One of the issues that plagues my debate classes, especially the beginners, is that phenomenon that I think of as “Squeaky Wheel Syndrome” that happens in our group discussions. It seems that in every class there is a kid (or group of kids) that speak up first, eagerly share the quote from the article they read, or just love to speak first. These kids have arms like vibrating trees - sticking up high and waving for attention. They NEEEEED to be called on. And share the insight. And ask their question. And answer first. And I love them, they are the ones who never leave your questions dangling with an awkward silence, they keep things moving, they give inexhaustible examples of whatever you are trying to discuss. BUT, I also grieve for the silent kid, that seeker of invisibility who has stumbled into that extrovert’s paradise, the debate class. Sure, I can just call on the quiet kid, but I hate that “on-the-spot” kind of cold-call that freaks out some of my favorite introverts, and quite honestly, I really believe the larger life skill is for them to recognize that their contribution is valuable and needed by the group and find opportunities to choose to contribute based upon their own timeframe. I remind myself every day to not just “grease the squeaky wheels” but to pull the quiet ones into the game, to ask their opinions, to not assume that silence is lack of thought. One of the tools that has helped me to do this is The Harkness Method.
A lot of colleagues use Socratic Circles and that’s great too, but I’ve enjoyed the simplicity and total inclusivity of Harkness. A key feature that I enjoy about this method, which, at its heart is simply a formula for a great conversation, is that it places responsibility for including everyone in the conversation on the other participants, not just the teacher. The founder of the method considered it to be "education for the boardroom" and it is fundamentally different from the socratic method. This overview is a great place to start your reading on Harkness. Your class sits in a circle to converse. Every kid keeps a chart that tracks the flow of the discussion. Usually the discussion follows an assigned reading or research topic and the teacher begins the conversation with a guiding question or allows the students to initiate the question, and discussion begins. When students notice that they are dominating the discussion, they should ask a question to draw in a quiet person. If students notice they are quiet then they should look for opportunities to speak up. Something about this method's charting makes the student who seeks to melt into the background instantly visible and more likely to be included, but in an authentic process rather than a “gotcha” moment generated by an authority figure. I’ve found this mindful conversation practice infuses my debate team with kids who look around the periphery of any group and invite the quiet kids on the fringes to share an opinion. After we have several conversations all together with me moderating and nudging things along, I’m able to have groups of 8-10 kids initiate and moderate their own conversations when a new topic is announced or when a strategy discussion needs to happen. The Harkness training that the kids do in Debate 1 grows into more advanced Varsity Debate strategy discussions that are managed by students but still remain civil and balanced (or mostly so.) I find that I can work with another group but see at a glance when I walk by a Harkness table who is contributing to the conversation by checking their diagrams.
This Harkness method is a particularly valuable tool in a debate classroom for discussions of newly announced topics, analysis of "hot topics" in extemp, and Congress docket items. But the biggest payoff is to give our very competitive, eager-to-do-verbal-combat debaters the eyes to see the quiet ones and seek their contribution to a discussion. And, possibly most importantly, to have those introverts' voices added to the conversation at the table.
The Old Coach