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Upper School » The Harkness Method

The Harkness Method

Focus on the Upper School:

An Honorable Mention

There's one thing we know for sure: our Upper School students work hard.

They tirelessly endeavor to celebrate and highlight the opinions of those they share with in the classroom. The Harkness Method is just one of the ways that Upper Schoolers do just that. Former Head of School and Teacher Killian Barefoot explains just how this works on a daily basis in students with diverse learning styles, personality traits and speaking tendencies.

“Teachers have yet another tool to add to their arsenal of discussion methods that allows for student participation in a dialogue with the teacher. It doesn’t replace lectures, projects or assessments — it enhances and is used in conjunction with all three. It is a tool for learning critical reading and discussion skills.”

While reading a text entitled Monkey Journey to the West (about Buddhist Scriptures traveling to China), Barefoot asked a carefully formulated question to incite a response from her class. After students spoke up for the first time, they were asked to simply listen to their peers and not contribute any more commentary until everyone had offered a thought.

"The quiet ones are often the ones with the best ideas," Barefoot concluded. 

This is precisely why The Burlington School attracts the diverse group of students it does. Everyone — every student, regardless of background, is welcome here. While practicing the Harkness Method, teachers create a place for students to have a voice. Students become conscious of their roles in dialogue - outspoken ones ask quiet ones direct questions. This particular learning environment helps students change the relationship with each other. "Passivity was gone – the rest of the class had to have a higher level of communication than they have ever had all year. They liked that I was participating but not controlling," Barefoot said. "They felt like there was a safety net there."

By practicing this method, students realize that they can't hide; their input is required for forward progress to occur in group discussions. The instructor modifies their involvement as well; preparedness on the teacher's behalf gives the teacher more time to reflect and direct the conversation.

The Harkness Method is about students having a voice, Barefoot says. "It’s an academic voice, it’s a cerebral voice that they get to practice using before they are really asked to used that voice like they do in the adult world every day. This [type of learning] is another level of ownership. You can blame no one other than yourself as a student for not getting what you need from the material. You are driving the whole ship. This is why this method is transformative."

Two students share a moment of clarity while having small group dialogue.

If you have questions about the Harkness Method and its implementation at The Burlington School, please contact Killian Barefoot, The Burlington School's Upper School Academic Dean at