Interactive Learning the Harkness Way

Updated April 04, 2018 |
Interactive Learning the Harkness Way
Students sitting in rows of desks listening to a teacher lecture? You are not likely to find this scenario in a school which uses Harkness Tables.
Students sitting in rows of desks listening to a teacher lecture? You are not likely to find this scenario in a school which uses Harkness Tables. The brainchild of wealthy industrialist Edward Harkness, an Exeter alumnus, Harkness Tables are oval tables which seat 12-18 students together with their teacher. You cannot hide in the back of the classroom which uses Harkness Tables. That's the point. Engaged students learn.
 
In ancient times teaching was collaborative - think Socrates and Quintilian - but somewhere in our Victorian-Edwardian past we got off the rails and began lining children up in regimented rows of chairs and desks. Maria Montessori and Rudolph Steiner rebelled against this sort of regimentation. Their classrooms became what we would now call activity centers.
 
 
High school lab courses such as chemistry and physics have always been interactive and hands on. Discussion of findings and research are encouraged in that collaborative environment. Every member of the class has an opinion and a finding. That is the idea behind the Harkness Table. Every member of the class is encouraged to be an active participant. Because eye contact is a critical element of this style of learning, the Harkness Table's oval shape is ideal. It allows everybody around the table to see and be seen. Students and teacher interact. The teacher facilitates without dominating the lesson. He guides and steers the learning process. Maria Montessori would be thrilled.
 

"Everyone Gets A Say At The Table

The Harkness method, with its small group setting, comes with an obligation to come to class prepared. Otherwise, it will be pretty obvious who did and didn't do their homework. Speaking up at the Harkness table, however, is just as important as drawing out others around you.

Remember that one kid in your high school class who never knew when to keep quiet?

"I used to be one of them," one student told me during my recent visit to Exeter. "I was talking a lot. But Exeter teaches you more than talking. It teaches you to listen."

The entire day I spent at Exeter, I don't think I heard one student talk over another. Students allowed their peers to finish phrasing a question or developing an idea before jumping in, just as well as they remembered to cite the text. They are encouraged to wait three seconds before responding to what the last person said, and to begin their contribution by repeating part of what the previous person said.

During my visit, I witnessed students' "discussion etiquette training" in action, on even the most minute of scales.

English instructor Becky Moore, who has taught at Exeter for more than 24 years, began her 200-level English class with a warm-up: She challenged the students to recite the alphabet as a group. No one person could say two letters in a row, and if two people talked at the same time, the group had to start over. It began, "A," "B," "C," and so on, at random.

Halfway through the alphabet, the students reached a standstill. No one spoke. Finally, a small girl wearing glasses piped in with the next letter.

Why the lull? A student later explained, 'Hillary was the only one who hadn't spoken yet, so I knew not to talk.'"

From the authorized maker of the Harkness Tables used at Exeter:

"Harkness Tables originated at Exeter in 1931 when philanthropist Edward Harkness challenged the Exeter faculty to create an innovative way of teaching that would include every child in the classroom learning experience. The result was an oval table that ensured that every student could be seen and every voice could be heard. Over time, the Academy settled on the current configuration of 6'-11" wide by 11' long with 12 equally-spaced slide-out surfaces for test taking."

Harkness Tables are widely used in prep schools here and abroad. Does the school you are looking at use Harkness Tables? Find out.
 
Questions? Contact us on Twitter. @privateschoolreview

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