Democratic discussion

Experimenting with the Harkness Method

Isla Phillips describes how she uses the Harkness method of discussion for developing student-lead interaction in Years 7 to 10.

Student-centred discussion

The name ‘Harkness’ sounds more intimidating than it is in practice (Williams, 2014). The key features of the approach are

  • Student discussion being the source of learning
  • Undertaking preparatory student work and
  • Processes of reflection

Superficially, the method might seem akin to a Oxbridge-style tutorial involving two or three people or the Socratic Method. However, it is actually very different as the teacher in the Harkness discussion is ‘the cultivator of that sense of responsibility [for the discussion], rather than the fount of information and analysis’ (Williams, 2014,p.60).  A loose definition suggests Harkness is about:

‘finding ways to get students to make the discoveries for themselves, to get them to draw their own conclusions, to teach them how to consider all sides of an argument, and to make up their own minds based on analysis of the material at hand.’ (Smith and Foley, 2014, p.478)

Discussion is for all

The oval tables and small class-sizes that have come to symbolise Harkness, may present a danger of Harkness becoming a method only utilised by elite schools (which have the funds to facilitate the buying of specialist tables and small classes) (Smith and Foley, 2014). There are, however, several ideas in the literature for using Harkness with all kinds of classes. For example, there is the obvious idea of rearranging desks instead of the ‘oval table’ and reducing numbers by assigning different roles to students who are not in a discussion, having an outer circle of listeners/mappers, and setting up multiple discussions at once (Orth et al, 2015). To create more intimate discussions in my own lessons, students enjoyed pairing up and alternating who was active in the discussion and who was listening. The listening student would either take notes on the discussion (such as their own ideas or points they found interesting) or take notes to provide feedback to their peer.

Preparatory work

Rather than using homework for the necessary preparatory learning, I use the first ten to twenty minutes of a lesson before embarking on Harkness discussions, using the time either for reading in year ten or a condensed version of lesson activities for years seven and eight. This not only provided more variety for the younger students but also meant the examples were fresh in their minds. This approach allows students not only to use examples easily when making their points but also to explore their initial questions and ideas as a group.

The team spirit of discussion


To use Harkness as an effective learning tool with my students, it became apparent we needed to work on making sure every point was developed and linked to a previous one as students spoke and examples were used well. Sometimes, a discussion wouldn’t take off and it was a levelling experience to simply ask students why they thought this was. The feedback helped to build my confidence in the method and create a team-spirit in the classroom, contributing to the sense that the students were in control of their learning. They might reflect that a question wasn’t good enough (too vague or too specific), that they needed more preparatory knowledge, or that the group dynamic wasn’t working that day. Planning for flexibility became an important element of setting up a successful Harkness discussion, such as having multiple iterations of the lesson’s question, and having material/activities to use if a discussion wasn’t progressing. Equally, if the discussion is going well, being prepared to scrap subsequent material, and just letting the group continue is important.

Student survey

In a survey conducted after six different lessons,  two thirds of the students (of a total of 86 responding) agreed or strongly agreed that they felt confident to contribute in discussions (66.3%), they felt like their ideas are respected and listened to (67.4%) and that Harkness was improving their critical thinking skills (67.4%). Reflecting on the positives and negatives of Harkness the key themes from student feedback were:

Positives Negatives
  • Inclusivity – everyone can be involved (including those who would normally remain quiet).
  • The freedom to share opinions, new ideas and for the class to control what is discussed.
  • It’s fun and different to other lessons.
  • You can develop thoughts more deeply and learn how to communicate your opinion.
  • Sometimes people find it hard to contribute.
  • The process can feel awkward, such as at the start of the discussion or when there are pauses
  • In a large class it can be difficult to have a good discussion with everyone involved.

Ultimately, experimenting with Harkness has developed my teaching because I now feel more able to adapt my lesson plans on the spot and more confident to trust in the student voice.


Isla Phillips is the Director of Kent Academies Network, and a teacher of Classics and the core curriculum at Sevenoaks School.






Feature Image by: geralt on Pixabay

Support images kindly provided by: Sevenoaks School



Orth, S., Lacey, D. and Smith, N. (2015) Hark the herald tables sing! Achieving Higher-Order Thinking with a chorus of Sixth-Form Pupils! Teaching History, 159, pp.50-7.

Smith, L.A. and Foley, M. (2014) Partners in a Human Enterprise. The History Teacher, 42 (4) pp.477-496.

Williams, G. (2014) Harkness Learning: Principles of a Radical American Pedagogy. Journal of Pedagogic Development, 4, pp.58-67.

More information on this study together with other articles can be found in Innovate, the annual academic journal from the Institute for Teaching and Learning:

See also


For more information on the Harkness Method  have a look at: