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

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