Guide to discussing history

A General Guide to the Harkness Discussion

Most students and teachers know when a positive experience has taken place at the Harkness table, but the dynamics that create a memorable discussion are complex and difficult to define. If students work at cultivating a few of the following basic skills and patterns of behavior, however, they can dramatically improve the quality of discussions.

1. THE STUDENT AND THE TEXT: To participate most effectively, you must have a thorough grasp of the reading, which means developing:

    • A clear understanding of the chronology of events--not rote memorization of dates, but an awareness of how one event affected another;

    • An awareness of how the current reading connects to previous readings, discussions, or themes;

    • An understanding of how details and facts in the reading relate to broader themes and questions.

    • It is crucial also to come to class with an annotated text. As you read before class, underline sentences, circle key terms, write notes in margins. Notes might include questions, summary, interpretation, emotional reaction, argument against the author. And go even deeper. Speculate about the author's underlying values, assumptions and how he is trying to manipulate his audience. For whom is she writing and what does she want them to do? You will find that annotations help you to make better, more concrete contributions to the discussions. They also will also help you find evidence later when you are writing a paper.

2. THE STUDENT AND THE DISCUSSION: you can help advance a discussion by interacting with your peers in a variety of ways.

  • ONE TO ONE (interactions with another student).

    • AFFIRM a comment that another student made.

    • CHALLENGE politely a comment that another student made.

    • ASK a question from the list of questions.

    • RETURN to a comment that another student made.

    • CITE evidence from the reading to support or challenge

  • ONE TO ALL (interactions with the class as a whole).

    • OPEN a discussion with a reaction, question, or observation.

    • ASK a question from the list of questions to advance the discussion.

    • CONSIDER a point of view no one has thought of.

    • CITE evidence from the reading that pertains to the discussion

    • CLARIFY a difference of opinion.

    • SUMMARIZE a discussion.

    • INTRODUCE a new line of inquiry.

3. HARKNESS ETIQUETTE. Remember that a Harkness discussion is not a debate where the primary objective is to defeat an opponent. The goal is for the whole group to move closer to the truth.

    • LISTEN while others talk rather than formulate a response.

    • Don't cut people off.

    • Don't raise your hand and don't direct your comments to the teacher.

    • Avoid the urge to dominate or be passive.

    • More frequent participants should yield to less frequent talkers.

    • Remain open-minded. The best students sometimes change their minds or admit they were wrong, or at least concede that there is strong evidence against their position and that they might need to reconsider their conclusions.

    • Acknowledge good points, even when they contradict you. Consider that the winner of an argument is the person who ends up changing his mind to a more accurate view of reality.