Using OneNote Classroom with the Harkness method in English Literature

Some thoughts on how to use the Harkness method effectively with OneNote classroom software.

The primacy of the text

I was lucky enough a couple of years ago to visit Philips Exeter Academy, New Hampshire (the birthplace of the Harkness method) and The Lawrenceville School, New Jersey, another private school which teaches entirely through the Harkness method. Observing English teaching colleagues there was informative in a number of ways. One was the absolute focus on the primacy of the text itself. There was an insistence on students having an unmediated, often personal response to any given text, which was actually quite refreshing and very ‘un-faddy’ for those who feel the Harkness method merely equates to non-experts offering uninformed and wishy-washy responses to a text.


The need for prior knowledge

Taking the primacy of the text as a starting point, it is also vital that students have enough prior knowledge in order to have a meaningful discussion (I dislike the term Harkness ‘debate’ for reasons I’ll come back to). In the case of English literature, let me take a 6th form class studying Hamlet as an example. Although the class may have not ever read or seen Hamlet, they have enough prior knowledge of poetry, the English language, some Shakespeare in order to have something of an informed response to the new text at hand.

The process

If we take Hamlet’s ‘O, that this too too solid/sullied flesh…’ soliloquy in Act 1 scene 2 as the ‘new’ text, I would ask the class to read it, think and make their own notes on the speech before the lesson, and ask them not to refer to any other material. This should then allow them to generate enough discussion to develop some learning about the play. For me, I would encourage note-taking as they go, although I am also aware that this may detract from the listening process: a balance to which the students must be sensitive.

The role of the teacher and using online classroom software

I have found using Microsoft’s OneNote Classroom has revolutionised my teaching and preparation (I am sure there are alternatives – I am not getting paid for product placement!). In Harkness lessons, I see the teacher’s role as follows:

  1. To act as scribe for the key parts of the discussion, which may become revision notes later on
  2. To note down areas (I do this in red) which might be developed further, or questions which come to mind which might spur a fresh area of discussion
  3. To monitor and feed back on each student’s contributions


You can get an idea of my notes in Fig 1. below.


In discussion, and embracing the silence

Students come to class expecting to discuss from the outset. They may start by outlining some areas they wish to cover, or questions they want answered, and off they go (usually after an embarrassed pregnant pause – they get over this quickly). Once I feel that the discussion has reached a point at which it is becoming circular, or covering no new ground, I stop the class, draw their attention to the notes I have made in red, which allows them a new point of departure. I would also say that by this point, I would have already allowed room for at least two more lengthy (dare I say, uncomfortable) pauses. It is vital that any class learning the Harkness method undergoes that discomfort as it is at this point that they realise that you are not going to swoop to the rescue with the ‘right’ answer, and they start to rely on their own judgement rather than seeking teacher approval. It is probably the hardest part of teaching in this way, and yet fundamental.

Once the discussion is exhausted once more, and all new prompts have been discussed, I would bring the discussion to a close and then ask the class to reflect on the process itself, especially when introducing Harkness. It is informative to hear what they feel is useful, difficult and what they have learnt.

I would then set the next homework ahead of the next lesson’s discussion.


Individual pupil feedback

It is important that students all take some ownership of the discussion process, and I use a grid like the one below (fig 2.). Students receive a tick when they either Add, Challenge or Link (thereby suggesting they have also listened), and a tick in the non-sequitur box if they make a point which they have just been waiting to say but which bears no relation to what has come before. The point is to encourage students to see dialogue as collaborative – as dance rather than debate, which can often become confrontational, and less inclusive. On a whole school level, encouraging this approach to dialogue could have enormously positive implications for interpersonal relationships and communication. Finally, there is a box for ‘star’ or ‘killer’ points, which in turn can be collated as part of the revision notes. I am then be able to give each student individualised feedback, using the online platform.


Introducing context and critics

It is only at this point that I would introduce secondary material. Having spent a good deal of time in close engagement with the primary text, students may now benefit from reading what others have said about it, especially with such a vastly-studied text as Hamlet. Many exam boards also specify that context and a range of critical views are to be investigated, so our hand is forced anyway. Contextual detail may also allow for a renewed insight into the primary text and so homework may be to read around the text, before another discussion of the same material (in this case, the soliloquy).

Although this may seem a time-consuming process – two lessons, two homeworks, as a rough idea – the message is clear – digging deeper is what we value from literary critics, rather than slavishly trying to slog through and ‘do’ the whole play.

You will have noticed that the teacher at this stage has still not offered any directed instruction. However, by acting as notetaker and prompter, their job has been to elicit a self-generated understanding of the text through discovery, dialogue, reading and enquiry. Does that mean that there is no room for being didactic? Far from it, but I would contend that the teacher’s input can come at the very end of this process, as a final alternative reading, rather than before, as some kind of oracle or sage.


Written follow-up

With this detailed discussion complete, I would expect the class then individually to consolidate their learning by putting pen to paper and writing a full commentary, or essay on the text, the best examples of which can be circulated as exemplars and discussed in later classes.


Fig 1.

An extract from my transcript of a lesson on ‘To be or not to be..’
      Comments from class in black (quotations in bold); My thoughts and questions for
further discussion in red

‘to be or not to be’ – syntax and metre is balanced, like his mind
– Hamartia – tragic flaw in the character – his indecision?
– He only makes a decision once he’s been poisoned – on instinct – irony?
‘To take arms against a sea of troubles’ – the sea is an expanse – everything is
against him
-‘slings and arrows’ – connotations of war – neverending battles (enjambment – structure helps meaning here – mimesis)
‘Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all’ – universality of his point (Axiomatic, sententious)
– Theme of Mental illness – prefigures the romantic and gothic preoccupation with psychology and Descartes and later, Freudian readings
This dualism is well presented by Kenneth Branagh’s 1990 film with double mirrors



Fig 2.

Name Add Challenge Link Non-sequitur Killer point
Student A          
Student B          






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