Teaching Critical ThinkingAfter many years witnessing the power of communication and collaboration among students to develop a deeper understanding of a subject, I began researching how to provide the type of classroom environment that could best foster critical thinking and a positive discussion forum. After observing my son in 8th grade during a Harkness discussion, I was convinced that using this pedagogy to facilitate discussion was exactly what I needed to create in my own classroom. The students were engaged, their opinions were equally heard and valued, and their ability to not only speak with confidence and take risks, but they were able to listen with intent. In a Harkness class learning takes place through discussions held around a circular “Harkness Table.” Sitting at the table, all members of the class must question, contribute, and contemplate in order to learn and succeed. Some may confuse this with Socratic teaching where the teacher is driving the discussion. Socratic teaching involves asking students questions about their ideas, continually pointing out weaknesses in the ideas until students “realize” the correct conclusions. The conclusions, however, are predetermined by the teacher, and the students only qualify as having realized if they agree with, or surrender to, the teacher’s ideas. A Harkness discussion is a roundtable discussion in which everyone has an equal voice. While the teacher works hard to create circumstances in which every student feels comfortable speaking, the teacher rarely jumps in with explanations or to fill an awkward silence. The students take ownership for the conversation, and the course material flows from their thoughts and opinions. Harness discussion are student centered while Socratic teaching is teacher centered. There is a time and place for perhaps both methods, however, I have come to learn that through investigation of one's own self discovery, the "ah ha" moment propels conceptual understanding, long term retention, and quick recall.
Though some classrooms use Harkness exclusively, it is also an excellent tool to add to a wider pedagogy. I like to do Harkness discussions once a day, so that my students have a chance to work on expressing their opinions and learning to listen. An important tool used in a Harkness discussion is the use of a circle discussion chart. The children enjoy looking at the end design and after a few months of safe practice, the students who tend to be more reserved and quiet about their thoughts become vocal and confident. It's wonderful to be a witness to this emergence.