Seminar approach engages students

Exclusive private school Phillips Exeter has used the Harkness approach to learning since 1930. This is a synergistic approach to problem solving and learning where teachers serve more as coaches or moderators, allowing students to explore subjects through discussion and collaboration.

This recent article discussed how Exeter was sharing the approach in San Diego recently, and asked the question: Can this approach be used in public schools with larger classes?

The answer, unequivocally, is yes – and, in fact, it has been at work in Milford classrooms for over 20 years. I talked with Mrs. Allison Willson, veteran English teacher, to learn more about how what she calls the “seminar approach” works.

English class is a perfect place for small-group discussion, as is the new AP Seminar class, AP US History, and many others. As teachers work to help students master the 21st Century skill of Collaboration, working and exploring information together becomes very important. Mrs. Willson says, “We don’t participate in (what we like to fondly call) ‘edu-tainment.’ We are there to guide the students to their own discovery about a topic.”

“Edu-tainment” is more commonly known as the “stand-and-deliver” method, where the teacher chooses the information to be communicated and delivers it in a standard lecture or question-answer approach. With this method, every class is under the control and direction of the teacher.

Contrast this with the seminar approach, where students are “in charge” of their own class. “Most English teachers require some sort of seminar prep to be completed prior to the seminar,” Mrs. Willson explains. “That prep can include creating discussion questions, producing analysis, pulling significant quotes, or even consulting outside sources.” This prep can vary from seminar to seminar, depending on the topic, grade level, academic level, and other factors.

This allows students to go in whatever direction the discussion takes them – and each class can have its own unique discussion. Mrs. Willson continues, “Now I [the teacher] am there to guide, to redirect, to probe. If the class seems to be headed in a direction is completely off topic, I can bring them back. If they get stuck, I can redirect them to a new topic. If a student makes a statement that is vague, I can probe for more details. But I’ve had classes where I don’t say a word.”

This approach is also quite beneficial to draw in what Mrs. Willson calls the “reluctant student,” the one who isn’t comfortable jumping in to discussions. While it’s not always easy, she says, the prep allows them to “turn to that reluctant student and ask him/her to read and explain his/her favorite quote … or reveal something that s/he found in a literary criticism. That way, the student can read what s/he wrote off the seminar prep and still contribute to the process.”

The move to “teacher as facilitator” rather than “teacher as instructor” is something Mrs. Willson feels is very beneficial to students, whether it’s whole group discussion, small groups, or other activities. And while the approach can be applied in any subject, teachers must be careful to be well-prepped and to alternate with other methods to keep students engaged and excited.

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