Expect Unexpected Engagement When you try Hexagonal Thinking in ELA


288: A Lesser-Known Amanda Gorman Gem
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073: The Discussions You’ve Dreamed of: Harkness FAQs

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You’ve seen the spiderweb charts.

Heard whispers of the discussion revolution.

Other teachers have even told you that students take total ownership of their conversations using a magical method called Harkness. That the crickets cease to be an issue. That students begin to police their own commentary, dominators begin to listen, silent students begin to speak.

Yeah, right, you might be thinking. Maybe it works for them, but it’ll never work for me. Not for my students. Not in my situation. 

Well, though I can’t guarantee anything, what I can say is that over the course of many years in the classroom, I introduced Harkness to every single one of my classes, and I felt it was successful every single time.

It worked with my lowest-track eleventh graders, with a heavy concentration of ELLs from Asian countries who were initially shy and quiet in class.

It worked with my creative literature elective, which was a mix of the most talented and lowest-performing English students at my school.

It worked in my I.B. 12th grade English classes in Bulgaria, despite a solid dose of senioritis in our room full of nineteen-year-olds.

My friend, I’ve come to you before to talk about Harkness. If you’re in the mood, you could watch this video about Harkness I made for our FB Group, read Harkness in 3 Simple Steps on this website, or listen in on the podcast to Episode 08: Harkness Discussions. But today I’m going to try to answer ALLLLLLLLL the questions, as clearly as I can, because honestly, learning about Harkness was one of the most significant growth experiences of my life. And I want you and your students to benefit from it the way I have.

So let’s do this. I asked for your pressing questions over in our Facebook group last week, and now, here are my answers.

Read on, or listen in on the podcast player below, or on iTunesBlubrry, or Stitcher.

What are Harkness discussions?

In a Harkness discussion, students gather in a circle to discuss a text. The teacher acts more as a guide in setting up the structure of the conversation than as a participant, though they might jump in occasionally with a thought or a redirect.

Harkness focuses far more on the development of students as thoughtful listeners and speakers who can connect from text to text, discipline to discipline, and discipline to the world than on specific content that must be “covered” in the discussion. When you turn a conversation over to Harkness, expect to be surprised by all the directions it may go.

How are they different from Socratic Seminars?

Let’s call them cousins. Socratic Seminar often begins (at least) with teachers taking a big role, asking the open-ended questions and taking charge of the pacing. While both forms seek to engage students in big conversations, and to give much of the power over to them, Harkness is more specifically focused on students learning how to talk to each other without the teacher’s voice controlling the situation. It’s about setting up a system, then guiding students in practicing it and gently pulling strings from behind the curtain to help kids keep improving (more on that to come!).

How do you get started? + What foundational conversations make a difference?

Before introducing this method, you need to have a way to create a circle of kids in your classroom (or your hallway, or the field by your school, etc.). I’ve never had a fancy Harkness table that seats exactly twelve (as originally imagined by the proponents of this method), nor has it ever mattered. I’ve always pulled tables together or chair/desks into circles.

I like to introduce Harkness by talking about how discussion is not just for class. About how the way my students interact with other people as listeners and speakers is going to affect their lives in so many different ways. It will change how they work with other people in their future jobs, the way people listen (or don’t) to them in their community, the dynamics of their own family lives around the dinner table, on car trips, and everywhere else.

From there we talk about what makes a good discussion. I ask one person to take notes while everyone generates ideas.

If they are struggling, I will often throw out possiblities. My favorite thing to do during this brainstorming session is to stare directly at only one student and talk for a minute or two about a discussion concept. I never look at anyone else. Then I ask that student how they feel, and everyone else how they feel. It’s always pretty funny. Then I make the point that when students talk only toward me, making eye contact only with me, everyone else feels like their attention doesn’t really matter.

Eventually I tend to type a round-up of the ideas all my classes come up with on that first day to post in the classroom. Then we can refer back to it all year.

Next, I introduce them to the role of the observer. I let them know that during each discussion, one student will sit and chart the action, noticing what goes well and what we need to work on as a group. They will write everyone’s name around the circle, and draw a line from person to person as they speak.

I show them some charted discussions (like the ones below) and talk about the kinds of things an observer might chart beyond the basics. I talk about how I tend to structure the discussion – some kind of a warm-up activity to help get things rolling, then the discussion, then a chance for the observer to report on how the discussion went (without calling anyone out by name) and give us one thing to work on the next time.


Finally, there are two fun games you can use to help get students ready for Harkness. It’s worth playing one or both as you introduce the method. I learned about each at the Exeter Humanities Institute, a weeklong workshop on Harkness teaching. 

The Story Game 

For this game, bring a beanbag. Let the class know you’re going to tell a story together. You’ll start the story, then pass the beanbag to another student somewhere in the room, who will continue the story. And on and on, until you get to the last student. The last student must find a way to finish the story, somehow bringing the main character back to where they started. Then the last student will pass the beanbag to anyone in the room to retell the story (but everyone can help with remembering details!). Now, actually begin telling the story and go through the steps.

Once the story has been told and retold, share the lessons of the game:

  • Would the story have been as wild and wonderful if it was only the product of one imagination? No way, impossible! The voices of every student are what make a discussion so rich. The class will miss out on so much if only a few people share their ideas. 
  • If you want to be ready to contribute to the story (and catch the beanbag successfully), you have to pay attention! You have to listen and focus, and also be ready to build on what other people have said. You can’t be crafting your story idea in your head instead of listening if you want it to fit with other people’s. 
  • Retelling the story will only work if you’ve listened and stayed focused. It will also work best with everyone’s help. Harkness succeeds when everyone helps and contributes however they can. 
The Alphabet Game
This hilarious game teaches students how to pay attention to each other, and read some of the body language that relates to discussion. The goal of the game is for the class to say the ABCs, with each student saying a different letter, and no one ever speaking at the same time as anyone else. 
There can be no signals. 
It’s really hard! The kids have to pay careful attention to each other’s faces and try to anticipate who is thinking of talking. When the class fails, you can try again a few times. Then save the game to play again as a pre-discussion activity as the year goes on.
Once I’ve talked about the role of discussion in life, we’ve generated our core discussion ideals, I’ve introduced the basic circle chart and the role of the observer, and we’ve played one or both of these games, I feel ready to try our first discussion. 

Where can I get free starter materials?

That’s an easy one! You can find several types of discussion trackers, including the basic circle chart you’re going to need, online at the  Exeter Harkness Teaching Tools page.

What does the discussion actually look like? 

OK, you’re ready to roll. You get to the point in class where you want to do Harkness. Here’s what I recommend:

Step One: Try a discussion warm-up. Student-led discussion goes better if the kids aren’t coming into it cold, thinking about the content from their last class or whatever social interaction they had on the way.  At its most basic (but very effective) level, the warm-up is a chance for kids to write down a couple of questions about the reading, maybe trading questions with someone else so they can ask someone else’s question during discussion. You can find a ton of warm-up ideas right here. 

Step Two: Choose an observer and give them a chart to start filling out while the class plays a quick round of the ABC game.

Step Three: Invite someone to begin with something related to the warm-up. Remind the class of the elements of a good discussion, and that your role is to take notes and potentially help clarify something if you’re needed, not to lead the discussion. Let them know you are SURE there will be awkward silences, but getting over that is part of becoming better at leading their own discussions, and you are not going to rescue them. Let them know they can move on to new questions, ideas, and connections when they feel a topic has been discussed enough.

Step Four: Listen as the discussion takes place, and take notes. Thumb through your text and follow along as others make references (having your book open and peeking into it can remind students to do the same!). During awkward silences, scribble furiously in your notebook (something like “awkward awkward awkward” is just fine) so they know you won’t jump in. Don’t give in.

Step Five: When you feel like the discussion has reached its end, congratulate the kids on their first discussion and turn to your observer. Ask them to show the chart, describe the good things about the discussion, and then make ONE recommendation for the next discussion without using any specific names. Inevitably, the first recommendation will be “everyone should talk.” As you go on, these observations will become far more complex, especially as you begin to advise your observer to add to their charting beyond the comment lines (for example, adding stars next to names for text references, question marks for questions, “I”s for interruptions, etc.).

The next time you do a discussion, look back at the chart from the previous discussion and remind everyone of the goal. For example, you might say: “Last time Christina recommended we all try to participate. So if you see that you spoke a lot, you might want to try to listen a bit more to leave space for others. And if you see that you didn’t speak at all, perhaps you might consider reading one of your questions or sharing one of your ideas today.”

Gradually, your students will improve. But there will be troubleshooting necessary! The real work of Harkness for the teacher is in the structure: creating effective warm-ups, coaching the observers in approaching their jobs, setting a positive and hopeful tone for the work, and working with individual groups and individual students on their dynamics.

What about kids who process more slowly? What about ELLs?

This is a significant issue in Harkness, but it’s one you can manage. The discussion warm-ups really help here, because kids who need more time to think and write something down before speaking it can prepare something right at the start, and read it to start the discussion or when everyone is ready to change the topic later on.

You can also stop a discussion briefly and ask students to turn to partners and discuss something that has just been brought up, so you know everyone is getting a little more time to think about it, then restart the discussion – perhaps by inviting a student who needs that extra time to speak (if they volunteer or you have agreed in advance that this is a good time to call on them – my advice would be, don’t force them).

Also, you’ll find your students will begin to notice which members of the group they hear from less, and value their contributions. So as the class becomes more adept at group dynamics, if they see that someone who doesn’t usually speak is about to speak, your students may just fall silent in expectation.

What about kids who never speak?

It’s a challenge! They will feel pressured by the method, which is one reason I think it’s important not to use Harkness all the time. On there other hand, if they can learn to contribute some of their best thinking, even briefly, once a day, that is a wonderful thing for the class and wonderful for them to know they can do.

Here are a few examples from my own experience:

I had one class with a silent student and several dominators. The dominators – smart, outgoing kids – didn’t really believe that the other kids in the class had anything to say. They had learned, over the years, from our system, that it was their job to carry the class. So in discussion after discussion, they would make dozens of comments while several other students, mainly ELLs, never spoke. Despite the observer constantly commenting on the need for the discussion to be more balanced!

Finally, I told the class I’d give everyone a free A in my grade book if everyone in the class said one thing during the discussion. We tried it once without success, and frustrations ran high.

Then I chatted with my dominators outside of class. I asked them to stay quiet and just see what happened. In the next class, a student who had never spoken before made a beautiful comment. You could have heard a pin drop. The dam broke, and all the kids began to speak. I still remember one of the talkative students staying after and starting to cry as we talked about it. She just never thought of her actions as blocking the voices of others.

In another class, I had a student who really struggled to keep up with what was happening in discussion, so she was regularly silent. We actually came up with a secret signal for her to give me so that I would know she was ready to speak and could find a way to help her raise her voice.

During one challenging Harkness rollout, I had a class where the dynamics just didn’t gel. For days we suffered through many awkward silences, with one student often trying to rescue the group and the rest looking around for help. Finally, by the end of the second week, the group as a whole just seemed to decide it wasn’t worth fighting. Everyone began to participate, and the weirdness dissipated.

What about large class sizes?

I think the method would suffer a lot with more than 20 kids in the group. So I’d suggest doing some rotating. Maybe one day you do Harkness with half the class while the others are doing revision stations with their writing. Then switch. Or you do Harkness with half the class while the others are reading their independent reading books. Then switch. Or you go the fishbowl route and let half discuss while the others sit outside the circle taking notes and thinking about what they want to talk about when they get inside. Then switch.

It would be lovely, of course, to have the small class sizes Harkness was originally created for. Twelve students around a table would learn so much about themselves and each other. But I think it’s well worth some jimmying to bring this method into your classroom.

What about the crickets?

Yes. The crickets. They will come. You might want to get a sound clip of crickets to play now and then to break up the tension. But that’s life, right? There’s not going to be a teacher to carry their conversations with friends, at work, at their dinner table, in their town hall meetings, etc. They need to be able to use their own voices, and it’s worth fighting through those awkward silences to get there.

What are the benefits?

Collaboration is one of the big catchwords of modern education, but how often do we teach it effectively? It’s one of those soft skills that are difficult to pinpoint. Harkness is an incredible tool for teaching students that the story gets much richer when it’s everyone’s.

I once surveyed my students anonymously about their experiences with Harkness. “I think I’ve always been able to share my opinions, but I’ve definitely changed as a listener. I’ve learned how to pay attention,” wrote one student. Another experienced a different kind of transformation: “I have changed. I seem to like to talk a lot more than I thought I would. Harkness has allowed me to gain confidence in myself and what I believe is right.”

“I think I’ve always been able to share my opinions, but I’ve definitely changed as a listener,” commented a third student. “I’ve learned how to pay attention.”

The beauty of these responses is that they show the connection between the students’ different kinds of growth. As some students learn to listen, they enable others to believe in themselves. As some students learn to speak, they enable others to widen their understanding.

To learn more about the benefits of Harkness, check out this article I wrote about my own early frustrations with collaborative work, and why I think Harkness would have fundamentally changed my education.



What are the keys to student engagement?

Getting them on board with the set-up exercises and clear talk about why it matters to be able to collaborate and talk to a group of people definitely helps. The ABC game helps too, because it breaks the ice and helps people relax. The discussion warm-ups make it easy to succeed if the students want to, because they’ve got ideas for what to say already when the discussion begins.

Beyond these things, it’s about talking to your kids as you go. If you notice a troubling dynamic, discuss it openly with the kids involved, or ask the observer to focus in on the issue that is plaguing the class, charting what’s related to it and providing ideas for how to solve it.

How can you provide feedback on the discussion? + How do you grade it?

The observer will give feedback for you, probably more bluntly than you would have felt comfortable doing.

You can also use a chart like the one below to give individual students a clear picture of their participation.

Having a short meeting or writing a short comment to each student at some point in the term about how things are going for them in discussion could certainly help benefit the class as well.

Personally, I tend not to dive too deeply into grading Harkness discussions. Sometimes I will offer a free 10/10 to the class if everyone participates. Sometimes I will let kids know that the day’s discussion is going to be graded, in which case participation is necessary for full marks but active listening and focus also counts. Most of the time I leave participation as a nebulous “boost” in their grades – so they know if they are borderline, and I’ve seen them making strong effort in our discussions, I will bump them up a grade, from B+ (89.3) to A- (90), etc.

Is there a video example to show students?

One of our wonderful group members shared that this example of a discussion in a history class at Phillips-Exeter. I don’t think I would show this to students though – it would be easy to get hung up on the size of the class or the official table. You know best whether this would benefit your students.

How do you stop verbal trampling?

Some of this will take care of itself as the class continues to listen to the observers after each discussion and improve its dynamics. But dominators can have a hard time pulling back.

You might consider making a major dominator an observer early on, so they can get a chance to see that others will dive in if they aren’t there to dominate.

You can also jokingly-but-seriously offer hard candies to a student who is speaking a lot, suggesting that they finish a candy before jumping back in with more comments. Keep in mind, however, that dominators have probably had their patterns reinforced by other teachers for years. It can be just as hard for them to learn to listen and value others’ contributions as it is for quiet students to learn to voice their ideas. Sometimes a chat after class with a dominator is the best tool; challenge them to do more listening in the next discussion and see what happens.

Well, I think that’s a wrap! If you’ve got more questions, ask them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them. I really do hope you try this out – personally I can never go back, now that I know discussion engagement like this can exist through Harkness.

Do you find your inspiration in VISUALS? I love ‘em too. Let’s hang out on Instagram! Click here to get a steady stream of colorful ideas all week long.

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  • Thank You! I've been wanting to get my classes involved in discussions – one class is very timid – and I think this will work. I'm going to do some games first 🙂

  • What exactly is the Alphabet Game? I've never heard of it in the classroom, but it sounds like a great way to prepare a class for discussion.

    • This hilarious game teaches students how to pay attention to each other, and read some of the body language that relates to discussion. The goal of the game is for the class to say the ABCs, with each student saying a different letter, and no one ever speaking at the same time as anyone else.

      There can be no signals. So one student says A, then everyone looks around at each other until the next student says B. And so on and so forth. Eventually two kids will say the same letter at the same time and the round ends. Or you make it to Z! Which is SUPER hard. 🙂

  • Hello! I am wondering what your thoughts are on trying this method in a virtual classroom setting? I've been doing a "variation" of Socratic Seminar, but it sounds more like Harkness (I'm way more hands-off than Socratic Sem suggests) 🙂
    I would appreciate any insight/tips.

  • Wow, that sounds interesting! I mean, in theory, the principals are certainly the same. But the eye contact and the relationships are also a really integral part of Harkness. You could definitely talk about what makes a discussion go well and work on not diving in during awkward silences, etc. I'd love to hear how it goes!


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