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A Look At The Harkness Method Of Teaching

In Uganda, classroom lessons are conducted by way of teachers at the head of the classroom leading the discussion or dictating notes, while students sit in rows.

At the end of the session students are given an opportunity to ask questions for clarification on any issues they need to understand. This method however, does not involve participation of every student in the class, particularly with the class sizes in the country.
Harkness Method-Teaching-Schoolnet-Uganda

At Philips Exeter Academy in Massachusetts, US, a model of teaching called the Harkness method was established in the 1930s, which calls for an oval table in every classroom. The method places students in charge of their own learning. Schools around the world have adapted its pedagogy.


Edward S. Harkness was an American philanthropist whose family was once the largest holder of Standard Oil stocks after the Rockefellers. He gave away an estimated $129 million before his death, including a $5.8 million contribution to Philips Exeter Academy.

In his endowment to Exeter in 1930, Harkness challenged the school to use the money to develop a revolutionary method of teaching and learning. He hoped to move away from the age-old system of students sitting in rows and teachers lecturing at the head of the classroom.

The school came back with a three-pronged proposal; to limit the class size to 12, to have students lead the discussions, and an oval-shaped table to stand in the centre of the room. The oval shaped table was named in the philanthropist’s honour, and it was aimed at making students and the teacher equal. They sit at the same height, can see one another from any seat at the table, and have “no corners to hide behind,” as Harkness put it.

For more than 80 years, this system has served Exeter students in and outside the classroom. If standardized testing scores are any indication of the Harkness method’s success, it’s worth noting that Exeter students averaged an SAT (Student Aptitude Test) score of 2107 out of 2400, a full 610 points higher than the national average.

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Equal Participation

A key merit of the system, with its small group setting, is the requirement for students to come to class prepared. It is quite easy for the entire group to identify 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. Students allow their peers to finish phrasing a question or developing an idea before jumping in, just as well as they remember to refer to their reading sources. In a usual class setting students 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.

Harkness Spreads Around The World

Today, Edward S. Harkness’ dream of a student-centered teaching method reaching far beyond Exeter is being realized.

Exeter offers seven on-campus conferences for teachers, allowing them to sit in on summer classes and learn best practices in implementing a discussion-based pedagogy. Annually, over 200 schools from 16 countries send representatives to Exeter The Exeter Bulletin.

And at Exeter, the Harkness method continues to evolve. Each department adapts the system in a way that fits its curriculum.

The Harkness method is far from a “one size fits all” teaching system — just as every student’s needs are unique. But when it works, it sure works well.

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