Preparation for the World of Ideas: Harkness Discussion

Out in the “real world,” we can feel overwhelmed by ideas:

Advertising tells us we deserve more and better right now
Politicians tell us we have done wrong and have been wronged
TV sitcoms tell us that life problems can be solved in 22 minutes
Pundits tell us we are manipulated dupes
Facebook tells us that we are failures if others don’t “like” our witty posts

We know that this is the world waiting for our students. The desire to hide from that assault can be powerful. But at WA, we train our students to brave the barrage of conflicting ideas and ideologies, to see past empty words to the core principles that drive the message, to defend their positions with knowledge, humility, and confidence.

How do we prepare students for that world?

We teach them that truth is knowable.
We teach them to listen to each other kindly and critically.
We teach them to build on each others’ ideas.
We teach them to defend their positions rigorously.
We teach them to change their minds when faced with proof.


Last summer, 5th and 6th grade teachers received training in the Harkness method, which creates the collaborative discussion opportunity to practice these pre-rhetoric exercises. This week, Mrs. Dougherty’s 5th grade classes are using these skills in their exploration of the conflicting ideologies which led to the re-settlement of the Pilgrims.

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