At Isaac Newton Academy our aim is to equip every student with the knowledge, learning power and character necessary for success at university and beyond. Learning is an active and exciting process in which every student participates and has a chance to lead.


What is the Harkness Method?

The Harkness Method is an intrinsic part of our approach to teaching and learning and links closely to our focus on developing learning power and character through our BRIDGES programme (Bravery, Resourcefulness, Integrity, Discovery, Grit, Emotional Intelligence and Self-Discipline). This programme has been designed to summarise the main character traits and learning dispositions that are fundamental to being a successful and resilient life-long learner and to achieving fulfilment in life.


Philanthropist Edward S Harkness established the Harkness Method of teaching in the 1930s at Phillips Exeter Academy in Boston, USA, developing a style of teaching that encourages student-led discussion and questioning. We have been incredibly fortunate over the six years that we have been open to build some excellent links with Phillips Exeter, which has allowed us to learn from their exemplary practice and inspired us to think creatively about how we can adapt the method for our school.


Letting students take the lead

The principles underpinning the pedagogy of Harkness teaching are teacher as facilitator and students as collaborative learners. Students take a lead in the discussion-based environment, questioning, discussing and using reasoning skills to develop their knowledge and understanding of the subject matter, placing students at the centre of the learning process and encouraging them to learn from one another.


Under the guidance of the teacher, the instruction focuses on the ideas and questions brought to the table by the students themselves – what happens in the class depends on what the students have done before the class begins. Thus Harkness comes with an obligation: the student has to be prepared and being prepared means having done the pre-reading or preparation and having thought about it too. We believe that focused dialogue is a key component of learning and develops students’ literacy skills. In planning their lessons, teachers are expected to create opportunities for more varied and dialogic interaction patterns to occur, including Harkness discussions and collaborative learning.


The important skills and qualities necessary for students to be effective Harkness learners are also part of our BRIDGES programme. The Harkness Method creates a learning culture of enquiry and collaborative discussion, which goes way beyond the lesson. It requires selfmotivation, a love of learning and a willingness to share your own ideas as well as being open to others. 


Developing the skills to be active learners

"At first glance the role of the teacher in a Harkness lesson could be misunderstood as being somewhat passive. But deeper observation will uncover carefully selected well-timed questions that require students to make connections to their prior learning, build on their peer’s contributions, and remain actively engaged in discussion. In-depth subject knowledge becomes a key factor. To be completely open to the students taking the learning in their own direction, you need to be comfortable with a little uncertainty in terms of the journey the class will take to arrive at the intended outcome. The teacher’s contribution stretches and challenges the students to think outside of the box." Ms Abbott-Jones


At Key Stage 3, students have a discrete Harkness Skills lesson for one hour a week. During these lessons the students explore the skills needed in order to effectively take ownership of their learning and the learning of their peers. The curriculum is split into three areas:

  • Developing communication skills.
  • Critical thinking and application of knowledge.
  • Democratising the classroom.


Students are expected to prepare for their lessons by reading, annotating, researching and preparing questions for the discussion. By doing so, students learn to make their voices central to the learning environment, actively exploring the answers through discussion and collaboration. From their own ideas gained from independent reading and their constructive challenge of others, their understanding of the topics discussed is deepened.


Getting students ready for discussion-based learning

For the first term of Year 7, there is a very specific focus on the basic communication skills required and the “rules” around the table. Students learn about the importance of their voice around the table, how to project that voice and how to value the voice of their peers.


Demonstrating active listening, avoiding domination of discussion, and deciding when to contribute and when to let others make the contribution, are all skills being developed at this stage. This phase of the skill development requires courage for some and self-regulation for others – the BRIDGES dispositions are explicitly referred to and modelled so that students can reflect about their own feelings and empathise with the feelings of others.


During the second term, students build on the communication skills that they have been rehearsing in term one. Lessons are planned to submerge students into topics that require research being brought to the table and students are encouraged to refer to research to support their contribution to the discussion.


They are also encouraged to ask questions of one another in order to deepen understanding of a topic, and to link their points to the contributions of other students around the table. This is where the Harkness Method really begins to shape into something exciting. Sitting back and observing students question each other, question their research and question their own understanding of the learning is very rewarding for all involved.


As students approach the third and final term of discrete Harkness skills lessons, they are now obviously having a positive impact on each other’s learning through engaging in rich relevant discussion. Students are now confident communicators, addressing the class as opposed to the teacher, their voices and contributions have become central to the learning environment, and they are becoming very comfortable with the idea of personal challenge.


Students are encouraged to be open-minded and curious, and the Harkness Method really lends itself to encouraging independence and a love of learning.


Isaac Newton Academy won Secondary School of the Year Award at the 2018 Shine a Light Awards, a national awards scheme that celebrates innovative work and excellent practice in supporting young people’s communication development, run by Pearson with the Communication Trust.