Harkness tables are taking over campus. And they’re here to stay.
Classrooms at King’s Academy are looking a lot different since the introduction of shiny new Harkness tables that have replaced traditional desks throughout the Academy building this past year. To accommodate this shift in much more than just décor, the entire King’s faculty underwent intensive professional development training on how to implement the innovative Harkness method of teaching — or, as Dean of the Faculty John Leistler prefers to call it, “approach” — that complements the tables of the same name.
“Harkness is a unique pedagogy that creates powerful interest and a deeper understanding in students,” explains education consultant and 15-year teaching veteran Alexis Wiggins, who administered the comprehensive training session at King’s.
According to Wiggins, the method achieves the “ultimate purpose” of school-based education: creating curious, inquiry-based and independent life learners who have real relationships with knowledge.
To help students reach this milestone, Wiggins designed the “spider web” graphic, a discussion map that gauges the flow of conversation in class. Based on the acronym for Synergetic Process Independent Developed Exploration Rubric, the process trains students to work together in their problem-solving and self-evaluate the learning process along the way, creating authentic collaborators and communicators.
“It isn’t meant to replace the traditional method of teaching, but rather achieve a new balance,” says Wiggins. “Educators recognize that it’s a different kind of world today and students need to be prepared for an unknown future; they need to learn a certain set of skills in order to be successful.”
Skills that can’t be acquired in a traditional chalk and talk classroom.
So what exactly does a Harkness classroom look like? At first glance, students sit around a large, oval table in a relaxed setting to discuss the material. But they do more than go through the content; they debate ideas with their peers, ask their own questions and make discoveries independently. They challenge one another, draw conclusions and are held accountable for their learning. The teacher, though always present, takes a back seat and rarely intervenes – only providing support and ensuring the group remains on track.
“It is teaching, for the adult, with our mouths shut,” as Leistler puts it. “Harkness teaching puts the student at the center of developing meaning. It’s experiential and it allows students to conceive through their own interpretation of something.”
At King’s, the tables are currently housed in over 20 classrooms dedicated to the humanities, but the Harkness approach isn’t limited to subjects in that particular field. Teachers in other departments, such as Department of Physical and Life Sciences Faculty Member Alexander Funnel, have quickly jumped on the innovative bandwagon.
“There’s no rote memorization with this type of learning,” says Funnel, who has applied an approach modelled on the Harkness method in his honors physics class well before the tables arrived to campus. “Students produce knowledge and it tends to stay with them longer. That’s much more valuable.”
That King’s has taken this on as an initiative speaks volumes about the kind of learning at the crux of the school’s mission, adds Wiggins.
“It’s important to have people who really understand how to collaborate, how to behave ethically, work as a team and see the big picture,” she said. “King’s is a school that will produce a lot of movers and shakers. Its alumni will go into things that will ultimately help solve a lot of the world’s problems, particularly in this region.”
Where did the name come from?
Edward Harkness (above), an American philanthropist who sought to reform education in the United States.
Where did it originate?
Philips Exeter Academy in the 1930s. Harkness made a gift to the school in an effort to begin reinventing the pedagogical techniques at American boarding schools. In his own words:
“What I have in mind 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.”
Which schools have adopted it?
Over 40 of the world’s top educational institutions, including Deerfield Academy, Phillips Andover Academy, Miss Porter’s School, Choate Rosemary Hall, The American School in London, Seoul Foreign School, The Hotchkiss School, St. Paul’s School and King’s Academy!