Harkness Sharkness

Don’t you just love the movies that depict the shark getting the faintest whiff of blood and putting your least favorite character in peril? I have often felt like this character who accidentally cut himself as the teacher during a harkness discussion. I have introduced this format of discussion to my students, and on occasion, I have unknowingly baited the water. The sharks have caught the smell of blood, and students have either become ravenous talkers or hide away in silence due to the ferocity of conversation.

I believe one of the goals in helping students navigate these potentially treacherous waters is communicating the importance of listening. Too often my students talk for the sake of talking, believing the number of words will equate a higher grade. The setting of a harkness discussion will one day hopefully help them to discuss deep ideas around the dinner table. But this cannot be done if it is a race to constantly be presenting your thoughts and ideas. Harkness discussions should not only be teaching students how to speak, but also how to listen, and consequently to actually THINK. No great conversation was had without participants listening and thinking. Proverbs 18:2 says, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinions.” I have always been under the impression that the best conversationalists are also the best listeners.

In a world today that yearns for the incessant expression of our opinions, veiled in the false identity of conversation (Facebook), it is imperative that we teach our students how to listen and think deeply within discussion just as much as how to speak eloquently.

What are some practical ways in which we can help our students practice the art of listening within harkness discussion setting?

  1. As teachers, we can encourage our students to wait three seconds before responding to the last point made in the discussion.[1] This approach forces students to take in what was just said and thinking before speaking. James 1:19 confirms the wisdom of this approach: “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak…”
  2. The way we grade these discussions should easily help students see what we value. Do not be afraid to give poor marks to those that dominate the discussion with no depth. Take time in the discussion either in the middle or at the end of class to encourage the student who listened and responded accordingly. Students will rise to the level of your expectations if they are clear on your standards.
  3. Have students begin a game in which they are to recite the ABC’s as a class. If two students say the same letter at the same time, they are to start over.[2] This helps them slow down and practice the ability to gauge the conversation of the group before jumping in.


These are a few things I have found to help move my students from harkness sharks to those that say “Sir, don’t worry about our silences… that’s when we are thinking.”[3]

[1]Robinson, Melia. “Why The Classes At Phillips Exeter Are Different Than At Any Other Private School.” Business Insider. January 12, 2015. Accessed November 23, 2017. http://www.businessinsider.com/phillips-exeter-harkness-table-2014-11

[2] Ibid.

[3]Donarski, Sarah. “How to Harkness: Strategies and Advice.” PerspectED by Sarah Donarski. December 10, 2016. Accessed November 23, 2017. https://perspected.wordpress.com/2016/12/10/how-to-harkness-strategies-and-advice/.

One thought on “Harkness Sharkness

  1. The art and skill of listening is truly under appreciated. My own way to try and force myself into listening during a conversation is to state in my own words what the person said, ask them if that indeed is correct, ask questions to clarify and then only comment. Easier said than done however!


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