Teacher Reflections

Harkness Discussion

For the past year I have been thinking a lot about how to get my students to think more deeply about what they read and to have the types of deep, meaningful and engaging conversations that made me fall in love with learning while in undergraduate and graduate school.

From amerist.org

That is why I have been reading Alexis Wiggins blog, Model by Design, with great interest. She has been cultivating a form of the Harkness Discussion throughout her career as an educator with great success. She describes the Harkness Discussion on her blog:


“Basically, it’s a highly-stylized version of Socratic seminar, which is a student-centered discussion on a particular topic, question, or text. In most high schools, Socratic seminar (or Harkness method, as some schools like to call it) is still driven by the teacher. While students are the ones discussing, the teacher is still the referee and master of knowledge, offering up the right question at the right moment, redirecting the conversation, correcting misunderstandings, and ensuring that students are being civil to one another.


In SPIDER Web Discussion, the teacher is largely silent. When I do it, I sit in the back of the room, away from the students, and I avoid eye contact with them. I have a blank notepad in front of me on which I take notes about their discussion. Who is asking the right question at the right moment, redirecting the conversation, correcting misunderstandings, and ensuring that students are being civil to one another? The students are. That’s their job, and I train them over several months to do it. By the middle of the year, they do it very well. I take a perverse pleasure in seeing how irrelevant I am in the classroom when this starts to happen every year around November (after three months of SPIDER Web practice) — the students themselves are far better referees and masters of knowledge than we usually give them credit for (or even allow them to attempt). In my next blog post, I’ll talk more specifically about how I train them, so stay tuned for more detail there if you are interested.”

(For more details on the steps to make the Harkness work over a course of a year please see her excellent guide here.)

I have started to use this format for the past few weeks with mixed success.  My seniors in Economics, who have done a number of Socratic Seminars and graded discussions in their English classes are more proficient. However, my freshman students in World Cultures struggle.

After two particularly poor discussions in one day, I thought about what I need to improve. Below is a brief description of my efforts so far and what I plan on changing. 

I have been using a format of Marzano’s on the line, between the line and beyond the line to prepare students for the Harkness:

1.      Reading on the lines:
DESCRIPTION: What are 3 ideas from the passages above that you think is important for everyone to know during the dialogue:



2.      Reading between the lines:
DESCRIPTION: QUESTIONS THAT MAKE YOU INTERPRET OR INFER what is in the text.  SAMPLE QUESTION: Why might the author have said that it doesn’t make a difference whether a good comes from your own neighborhood or from India or Germany? Do you agree or disagree?


   3.      Reading beyond the lines:
DESCRIPTION: QUESTIONS THAT MAKE YOU THINK abstractly. The answers are found beyond the lines. Readers move beyond the text to connect to society and the world as a whole past and present.
SAMPLE QUESTION: How are individual & family lifestyles affected by globalization? Is globalization fair?YOUR GROUP’S BEYOND THE LINE QUESTION: 

I have also used Alexis Wiggins rubric which help detail what characteristics I expect students to be able to perform during a discussion.

Both of these resources have been helpful. However, after seeing the questions students prepared before the discussion I realized that this is one source of their struggles. Quite simply, they did not yet know how to produce higher order questions that would lead to engaging discussions. So, I have decided that before we do our next discussion I will model how I would read the text and the types of questions I would generate that could be especially interesting.

I also realized that students were not getting enough specific feedback on what they need to improve. So, after some searching online, I came across a rubric based on Lawrence Smith’s work at Phillips Exeter Academy.  I modified it for my students and plan on having them self-assess after every discussion and following up with individual conferences or notes when time permits.

I am enthralled by the potential Harkness discussions hold for my students! I look forward to refining the model for my classroom and becoming more skilled at developing students’ ability to facilitate.

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  1. Great post! Thanks for the shout out. I really enjoyed reading about your process and experience. I’m currently working on my book on Spider Web Discussion. Let me know if you’d like to share your experience in it by direct messaging me on Twitter.

    I have used this questioning strategy (below) that I got over a decade ago from someone who got it from someone at The Mountain School. I have had really good success with it over the years, asking students to bring in 1-3 of these Level Questions every day. I usually ask them to come in and write their “best” question on the board, and then I allow the class to vote which one they want to start the discussion with for the day. This generates enthusiasm, keeps them accountable (they prefer not to look bad by not having a question or having low-level ones), and gives them some autonomy and choice in direction of the discussion. It also just gets everyone, including you, continuously thinking about and examining what makes a question good. Everyone agrees that levels 2 and 3 are usually the most interesting. I added Level 4 over the years to introduce a way to look at literary criticism and movements more deliberately, especially with AP/IB students. I don’t usually use that one as much or even introduce it in grades 9-10, though I might with a more sophisticated cohort.

    **Level questions:
    Level 1: Surface/Plot-based – clear, definitive answer
    e.g. Why aren’t Duncan’s sons automatically the heirs when he is killed?
    e.g. Is Romeo a Montague or a Capulet?

    Level 2: Deeper/analysis of plot and characters – debatable answer
    e.g. Is Lady Macbeth more powerful than her husband?
    e.g. Is Romeo in love with Juliet or just in lust?

    Level 3: “Big”/inspired by text and its themes but do not mention it – debatable and philosophical
    e.g. Can women be powerful without acting like men?
    e.g. Do parents always know what’s best for their children?

    Level 4: Author style questions/steps back from text and its themes and focuses on craft of the writer
    e.g. Is Shakespeare too harsh in his portrayal of women in Macbeth? Is it a misogynistic play?
    e.g. What was Shakespeare suggesting about the nature of marriage in his time – are arranged marriages or love matches better?

    1. Hi Alexis thanks for taking the time to leave such a thoughtful reply. I’m a fan of the work you’re doing to help students have richer discussions and have long been a student of the work Grant did on UbD as well.

      I really like the 4 level questions, especially the highest level which asks them to connect to themes or societal issues. Will definitely use next year!

      If you’re ever in the Chicagoland area feel free to get in touch.

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