Culture trumps all

Having recently observed a Harkness lesson outside of my comfort zone, I was blown away by the environment the teacher had created in his classroom. Indeed, part of the feedback conversation went down the route of “sorry, you didn’t see much of me there” and I instantly had to highlight the positivity in that fact. What I did see was a class of students who were so comfortable talking, listening, thinking and writing that the teacher did not need to put much into practice.

At the start of this particular lesson, students came up with their ideals for a Harkness discussion and this was put on the board – I am rapidly coming round to Eddie Jones’ idea of ‘showing perfect’ and by leaving these up on board, subconsciously the students are holding themselves to account [a crucial part of a Harkness discussion]. The teacher then listed three questions to look at and gave the students 10 more minutes preparation time to gather thoughts and perhaps rewrite things they had already done before the lesson. The next 20 minutes or so was a full group discussion on torture, the morality of it and what this one source had to say about justifying it etc.

The discussion was chaired by a pupil (something I have previously blogged about) and the teacher sat back and took notes. The impact of the teacher doing this meant when he said something, it was received, students recognised it as important and all were tuned in. Having listened to David Didau discuss findings on feedback and the impact too much can have, this really resonated with me and it was done well in this lesson. One piece of feedback to clear up a misconception (after the students had had time to interject) and a couple to bring the conversation back to the key points of the questions.

The students themselves held themselves accountable to what had been put on the board as a checklist at the start of the lesson. All built on others’ points and agreed/disagreed and they held each other to that too. There were times when quiet students were bought into discussion by their peers – how much more powerful is this than a teacher ‘picking on’ them?


I thoroughly enjoyed the dynamic and it showed me that whether the students have done work before or not; whether the resource is any good; whether you have 3 students or 103; the crucial part to get right is the culture of the classroom. All the students here felt comfortable to express and never under any pressure. There were times a student was asked for their response and a reply would be ‘I have nothing to say now’ only for that student to come back in when they were ready. No judgement from others, just a recognition that each student will contribute when they are happy. Talking to some students at the end, they enjoyed the idea of being challenged by other students as opposed to the teacher. It was encouraging to here this as positive of the lesson – it either reaffirms one’s own belief or it perhaps gives another perspective.

The students found the lesson enjoyable and my current fascination with motivation leads me to believe these students have furthered their intrinsic drive. There was no feeling of them carrying out this discussion for anyone’s benefit but their own. This can only come from the environment created and the time and space given to each student individually.







Culture trumps all

What do students think of Harkness mathematics?

I write a lot about Harkness and its impact on my teaching and how it makes me think about mathematics but none of that actually matters. What matters is the impact it has on the students and their learning. I thought I would address this with a post based on recent pupil feedback in my year 9 class. The biggest criticism of the Harkness approach is that it won’t work with big groups. I am a staunch opponent of this but I do think things change and educators have to be a little more creative.

Before we carry on, these students aren’t professionals – I do not expect them to know what is the greatest impact on their learning but it is illuminating to ask them every now and then how they feel and what is working. It will certainly effect a few changes in their classroom this term. I also know that pupil feedback is limited because of this (a more in-depth blog on this here) but for the reasons above, let’s see what the  group of 13-14 year old mathematicians think of this approach.

The students were asked two questions:

  1. What has been most beneficial to your learning in your lessons in this subject?
  2. What would help you to improve your learning experience?

To summarise, after ‘coding’ the verbal responses, students think the ‘discussion’ aspect of Harkness lessons is the most important part of their learning experience. They also believe that seeing and completing solutions on the board is beneficial to their learning.


What do students think of talking about maths?

“Good communication between students”

“I like the way that we express our opinions about other people’s work in a constructive way”

“When Mr. McDonald comes over to explain just to me or my table”

“We get a lot more opinions from the class”

Above are a few of the anonymous comments relating to the discussion aspect of a Harkness classroom. I particularly think point 3 is a great benefit of this approach. There is far more time for student-teacher conversations on a more personal level while others are having a discussion. This gives students an immediate feedback and means I can tailor follow-up questions as much as possible. Secondly, the last quotation is the one I was most surprised with. I had envisaged students complaining that there were too many opinions and I wasn’t letting them know which is right or best or whatever. In fact, this student believes the opposite. I love the use of the word opinion as it shows that this student is happy to challenge and question others. Small groups of four students is nothing new but I really try and challenge myself to be economical with my language. Every sentence I say must be impactful. Every sentence that a student says has to help someone, if nothing else to improve their confidence.


Why do they like working on whiteboards?

“I find it a really good way to learn from our mistakes.”

“I think writing up all the answers on the board is a unique and valuable approach…this leads to good discussion”

Above are the two main positives to come from students’ opinions of the work on boards. To reiterate, students put all solutions to the work completed pre-lesson on the board. Spotting mistakes is framed negatively but I think this is meaning when someone else has got a correct answer. I was disappointed that no students commented on feeling more confident to put solutions on boards as this is something I am really striving for in the classroom. The students will challenge each other and some will put up a different solution next to one that is already up. I encourage students never to rub anything out. The second quotation leads to the discussion we have already mentioned and I like that students recognise the point of putting things on the board. It is not a gimmick and it is not to make us look good. We put things up for everyone to see and critique. This allows me to quickly assess for learning too and I am able to prioritise tables and students.


What do they not like?

“I want to do more work in lessons”

“More teaching from the teacher not all Harkness”

“Focus on one topic then move on”

Here we have the main negative themes from the students. Doing more work can come from one of two things in my experience:

  1. a really good student might not need to discuss very much
  2. Students don’t/can’t stretch discussions

The second drawback there is obvious and that is up to me to ensure I have ears all around the room so I can ask high-level questions for groups that have grabbed the concept well while others have. The first point is my biggest issue with the Harkness approach in general. It is really difficult to differentiate for the top-end. I have experimented in the past with student teachers and I will certainly revisit this but I am looking at how we can better do this. I think it is also important that the quality of discussion is monitored and good discussion is championed.


What impact will this have on my delivery?

I will go into this term with a renewed sense of enthusiasm after reading their insight. It certainly highlighted to me how important it is to these students that they have ownership over their learning. I will endeavour to produce more high-end material in class through my own questioning and through big problems related to the current topics. I will also ensure all students are getting involved with discussions and are contributing, whether that is through a solution, a challenge or a question. Harkness can work with a large group of students – it just looks different and the teacher must trust the students to be doing the right thing at the right time.







What do students think of Harkness mathematics?