Harkness Method

Authentic Harkness discussion tables in ten Shore classrooms dramatically enhance teaching and learning for fifth through ninth grade students. A video shows the tables in use in history, science, and English classrooms as well as a fifth grade homeroom.

The Harkness table design and teaching methodology were created at Phillips Exeter Academy in the 1930s, 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 wood table that ensured that every student could be seen and every voice could be heard. Today, authorized reproductions of the original Harkness table are produced by a single company, New Hampshire’s D.R. Dimes, whose artisans built the tables for Shore. They were painstakingly crafted from locally-grown hardwoods and finished in an environmentally-friendly, yet extremely durable, coating that can stand up to many decades of classroom use.

Shore faculty members have for years incorporated the Harkness methodology into a unique style of student-centered, discussion-based teaching, which begins as early as fourth and fifth grades. The tables in Shore’s science, history, and English classrooms enhance the school’s leadership in a method of learning that puts children at the center of their own education. Just as tablet computers and SmartBoards are tools that facilitate learning, so too is the distinctive oval Harkness table, with its carefully calibrated proportions to promote eye contact and human interaction, a transformational piece of technology.

English teacher Sander Van Otterloo notes, “I have a sign in my room that states, ‘The table does not discriminate.’ It's a simple statement, but there is something powerful about the notion that while the table's role is to bring us together, we are the authors of the conversation. It is our responsibility to be honest, open, and encouraging to everyone at the table. After all, we are all sitting face to face, and eye to eye. Sitting at the table literally and metaphorically levels the playing field. I am no longer the sage on the stage. I am part of the community at the table, and everyone's voice counts equally.”

Agrees history teacher Pat Coyle, “I always thought—and I know you will find many Shore teachers who feel—that discussion-based teaching shouldn’t be the exclusive preserve of high school and college students. Sixth graders, seventh graders, eighth and ninth graders—even fourth and fifth graders—they can all talk to each other, learn how to question the text or the data, and come to their own conclusions together around the table.”

Of the use of Harkness discussion in his science classroom, where a Harkness table supplements traditional lab work surfaces, Oliver Hay attests, “Students are now driving the discussion of new topics. They look to each other more, and me less, to analyze data, to solve problems and questions, and to draw conclusions. Remarkably, students are learning more from the hands-on work that we do because they use dedicated discussion time around the table to reflect on what they did, observed, and discovered. They are making connections with the material, and with each other, in ways that I’ve not seen before.”

“It’s authentic learning,” says Upper School Social Studies Chair Gwen Sneeden of the Harkness methodology. “Sitting 12 to 14 middle school students around a table and asking them to think and talk combines the very best of what this age group wants: to be treated with respect, to be in charge, and to talk.”

Sneeden continues, “The Harkness pedagogy interacts fluidly with the cognitive growth spurts and the need for energy release that middle schoolers are experiencing. When my students gather at the Harkness table for a discussion, each of them knows that his or her voice matters. They are part of a collaborative dynamic that uses extended conversations, which help them understand their ideas are real, valued, and meaningful. Most importantly, these students thrive when they are at the center of their learning. The Harkness approach puts them there.”