Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Explaining Seminar Teaching to a New Teacher

Later this week I am helping with a workshop for teachers who are new to the school, and I came across a memo I wrote to the Director of Admissions a decade ago when she asked me to try to explain why teaching around tables (sometimes called Harkness or seminar teaching) is of a great benefit to the school, and how to explain that concept to people who are unfamiliar with that way of teaching and learning.  What follows is an attempt to try to explain how that teaching and learning might happen when this style of teaching is practiced.

Harkness method (if it is, in fact, a method or really more of an ethos) works from a premise that the architecture of the classroom is of greater and more subtle significance than is generally recognized.  Rather than treating the student as a vessel to be filled up with knowledge, or even as a miner in search of a hidden piece of gnosis that the teacher already possesses, Harkness teachers believe that knowledge is created and constructed by the student as much as it is transmitted from teacher to student.  Learning is as much about uncovering skills and aptitudes that were already there but untapped in the student as it is about covering material for a test. I remember when a former student, Nate, looked up one day and said, "So we are un-covering things? I am just used to covering stuff. That certainly sounds more exciting." And it is more fun and more effective precisely because it is dynamic and not passive.

As a result, the student must be placed at the center of the educational process.  A teacher teaches students as much as she teaches courses.  In order for this to happen, and for it to happen in a democratic manner, the architecture of the classroom requires a significant restructuring from rows or even a circle of independent, unconnected desks.  Teacher and student are engaged and committed in a mutually supportive endeavor that the table symbolizes, supports and reinforces.  This means that learning can no longer be simply from the top down, from the teacher to the student; it must be generated and cultivated by a class as a whole, not by the individual. At the highest level of seminar teaching, I think there exists a sense of "collective responsibility" that is actually quite rare and difficult to achieve. When you walk into any room where this sense of challenge and support exists the feeling is palpable; classrooms where it does not exist can feel just like one student, Stevie, said to me once about his school, "we are just a bunch of smart people being smart; that's what we do all day--be smart."

In the most successful forms of Harkness teaching, students and teacher work like a pit crew at a NASCAR race, everyone knowing their strengths and limitations and working with lightening-like precision to transfer a text that was a puzzle into something accessible to everyone.  Or think of a class like a theater troupe that must work in unison to put on the best performance it can in a short amount of time.  Or think of it as “intellectual Outward Bound” where a team of individuals must work together with a high degree of synchronicity in unfamiliar waters in order to bring a boat back to shore.  What is different in those situations is that they are times when you can learn as much about yourself and the people around you as you do about the topic you are “studying.”  This is the added dimension that makes Harkness, in its most sophisticated forms, such a powerful methodology. Harkness allows this to happen in a way that other forms do not. It embraces a ”both/and” stance toward the dichotomy of skills vs. content rather than an “either/or” position. To tease out the skill that will open a given text to exploration is part of the challenge of becoming a good seminar teacher.

Harkness teaching takes as a central premise that learning is more than mere training, that it is a process of discovery not only of what one can be trained to do as a thinker but also what one can discover about oneself in the process.  In order for that to happen, however, teachers engaged in a Harkness ethos believe that there must be a central authority given to the student as learner - not just the student as vessel to be filled up with information or the teacher as expert lecturer, no matter how entertaining or enlightening that teacher may be.  The student becomes the primary authority in her learning and the teacher takes on the role of trusted guide, coach, editor, or advisor. Learning is an act of "authorship," and each person must be their own author.

It is this simple dictum-- "You are the author of your own learning."--that helps transform surface or strategic learning into experience-based learning that can become life-long. It also makes a school something more than just "smart people being smart."

No comments:

Post a Comment