image illustrating the Harkness Table method, showcasing a diverse group of students engaged in a lively discussion around an oval-shaped table, with the teacher facilitating the conversation in a collaborative and inclusive environment

Harkness Table Method (Teaching Method Explained)

The Harkness Table method sprang from the vision of Edward Harkness, a philanthropist who, in 1930, presented Phillips Exeter Academy with a challenge along with his donation.

He imagined a classroom where students engaged in deep, democratic discussions, learning from each other under the guidance of a teacher.

This round or oval table setup, where no head sits, symbolizes a circle of equality, pushing the boundaries of traditional education.

The Classroom Dynamic

At the heart of the Harkness Table method is the physical table itself, around which students sit facing one another. This arrangement breaks down the hierarchical structure of conventional classrooms, placing the teacher as a guide rather than a lecturer.

The dialogue flows freely, with the course of discussion often led by students’ questions and insights. It’s akin to sitting at a family dinner table, where conversations meander through topics, each member contributing to the feast of ideas.

Learning Through Discussion

Engagement is the name of the game in a Harkness classroom. Students are not passive recipients of knowledge but active participants, diving into the material with curiosity and critical thinking. They learn to listen as much as they speak, honing their ability to analyze, debate, and synthesize information.

It’s not just about finding the right answer but exploring the many paths that lead to deeper understanding.

The Role of the Teacher

In this environment, teachers transform into facilitators, curating a space where students feel safe to express their thoughts and take intellectual risks. They throw the ball into the students’ court, encouraging them to ask questions and seek answers together.

The teacher’s expertise becomes a resource, not a monologue, guiding the discussion subtly without dominating it.

Subject Flexibility

The beauty of the Harkness method is its adaptability across disciplines. Whether unraveling a complex math problem, dissecting a piece of literature, or debating historical interpretations, the approach remains effective.

It encourages students to see connections between subjects, fostering a holistic educational experience.

Assessment in a Harkness Classroom

Measuring student progress in a Harkness classroom goes beyond traditional exams and quizzes.

Teachers assess students on their participation, their ability to contribute meaningfully to discussions, and their development of critical thinking and communication skills. It’s about growth over time, not just snapshots of performance.

Challenges and Considerations

Implementing the Harkness method is not without its hurdles. Class sizes must be manageable to ensure every voice can be heard, demanding significant resources.

Moreover, the success of the method relies on a culture of respect and openness, which teachers and students must cultivate together. It’s a journey that requires patience, commitment, and a willingness to learn from one another.

The Impact on Students

Students who experience the Harkness method often emerge as confident thinkers and speakers, equipped with the skills to navigate complex problems and diverse perspectives. They learn the value of collaboration, the importance of listening, and the power of articulate expression.

In essence, they’re prepared not just for academic pursuits but for the broader conversations of life.

Q&A – Harkness Table Method

What is the Harkness Table method?

The Harkness Table method is an educational approach that emphasizes student-led discussion and collaborative learning. In this setting, students sit around a large, oval table, fostering an environment where every participant can see and interact with each other directly.

The method encourages open dialogue, critical thinking, and active learning, with the teacher acting more as a facilitator than a traditional lecturer.

Who invented the Harkness Table method and why?

The Harkness Table method was developed by Edward Harkness, a philanthropist who donated $5.8 million to Phillips Exeter Academy in 1930. Harkness envisioned a more democratic form of education, where students could engage in deep, meaningful discussions and learn from one another in a collaborative environment.

His goal was to transform the traditional teacher-centered classroom into a student-driven learning experience.

How does the Harkness Table method work in a classroom setting?

In a classroom utilizing the Harkness Table method, students gather around the table to discuss topics, solve problems, and share insights under the guidance of their teacher. Instead of lectures, the class is structured around discussions that encourage every student to participate.

The teacher prepares questions or topics in advance but allows the conversation to flow naturally, guided by students’ interests and contributions. This setup promotes engagement and ensures that learning is interactive and dynamic.

What are the key principles or goals of the Harkness Table method?

The key principles of the Harkness Table method include fostering an inclusive learning environment, promoting critical thinking and open discussion, encouraging active participation from all students, and developing independent learning skills.

The goals are to create a classroom where students feel valued and empowered, engage deeply with the material, and learn to collaborate effectively with their peers.

How does the role of the teacher change in a Harkness Table classroom?

In a Harkness Table classroom, the teacher’s role shifts from being the primary source of information to a facilitator of discussion. Teachers guide the conversation, encourage participation, pose challenging questions, and help students make connections between ideas.

They monitor the flow of discussion to ensure that it remains productive and inclusive but intervene minimally, allowing students to lead the learning process.

What types of subjects or courses are best suited for the Harkness Table method?

The Harkness Table method is versatile and can be applied to a wide range of subjects, including humanities, social sciences, and even STEM fields. It is particularly effective in disciplines that benefit from discussion, critical analysis, and collaborative problem-solving.

Literature, history, philosophy, and politics are naturally suited to this method, but it can also be adapted for subjects like mathematics and science, where complex concepts can be explored collaboratively.

How do students prepare for a class using the Harkness Table method?

Students prepare for a Harkness Table class by completing assigned readings, research, or problem sets in advance. They come to class ready to discuss their ideas, questions, and insights, having thought critically about the material.

Preparation might also involve reflecting on previous discussions and considering how new information connects to what they have already learned.

What are the benefits of using the Harkness Table method in education?

The benefits of the Harkness Table method include improved critical thinking and communication skills, deeper understanding of subject matter, enhanced engagement and motivation, and stronger collaborative abilities. Students learn to listen actively, respect diverse perspectives, and articulate their thoughts clearly.

This approach also fosters a sense of community and mutual respect within the classroom.

Are there any challenges or limitations to the Harkness Table method?

Challenges of the Harkness Table method include the need for small class sizes to ensure effective participation, the potential for dominant voices to overshadow quieter students, and the requirement for teachers to be skilled facilitators.

Additionally, it can be challenging to assess student contributions objectively, and the method may not suit every student’s learning style.

How is student participation and contribution assessed in a Harkness Table classroom?

Assessment in a Harkness Table classroom focuses on student participation, the quality of contributions to discussions, and the ability to engage constructively with peers. Teachers may use observation, notes, and reflection essays to evaluate students’ performance.

The assessment criteria typically include critical thinking, communication skills, respect for different viewpoints, and collaborative engagement.

How can schools or educators implement the Harkness Table method if they are interested?

Schools or educators interested in implementing the Harkness Table method can start by providing professional development for teachers to become effective facilitators. They may also need to adjust classroom settings to accommodate the physical table and ensure that class sizes are small enough to foster meaningful discussion.

Incorporating the method gradually, beginning with specific subjects or classes, can help ease the transition.

What impact does the Harkness Table method have on student learning and development?

The Harkness Table method has a profound impact on student learning and development, promoting independence, critical thinking, and a deep, nuanced understanding of course material. Students develop strong communication and collaboration skills, learn to value diverse perspectives, and become more engaged and motivated learners.

This approach prepares students not only for academic success but for meaningful participation in democratic society and professional environments.


The Harkness Table method (not to be confused with Harkness test) is more than an educational strategy; it’s a philosophy of learning that respects the voices of all participants, valuing the collective wisdom that emerges from shared inquiry.

It turns the classroom into a dynamic space of exploration, where every student has the opportunity to shine.


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