Harkness Teaching by Dr. Tyler Tingley

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.


10 thoughts on “Harkness Teaching by Dr. Tyler Tingley

  1. I like the idea of free thought, always. I like the openness of the classroom you speak of. I also think that there is a danger in too much freedom in the classroom. After all, they are there to learn. It seems more then teaching we are teaching activism, rewarding participation and wasting time with method rhetoric.
    When you speak of deconstructing what people have been taught, by what standard do you judge what people have learned is wrong. “new synthesis that challenges their prior knowledge”? I always thought World War Two was open and shut. What is new to explore. This is a bit tongue-in-cheek. I often find those who talk of deconstructing history are just pushing their own history. Usually flawed and no better then that which they deconstructed.
    Also, it is often shouted that non-black people teaching history to black students is inherently flawed. Is it awkward to be teaching European history to predominately white students. How can someone outside that culture truly understand their history, their struggles. Shouldnt the same apply.

  2. Denton:

    Funny. I have been asked the question on being black and teaching European history; keep in mind that I have been there a number of times, formulated academic relationships with people there, and have extensive academic training in the field. Sure, as is the case with a number of things, there are certain topics of historiography that I know very well and have drafted seminar papers on to date and back when I was in school. But the issue of Europe is far more complicated than a tale of white Europeans. There is a global process that links to Imperialism of Asia and Africa as well as the process of decolonization that shapes European culture. If a person believes you should be black to teach black studies — my answer to that is please. That mu friend is dumb.

    My German is rough; I cannot read French, Italian, or Slav — for example, but one can draw root of historical analysis beyond the general frame of race. The construction of race is very modern in our conversation, but it does have an interesting reality in terms of how it is taught from say a black man.

    As a undergrad I took a seminar course on African history. The person that taught it was a white man; it was his area. I never thought twice that a white man is teaching me about the history of Africa.
    As for deconstruction and Socratic teaching: students should be given information then asked to make choices with it according to the evidence; it is not being a revisionist.

    Here is an example of a test question I gave my European history students that addresses your point:

    Question 6. Historians use rational scientific methods as the study of statistics and data, but their ultimate goal is to tell stories that have a plot. The way they organize the information they gather into that plot is really an interpretation or a theory about how or why something happened. Many facts seem undisputed—the defenestration of Prague happened in May 1618; World War I erupted in August 1914 – but the significance of those facts, or even the full story of what happened, is less evident than one might think.

    With the above point in mind, you are to address (on your own) four issues that are historical but difficult to assign an n exact starting point

    a. Why is it difficult to define the period called the Renaissance?
    b. Was Luther a conservative during his time?
    c. What justifies the year 1750 as a historical mark for people investing more in love than just having a family for economic survival?
    d. Catherine the Great was not as great as Peter the Great. How might a historian make an argument here?

  3. Without getting too deconstructionist, I would argue that all knowledges of history are inherently “false.” Ultimately the past is only accessible through the traces that it has left behind. These traces may be documents, ideas, archetypes (in the Jungian sense), as well as other cultural knowledge that may have been mysteriously transmitted via genes and instincts and God (or gods, if you prefer), layers of sediment forming rocks preserving artifacts, archaeological ruins and the treasures they house, etc. We can learn so much about the past by putting these sources together, but ultimately we’ll have to deal with that historiographical thorn that seems to always persist, digging its little hole into our sides: from text to context.

    What I’m getting at is this: every historian is revisionist and every historian is constantly deconstructing what they know and rebuilding it. When I say revisionist, I’m not talking about a historian having some sort of agenda that they are attempting to push by reinterpreting “fact” in light of that agenda. (Though some certainly do.) I mean that we all come at the same evidence from an infinite number of angles. While we may do our best to check our baggage at the door, at the end of the day, our worldview fits into that carry-on and ends up at least coming along for the ride, even if safely stowed in the overhead compartment. (What a stupid metaphor!) The historian is revisionist insofar as they interpret evidence in light of their own past experiences. Is that avoidable?

    As a teacher, I think it’s great to challenge students’ prior knowledge. It doesn’t mean that they will change their minds, but it does force them to rethink their position. Sometimes they’ll end up in the same place; sometimes not. Either way, the exercise is useful and helps them to articulate their understanding of a given subject.

    I remember a particularly instructive moment for me occurred during my freshman year at the University of Texas. A professor challenged something I had said about “The Fall” by asking me this question:

    “What makes you think the serpent in Genesis 3 is Satan?”

    In the end, the point is not whether I still consider the serpent in Genesis 3 to be “Satan.” The point is that I was challenged, and forced to reconstruct my understanding of the text in light of the question.

  4. Allow me to comment on the Harkness stuff.

    As an idea, I dig Harkness. I want it. I crave it. In practice, however, I have found it exceedingly difficult to use in my classroom this year.

    My primary issue is this: a few unmotivated, unprepared students can really spoil the whole scheme.

    Without finding some strategy to motivate my students to read and prepare for class, I’m not sure that I can be a successful Harkness teacher.

    What are some of the techniques that you have found useful?

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