Apr 18, 2012

Harkness Tweeter - Twitter Discussions for Class

Earlier in the year an esteemed colleague of ours, Jennifer Isgitt, expounded on the quite splendid instructional technique called the "Harness Disucssion" made famous by the Phillips Exeter Academy.  From the latter link:
"  It's a way of learning: everyone comes to class prepared to share, discuss, and discover, whether the subject is a novel by William Faulkner or atomic and molecular structure. There are no lectures.
The general idea is that lectures are replaced with a structured discussion during which students discover the minds of their colleagues, air their own thoughts, and learn the content at hand. Yet, for what seems like such a fantastic method for a group of much less than 30 students, I have struggled to implement this mechanism into my classes (most of which exceed that number by a healthy margin).

But it still is a great idea, and I'll suggest that by utilizing a little technology that this tool can be accessible to large classes. Let's start by so-naming this adaption "Harkness Tweeter" (please dismiss what visions you may have of plaid-coated professors...)

What you need

  1. Twitter accounts for yourself and as many students in your classroom as possible
  2. Tweetdeck, which can be downloaded here or from the same site used on the web
  3. Phone/Computers which can tweet (1 per student is nice)
  4. An internet connection that doesn't block Twitter

What you'll do

Have all the students log into Twitter. From there you have some freedom. Here's one way to do it:
  • Tweet a conversation starter from your own account: What's so special about supernovae? #astroTalk1234
Notice that I just made up a random hashtag. Direct your students to tweet comments in line with the topic, and each must end with the same hashtag.

  • Pull up TweetDeck onto your projector and show the students all the tweets with that hashtag. Students can also search for tweets with that hashtag from their phones to keep up with the conversation there. 
  • Direct your students to compliment other student's comments by re-tweeting them or replying to specific tweets they find particularly interesting. An example conversation may go like:
Mr. Anderson: What's so special about supernovae? #astroTalk1234
Michelle: I read that a supernova is the result of a white dwarf exploding #astroTalk1234 
Nick: @Michelle Well, it could also come from the core collapse of a massive star #astroTalk1234 
Michelle@Nick good point Nick, thanks! #astroTalk1234 

 Students will love the personalized discussions that emerge. As a teacher, you can monitor who has posted quality material and who hasn't. If someone is just sitting there with nary a comment to their name, force a tweet their way.
Mr. Anderson@Susan why would a star's core collapse... that's weird #astroTalk1234 
You can't interrupt people on twitter; students will have all the time they want to formulate a thought and respond to it. Many studies have shown that these types of discussions significantly improve participation from students who would otherwise be labeled as "shy."

Most importantly, a class of any size can handle twitter discussions. If you have a student without a phone/computer, just have them write down comments on a piece of paper and tweet them yourself! Students sick at home or on vacation can still participate.

Discussions are easy to grade (if you need to grade them). Assign points every time a student replies respectfully to another comment, asks questions directed specifically at other students, etc. Students should have to collect enough "points" to receive a satisfactory grade. The great thing about these discussions is that they are saved for you to look at later in the day. Student's parents can also tune in from work if they want.

Worried about students using profanity or being disrespectful to their peers? Do you worry about this during normal classroom discussions? Twitter isn't going to promote or discourage rude behavior - that's up to you as the teacher to direct. We should teach students how to be respectful on the internet just as we have taught them to be respectful in conversation.

So, give it a try. Give your students a bit of a notice before the discussion takes place so they have time to set up twitter accounts. I think this refreshing take on the already successful Harkness Discussion technique may rejuvenate collaboration in your classroom.


  1. D- so glad you are blogging! You have such terrific ideas. I'm excited to see that you have adapted Jenn's discussion strategy to engage your digital natives ;-)

  2. Thanks a bunch! I'm hoping others can benefit from these thoughts some how...

  3. Whoa, this is just awesome teaching methodology !! kudos to the guy who came up with it.