Harkness Philosophy and Workshop
Kierstan McCaw
When I am out and about in the neighbourhood and talking to people (optometrist, dentist, hairstylist), they often ask me where I work. When I tell them I am a Vice Principal at Southridge they are keen to tell me that they can always identify a Southridge student because they are remarkably articulate and good conversationalists. Our utilization of the Harkness philosophy in all subject areas helps our students to communicate effectively.
Harkness philosophy is student-centered, discussion-based, and collaborative. Teachers in all subject areas at Southridge intentionally plan opportunities for discussion on a regular basis in their classes. For example, in science, students will engage in discussion when they are planning a procedure to solve a problem they can solve in the lab, analyzing experimental results and developing theories, arguing a conclusion based on data, examining scientific models and developing their understanding, or determining the best way to solve a problem. You will find teachers lecturing in science class (and in other subject areas) as it is important for students to develop basic understandings before they can engage in deeper learning through discussion. It is through discussion that a sophisticated understanding of concepts is developed.

This year, a team from Southridge designed, created and hosted a Discussion Based Learning Symposium. In August, teachers and administrators from around the province joined me, Joyce Kim, Max Sterelyukhin, and Mike DiPietro to learn how to use the Harkness philosophy with their students. Many BC teachers are interested in learning more about this philosophy and schools are purchasing Harkness tables. Why? This philosophy meshes particularly well with the new BC curriculum that focuses on communication, thinking, and personal and social development. John Hattie reports in his Visible Learning literature that research indicates that learning through discussion results in 2 years of learning gains for 1 year in school. We are very proud to be leaders in BC in utilizing this philosophy and happy that other schools are adopting our approach so that more students will benefit.

We are pleased to report that our three-day symposium was a great success. The first day began Head of School Drew Stephens giving a history of the adoption of the Harkness philosophy at our school, followed by a panel discussion with Southridge teachers giving stories of their journeys. Next, teachers participated in Harkness discussions in science and English to get the feel of how students can learn through discussion. The final two days were a mixture of participants leading Harkness discussions, Ira Alexandra giving a lecture on her Harkness Toolkit that she developed and Max reporting about his Master’s research in the use of discussions in math, and Mike’s action research in the use of discussion in science for his Master’s degree. It was wonderful to have Doug Barnim and Mike Neil pop in and critique some of the participant's work.

Some of the participants reported the following:
  • In-depth discussions ARE possible in a high school classroom, and they can help students develop far more conceptual understanding than a lecture alone.
  • The event reinforced my desire to incorporate discussion-based learning into my lesson delivery on a more regular basis.
Participants stated that they will recommend this event to their colleagues for the excellent learning activities and the food of course (thank you, Chef Gary!)
Kierstan McCaw
Vice Principal of Learning