An iPad/Web Solution for Tracking a Harkness Method Discussion

My English teacher Jack Kinder and I are on a quest to find a solution…

I’m an upper-level high school English teacher looking for a simple, web/iPad app that will allow me to digitally track a Harkness-style discussion. The Harkness Method, branded and instituted first at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, puts intentional student discussion at the center of the lesson, while the teacher acts as a peripheral guide. Ideally, students learn what questions can be asked of a text, and they use each other collaboratively to find answers.

One important component of the Harkness Method comes in the closing minutes of the class. Students are asked to reflect on the quality of the discussion. Over time, these reflections help them to develop a vocabulary and sensitivity for both their personal contributions and group dynamics and problem solving.

Often, teachers create a map of the classroom and “track” the discussion by drawing lines from speaker to speaker. The resulting web can be a fantastic tool for students to reflect on their efforts. Teachers may use this diagram to make student-specific notes if they are grading the individuals in the discussion, or if they plan to offer their own feedback to the group. See this incredible diagram that I found:

Harkness Method


But I’m not an artist, and there’s the rub: my diagrams turn out pretty bad, and not much can be gleaned from them. And this problem got me thinking about a way to track on an iPad, where I could simply touch the student who was talking, and a line would be drawn from the previous contributor. A straight line, a neat line.

But then I thought, what other data could this app provide? What if it could also calculate and consolidate total “air time” for each individual student? What if I could “play back” the 50-minute discussion at 10X, 50X, 100X, and we could watch the lines darting and darkening in certain areas of the room? Who was dominating the discussion? Who needs to get involved? Did the teacher talk too much? I suppose this app may also be able to record the entire discussion, so students who miss class can listen to the seminar and jump right in the next day. The year’s archive could be quite valuable.

I’m interested in finding ways to use “technology” to help students learn to think, but I’m not a tech person. To me, the most important aspect of this app must be ease of use. I would like to use 99% of my brain to observe the content and quality of the class-discussion, and 1% of my brain (and my index finger) to track the conversation.

Here is a quick video of what it might look like:

Help us! Is something like this out there? Can it be built?

24 thoughts on “An iPad/Web Solution for Tracking a Harkness Method Discussion

  1. I like the idea of this app! I don’t know if there is anything similar that already exists… there are certainly graph-drawing systems that would let you organize and visualize data about the conversation after the fact, but I don’t know of one that has an easy way to record this information in the first place.

    It looks like, in addition to recording who responded to whom and when, we would want some sort of note section to write down what each student said. I’ll add this to my “to investigate” summer list — maybe I’ll be able to make something!

    • Keep me posted if you explore / build! Have you seen Class Charts: It allows for “data rich seating charts” and does a great job with recording when things happen + gives you the ability to add a note. I’ve just started using. However, it doesn’t have the mapping part, which is what my English teacher is needing :)

  2. I’ve actually been working on a harkness tracking app a while now and it should be ready in another week or two! It allows you to keep track of as many classes as you want, track discussions, view discussions later, and view student performance for each discussion. I’ll post a link on here when its on the app store.

  3. Wow. That would be such a valuable tool for those of us who use Harkness. I too am eager to see what you’ve created.

  4. Pingback: Year-End Reflections, Part I (in which I avoid any reflections on how I can’t regularly update a blog and instead focus on rearranging the furniture) | The Geezum Crow Blog

  5. Hi, Nick. I’ve got the app! I’m going to use it later this week. I’ll use a separate notebook to track any interruptions or side conversations, but your tracking/tagging is going to be cool. I wonder if there’s a way to save the info (as a PDF?) and send it to my students.

    It’s awesome so far!

  6. FYI, Harkness Recorder has been renamed to Discussion Recorder (it’s useful for all socratic teaching methods with group discussion). The URL is now There’s a live chat on the site and sometimes you can catch the developer there, otherwise, he responds to all messages sent through the site.

  7. Another solution to help you with the tracking of the Harkness discussions. Excited to share my newly released app: Equity Maps. It’s been widely tested with Socratic Seminars and group discussions and makes it easy to set up Harkness style groups using the open classroom seating (yellow desk arrangement when you select the table layout). You can add up to 40 students and the app provides feedback about each participant as well as allows you to playback the visual at various speeds or playback the voice of any of the speakers you choose on the timeline.
    Check it out at
    and like us on facebook at

    Here’s a quick demo video too:

    Hope it helps! Looking forward to your feedback.

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