How I use Harkness Tables in the FSL Classroom (Part 1 of 2)

I had first learned of this technique from a colleague who teaches English. Wanting to learn more, I invited myself to one of his classes to observe this discussion format. From what I saw, students came armed with research on various points about the text under study (Shakespeare if I recall). While seated in a circle formation, students led the discussion, prompting each other and sharing their ideas. It seemed like a great method to engage my FSL students while freeing me up to assess their skills. When I first mentioned this type of discussion to my students, they were aghast: “A Harkness table…in French, madame?!?!”

I cannot profess to be an expert in this method. Nor can I say with 100% certainty that what I call a Harkness table is in fact just that. So perhaps a Harkness-inspired discussion would be a more fitting label.

In any case, here is the premise:

  1. I launch with open-ended questions based on the same topic, in this case, health and well-being: Que signifie l’expression “bien dans sa peau”? Quel est le secret d’une vie saine et équilibrée? [Voyages 2] Students are then given time to reflect upon these and write notes. This could be assigned as homework.
  2. I then divide the class into half. One half carries on the discussion while the other half is assigned a specific student to observe and then notes whether this student: asked a general question for discussion, asked specific questions of classmates, invited classmates to speak and used words in English (this is merely for the observed student to be able to look them up later). I interject only to guide them if they stall –  “N’oubliez pas de poser des questions!” – and not for language as they then become too reliant and I don’t want to interrupt the flow. This first discussion may last only 5-10 minutes, even with my prodding.
  3. The next time, I give them new questions to prepare. Once again, I divide the class up. This time, the focus is on paraphrasing their classmates’ ideas to demonstrate their listening skills. The students who are discussing now self-assess their speaking skills by tracking the elements listed in point #2. My goal is to remind them to reiterate what their classmates have said before they launch into their own thoughts. As I use this both as a speaking and a listening assessment, this step is critical. Students find it awkward; however, it demonstrates the objective clearly, and also allows other students to better track the conversation.
  4. For the final assessment, I give the students a very broad question/comment which encompasses the topics which we had discussed in class previously (i.e.Est-ce que les médias sociaux ont la responsabilité de présenter un style de vie sain?). They prepare this beforehand. During the assessment, my only job is to observe. I take many notes during this time, but I have found that recording this and listening to it again allows me to catch nuances that I may miss when it’s live.

The final result? A semi-spontaneous discussion which lasts approximately 15-20 minutes. Oh, and 17% of my students from last year said that participating in the Harkness table was the accomplishment they were the most proud of over the year.

How do you use Harkness tables in your classroom?

Look out for my next post coming soon: A Flipgrid Twist to Harkness Tables (Part 2 of 2)

Image source:

(This image was from a post about using laptops during Harkness tables. I resisted this idea at first as I thought students would be using them to translate their thoughts before speaking, but they convinced me that they didn’t have time to do this. I now allow them to access their notes if they wish as we are a 1-1 laptop school.)

2 thoughts on “How I use Harkness Tables in the FSL Classroom (Part 1 of 2)

  1. Hey Vivienne,

    I hope this finds you well. Great to see that you continue to blog. You might be interested in reading @nbendle recent post about the pinwheel discussion that she’s just implemented in her class, and even what @acampbellrogers is exploring with the tool called Parlay.

    Keep up the great work!

    1. Hi Garth,

      I find that this is a great forum to post, so merci beaucoup for having us do this as Cohort21 participants! Thanks for the leads on other discussion formats and tools. That’s exactly why I like to keep this connection!

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