Harkness Discussion of Just War Theory and the World Wars

Posted on 03.12.2015


This past week in AP World History I introduced the concept of Just War Theory to the class as we explored Period 6 of the AP World History Curriculum.  Specifically, themes surrounding WWI and WWII.  Students engaged in a Harkness style discussion applying Just War Theory concepts to WWI and WWII.  To prep, I gave them a research packet that they had 2 nights to complete (in addition to the AP textbook reading on both wars).  The understanding is that they would collect historical evidence they can apply to the discussion in class.  In this packet, students also were given the discussion questions I posted on the board during the class so they could focus their comments.

The general ground rules are laid out in a Harkness Discussion Handout students received earlier in the year.  This model of holding discussions is fantastic – it allows for maximum participation and very rich discussion that builds ideas and concepts.  A great post on Harkness Discussions is at Luke Walker’s blog, he’s a brilliant WHAP teacher that inspired me to give this a shot earlier in the year.  Harkness discussions take a bit of prepping for but end up being very very rich in what the students do with it.

Harkness NotesOverall, this one went very well.  The lines between students show areas where conversation flowed and when a student referred to a peer’s ideas and used them in some way.  There were times when a bunch of students tried to talk at once, I typically didn’t draw any line because they were working against each other in enriching the discussion.  Students drove the conversation and I only had to interject when I felt a point needed further discussion or to move the conversation to the next topic (so we could have enough time in class to talk about all 3 categories).

Points (or check marks) are awarded when students make a relevant point using historical evidence.  There were times when students spoke, but did not use enough historical evidence to substantiate their claim or idea.  Many interesting points were brought up which I tried to list at the bottom of the sheet.  Some highlights were when one student went to around to whisper to other students to include more quiet ones.

Next time I will let one of the more active students be the facilitator; I will also point out that the best parts of the discussion was when students asked each other for clarifying evidence.  Simply making a great point about Just War Theory was not enough, providing evidence made the conversation much more rich.  Looking at the chart it’s clear that certain patterns emerged; overall, the class earned a 87% on this assignment because some students were not engaged as much as others.

This model of discussion felt really authentic, and built a foundation for a more collaborative history class that uses historical thinking skills in a authentic way.  I say WELL DONE to my students!

Posted in: Methods