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Teaching activity

American decline discussion for Oxbridge prep using the Harkness Method

Mike McCartney

12th October 2021

I've just conducted another Oxbridge tutorial session via this method

Well, it was a rather grandly titled "Masterclass" session aimed at not just those intent on applying for POLIS/HSPS at Cambridge or Mod Hist and Pol at Oxford, but anyone intent on studying Politics at undergraduate level.

Rather than conducting the session in the normal didactic way, I used the Harkness Method. If you are not familiar with this, I have lopped the following off the Historical Association website, because they can explain it far batter than I can!

"Hark the herald tables sing! Achieving higher-order thinking with a chorus of sixth-form pupils

On 9 April 1930, a philanthropist called Edward Harkness donated millions of dollars to the Phillips Exeter Academy in the USA. He hoped that his donation could be used to find a new way for students to sit around a table with their teacher and ‘feel encouraged to speak up'. This led to the development of what is now known as the Harkness method"

Source: The Harkness Method: achieving higher-order thinking with sixth-form / Historical Association (

I issued some advance reading/watching. These were mostly articles/videos that I mentioned in a previous post.

See here: American decline: Global Politics and useful Oxbridge prep | tutor2u

So, yes, there was a bit of an American theme.

I also added a few selected chapters from:

Norris and Inglehart: Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism.

Fukuyama: The End of History and the Last Man

Huntingdon: The Clash of Civilisations

Sardar: Why do People Hate America?

Churchwell: Behold, America

And this article from the Washington Post by Robert Kagan:

Opinion | Our constitutional crisis is already here - The Washington Post

And it was from this that I asked the first question.

"The United States is heading into its greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, with a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves." Discuss.

And from there, discussion flowed.

If you want more insight into the Harkness Method, I can recommend you check out this site: Harkness Discussions in 3 Simple Steps - Spark Creativity (

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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