Because I value student-led learning, I am always trying to find ways to involve students in discussions. I love using the fishbowl method, Socratic seminars, Harkness Discussions, and literature circles to spark student conversation. To make these assignments student-led, I ask students to use conversation stems, backchannel chat, and methods such as the TQE method to help students generate awesome questions.
Why Harkness Discussion?
Earlier this year, the Harkness discussion strategy came onto my radar when a colleague shared a discussion placemat with me for use during a Born a Crime assignment. We had been focusing on question generation using the TQE method, and it seemed like the Harkness Model fit in with our goals for student-led discourse.
The Harkness Method isn’t earth-shattering or even innovative, but it does put the responsibility onto the students for facilitating their own conversation.
You might be wondering how Harkness Discussion differs from a Fishbowl discussion or Socratic Seminar or literature circle. If you, like me, usually take a facilitator role during these types of conversations, then the difference is subtle.
Harkness Discussion vs. Other Student Led Discussion Methods
Developed at the Phillips Exeter Academy, the Harkness Method asks the teacher to guide student talk with the goal of helping learners ask really good questions and making sure every voice is heard.
Unlike the Socratic seminar, the student-led conversation is shaped by several questions rather than one essential question. Beyond this, what distinguishes it from other teaching strategies, to me, is the role of the student observer.
During the conversation, one student sits back to observe group dynamics, patterns of conversation, flow and balance of discussion, as well as other items of interest. The goal of the student observer is to serve as a neutral third-party witness to the conversation in order to provide the group with “data” about their speaking and listening skills.
In the end, what sets this strategy apart from these other methods is that it emphasizes the co-creation of knowledge through questioning AND encourages higher-level metacognitive skills. Students are asked to be aware of themselves as a part of a larger conversation and reflect.
As I said, the difference is subtle, yet effective. And, if you are wondering, YES, you can integrate the Harkness discussion method with literature circles, fishbowls, or Socratic seminars.
Using Technology for Discussion
When using Equity Maps for Harkness discussion, the role of the student observer is empowered by data.
This iPad app is easy to set up and does not interfere with discussion in any way. In fact, it records the flow of conversation (and can even play it back in real or fast-forwarded time), keeps track of who participates and for how long, and draws lines between speakers to map the conversation.
The goal of Equity Maps is to create balanced conversation in which every voice is heard and valued. Once students discuss, the group can look at and interpret the data, set group goals, and work to improve their speaking and listening skills.
If your students are like mine, they will be very interested in looking at their analytics. What’s more, reflective conversations are a natural byproduct of looking at this data. As a teacher, you will just need to harness the power of that reflection potential by giving students time to think and make sense of their data and draw conclusions.
If you aren’t keeping a student out of the conversation as a neutral observer, in true Harkness form, this app can play the role of a neutral observer. Set it in the middle of the table and students “tap in” when they begin speaking.
This leads me to mention that it is really important to set-up the conversation so that all students can see each other.
Over time, if you choose to keep students in the same groups, this tool can allow for comparison of data between discussions. Are students really meeting their goals and improving over time? Have groups take a look at the numbers, graphs, and flow of their discussion to prove it
Equity Maps Has a Nominal Cost
The standard version of Equity Maps is $1.99 and allows you to map up to 20 participants at one time. I understand that resources are sometimes limited. But, if you’re able to use school-issued iPads with the app installed, it is ideal to have one device per group (if you have multiple groups running at the same time).
Next year, I intend to apply for grant money to facilitate use of Equity Maps as we’ve run into problems with our district funding the app and doing away with iPad technology in favor of Chromebooks.
How Equity Maps Works
Below, I’ve created some images to walk you through the set-up process and to show you some of the analytics.
Prior to the conversation, students will initially need 5-10 minutes to set-up the app.
First, when you enter the Equity Maps app, you will be shown different table arrangements. I have students choose the square or rectangle one.
Next, students will set up group members, adding each individual and his/her information to an avatar card (and choosing a color).
Once group members are created, simply drag each avatar to the appropriate spot around the table.
To begin mapping, simply tap the avatar of the student as he or she begins to speak. When he or she is finished, tap on the next student who talks. Continue this until the conversation is finished.
To zoom in on the mapping screen, there are different options to explore. This app is not only useful for Harkness discussion, but also think-pair-share, spider mapping, literature circles, fishbowl discussions, Socratic seminars, and pinwheel discussions, to name a few.
After the dialogue is complete, students can look at their data in different ways. I love how students are able to “playback” their conversation.
In addition, the lines show the conversation flow. It’s interesting to consider not only the flow of lines to and from a student, but also to notice patterns in the lines.
For example, does conversation ping-pong back and forth between the same students? If so, the line becomes darker. Who has the most lines? The least? Is there an order to who speaks?
You can also playback the conversation and actually have students listen to what they said.
Beyond this playback and mapping screen, students can dig into group analytics.
Because the goal of student talk is equity between participants, students can use the data to reflect on air time and gender group dynamics. They can also zoom in to view individual student statistics.
Here’s an example of an overall statistics page:
From here, students can zoom in and consider data in the following ways:
Lastly, as I said before, you can track student progress over time and celebrate growth. As students make sense of the data through reflection and set personal and group goals for future discussions, you can help them learn these important speaking and listening skills for success in LIFE!
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