain the confidence to navigate discussions about a variety of topics and contribute meaningfully to the conversation.

St. John also believes this method allows for a more personalized learning experience. “This collaborative experience allows students to have more responsibility and individualization in their learning. We focus on the elements that they are most invested in and explore themes and concepts with rigour to deepen their ability to comprehend and connect ideas.” 

At first, many students express feelings of anxiousness about sharing and speaking in a group setting. However, once they see that everyone participates in the conversation, students derive a sense of confidence in themselves, knowing that their thoughts and opinions will be respected just as their peers’ are. Students also feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for their learning; they come to class prepared to be an active participant in the learning process.

“I believe everyone shines when given the opportunity and we can learn from everyone.” – Caroline Chen ’21

Through conversation, students have the opportunity to refer to course texts in a meaningful way; rather than memorizing and regurgitating passages, they must contextualize the knowledge they’ve gained in a way that makes sense within the topic of discussion. At a time when information can be found nearly anywhere online, real-time conversations facilitate authentic and meaningful learning experiences. This analog form of learning allows students to focus on one issue at a time; you can’t multitask while having a face-to-face conversation. Thus, participants are more likely to retain the information gained during a Harkness discussion.

Above all, students discover that learning is not a linear process and that collaboration and communication can shift our understanding and perception of the world around us.