A square-table concoction of the Harkness in my class.
The post below was written by Tyler Tingley of Phillips Exeter Academy; it addresses both the culture and intellectual vibrant nature that defines one of the oldest American institutions. After graduate school, I quickly adopted this method of classroom instruction; I have been in too many classes in which the instructor stood in front of the class pontificating with little regard to the thoughts and interpretations of students; I find this method to be highly democratic in that it promotes free inquiry. Furthermore, assuming that students are prepared to engage in such discussions, the learning process allows for different voices. This is reflective in my own personal teaching philosophy, which can be read at my webpage. Here is a preview below:
Through the teaching of history, it is my objective to first deconstruct a false knowledge of history by teaching students to build a new synthesis that challenges their prior knowledge. It is at this point in which a teacher and a student work collectively to reconstruct a new historical synthesis. Reconstructionism contends that society is in need of constant reconstruction and change, and such social change involves both a rebuilding of knowledge and how society uses that knowledge to transform the teaching and learning of materialism. Mortimer Adler, who reflects some of the qualities of the realist school of thought, proposed a Paideia method of instruction, which emphasizes a discussion/seminar style of teaching and learning. As opposed to lecture, I find the discussion/seminar method of instruction to be more liberal, hence invoking greater academic freedom of thought. Furthermore, it is here that students focus more on logic, process, synthesis, and analysis over rote memory and conclusion.
Whether it’s English or mathematics, at Phillips Exeter Academy we call all of our classes Harkness classes and our teachers Harkness teachers. Harkness identifies a table you will find at the center of every class, both literally and figuratively. Harkness Tables are oval and seat a dozen students and a teacher, but they are much more than places to sit. Classmates learn by discussing their thoughts and ideas rather than just by taking notes. Teachers participate in discussions and guide students without lecturing.
Harkness Tables originated at Exeter in 1931 when philanthropist Edward Harkness challenged the Exeter faculty to create an innovative way of teaching. The purpose of the Harkness Table was to make class more involving. The 1930s faculty also understood that Harkness Tables would make being smart more fun. They knew that discussing even your least favorite subject around the Harkness Table would make that subject more interesting. But did they know that the Harkness Table would teach students to collaborate rather than compete with each other inside and outside class? And did they know that it would make the whole community respect one another’s ideas and become a safer place to learn and live?
Even though Harkness Tables are in every class, we refer to them as the Harkness Table. That’s because the unique experience of learning at the Harkness Table transcends any individual class.
When I first came to Exeter, I had a conversation with several new students. I asked them why they had come. One senior said, “I wanted to go to a school where everyone was smart and where I could have good conversations.” As principal, that resonated with me. Around the Harkness Table we learn to have intense conversations. When somebody says, “Well, what do you think?” we all have something to say.
A lot of students choose to come here because it’s safe to be smart. When you’re sitting at the Harkness Table, there is a notion of democracy that is characterized by the quality of thoughts, efforts, and enthusiasm. The respect students and teachers feel for one another grows out of being together at the Harkness Table and extends to every aspect of their lives.
Teachers are participants in Harkness discussions and respect the pupil’s perspective. Sometimes parents think this means the teacher isn’t teaching. In fact, the teacher is demonstrating to students how to learn rather than just what to learn. Harkness teachers excel at asking questions that excite inquiry. The more students want to know, the more they learn.
The Harkness Table fosters a sense of collaboration and encouragement that continues when class is over. Students tell me they learn just as much from each other after class as they do in class. “It’s incredible how much you can learn when you’re together instead of apart,” a student said to me. Imagine school like that.