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:
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?