What the Harkness Method is

The Harkness Method promotes the idea of each student taking responsibility for his or her own education, with teachers acting largely as facilitators.

September 23, 2010 05:43
2 minute read.
Traditional teaching set-up vs. the Harkness model

311_Harkness Method. (photo credit: The Jerusalem Post)


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In 1930, philanthropist Edward Stephen Harkness donated $5,800,000 to Phillips Exeter Academy. In a nowfamous letter to the school’s headmaster, Harkness suggested using some of the money to rethink conventional classroom instruction and come up with something new.

“What I have in mind,” he wrote, “is [a classroom] where [students] could sit around a table with a teacher who would talk with them and instruct them by a sort of tutorial or conference method, where [each student] would feel encouraged to speak up. This would be a real revolution in methods.”

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A grateful Phillips Exeter Academy immediately began to put Harkness’s proposed “revolution” in motion by hiring carpenters to custom-build oval wooden tables large enough to seat 12 students and a teacher.

According to Exeter folklore, Harkness sat himself down at a prototype table and found that he could not see the eyes of every other person seated at the table. In order to correct this defect, the tables were redesigned to be rounder. The carpenters found that they had to build the tables inside the classrooms themselves, as the completed “Harkness tables” could not fit through the classroom doors or windows.

In one Exeter classroom after another, the traditional rows of students’ desks facing a teacher and a blackboard at the front of the room were ripped out and replaced by the new tables. Traditional lectures were replaced by discussions, and the distance between teacher and students was removed. There was no head of table, dominant position or “power seat.” With everyone equally visible, everyone was expected to participate and interact – no relaxing, daydreaming or hiding. Learning became dynamic as students discovered how to share ideas and listen to one another respectfully.

In time, this basic departure from the norm developed into what is now known as the Harkness Method, in which students learn to think critically, listen analytically, and interact respectfully. Most importantly, however, the Harkness Method promoted the idea of each student taking responsibility for his or her own education, with teachers acting largely as facilitators.

And yet, although it soon became the cornerstone of Exeter education and eventually spread to more than 40 influential American public and private schools, the Harkness Method failed to influence mainstream high school education in the US.

The founders and teachers of the Havruta School are hoping it will have a greater effect here in Israel.

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