Harkness Discussion: Class Expectations


To introduce students to the  new roles for teachers and students in a Harkness discussion, I often hand out this summary of expectations for class behaviors:

In class this semester, we will work collaboratively to seek deeper meaning of problems and issues that we confront and/or texts that we read together. We will use a method of conducting group discussion known as the Harkness Method.  In this pedagogy, the teacher acts serves as a moderator and observer- not the purveyor of information or the source of truth. Everyone in the class participates as a team with the purpose of deepening the discussion to come to a greater understanding of what we are considering.

The origins of the word dialogue come from the Greek word dialegesthai, which shares a root with word of “dialect”, implying conversation about what is shared and also what is different. The word discuss , comes from the Latin meaning “dashed to pieces.” Dialogue describes a process by which we develop a deeper understanding of a matter through gathering and considering multiple perspectives, and comes to us from the French with the meaning “through gathered speech.”

 Dialogue is grounded in the core values of:

  • Curiosity: openness to desire to explore one’s own and others’ points of view, how they are formed, and how they impact the world
  • Learning: A desire to learn from each other; to expand our world view
  • Respect: A sprit of benevolence and good will toward others and one’s self, knowing that beyond the words we speak and the actions we take is a human being struggling to make sense of things, and to do good in the world
  • Working with Difference and Tension: a welcoming and honoring of difference and willingness to follow disturbance arising in one’s self.

Everyone is expected to contribute in such ways as the following:

  • organizing, leading
  • summarizing, restating, clarifying
  • offering examples from the text
  •  asking questions
  • commenting or giving an opinion
  • making a suggestion
  • asking for clarification
  • reacting to comments
  • analyzing the text, a comment, or the discussion itself
  • restarting the discussion
  • filling in a hole
  • arguing a point
  • asking for new information
  • asking for comments or reactions
  • making connections

Guidelines for Harkness Dialogue:

  • Come prepared for class with all of your materials and the reading done. If you are not prepared, let the teacher AND YOUR CLASSMATES KNOW AT THE BEGINNING OF CLASS. Bring your M and M’s (your MIND and MATERIALS!).
  • Listen actively and carefully. Listen to what others say before you respond. Don’t just talk to hear yourself talk. 
  • Don’t address everything to the instructor. Make eye contact with the person whose points you are addressing. Look around the table; let people know that they’re included. Use names to focus interaction.
  • Stick close to the text in discussion. Keep the text open. Be prepared to cite specifics in the language of the text to support, challenge or question. The discussion is not a test of memory.
  • Collaborate, don’t compete. It is not a debate, but a discussion. Discussion is collaborative; the purpose is to work together to seek deeper understanding, not to agree or disagree and decide who ‘wins” Debate is oppositional: opposing sides try to prove each other wrong.
  • Take turns speaking. It is OK to “pass” occasionally if asked directly to contribute. – Ask for help from one of your classmates, “Can anyone help me with this?” and call on someone.
  • Be tolerant of differing opinions, values and ideas. We do not have to agree. No shaming, blaming or put-downs.
  • Affirm comments made by other students. Encourage others to clarify or expand ideas that might be foggy. Ask for more information or further explanation. Don’t hesitate to summarize. Discuss ideas rather than one another’s opinions.
  • Challenge politely if you disagree. Let any student finish phrasing a question or developing an idea before you jump in. Clarify a difference of opinion first.
  • Be sure that the class is content with the exploration of one topic before heading off into new territory. In moments of silence, determine whether the group is wrestling with an idea or passage, or whether to pursue a new line of inquiry. Ask each other: Can we summarize the discussion so far? Did we take it as far as it could go? Are we content?
  • You are responsible for the success of the discussion. Prepare and participate thoughtfully. Don’t BS if you don’t know; admit it and move on.
  • If you’re not a reluctant participant, and suspect that you might have a dominant presence at the table, police your own frequency of involvement. Don’t answer every question; don’t jump in at every opportunity. Pull your weight, but not everybody else’s.
  • If you a reluctant participant. Demonstrate engagement in the material by using body language that shows others you are interested in the topic at hand and what others’ have to say.
  • “None of us is as smart as all of us”. Don’t think you have to have it all figured out by yourself. Learn on others in the class and ask for help.


Adapted from “Some Thoughts About the Harkness Table” by Ralph SneedenCindy Adams “Guidelines for Socratic Seminar” and Peter Forbes, “Introduction to Dialogue, Whole Thinking Retreat”