Teaching Civil Discourse through Harkness

In an era of polarized politics, social media echo chambers, and growing national division, teaching students how to respectfully challenge and discuss differing points of view is more important than ever. Using the Harkness Method as a form of assessment is one way that Shipley teachers are helping students learn how to engage in civil discourse—a skill in short supply these days.  

The Harkness Method is a student-centered, discussion-based approach to teaching & learning that was developed in the 1930s at Phillips Exeter Academy. At Shipley, humanities teachers have adopted and adapted the Harkness Method to suit their subject matter and students. Whether it’s eighth graders comparing and contrasting the merits of ancient Meso-American cultures and their sociopolitical systems; tenth graders exploring the themes of love, mental health, racism, and good vs. bad in Shakespeare’s Othello; or eleventh graders analyzing the success of the Progressive Era in American history—Harkness discussions are valuable across grade levels and disciplines. 

Though some logistics may differ from class to class and teacher to teacher, the gist remains the same. Students submit questions to be explored with their classmates in a structured conversation, while teachers listen attentively and track the discussion, only intervening when the group needs to refocus or limit side conversations.

Students must demonstrate understanding of the course material through the accuracy of their claims and by referencing primary sources or quoting from their texts. More importantly, however, they are assessed on their ability to listen to one another, show critical thinking, and allow for a variety of viewpoints and voices by respectfully disagreeing or effectively building on others’ arguments.

Upper School History Teacher Kate Gillin regularly assigns Harkness discussions in her classes. She says, “We need more civil discourse. We need differences of opinion, but we also need to learn how to respond respectfully when we disagree, to keep an open mind, to allow people to have their say, but also to allow people to evolve their thinking.”

By teaching our students to engage in difficult conversations with courage and grace we are preparing them to shape a better, more civil world. Who could argue with that?


The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.