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Feb 21

Harkness Method: Why it’s worth trying

The Harkness Method is a unique learning approach that encourages students to interact and discuss ideas with their classmates in a round or oval table format. This student-centered technique has been proven to be more effective than the traditional methods and is now being used in independent schools across the United States, including top boardings schools such as Phillips-Exeter Academy.

Harkness Method Explained

The Harkness Method was developed at Phillips-Exeter Academy by philanthropist Edward Harkness in the 1930s. He believed that students learn best when they are encouraged to discuss and debate ideas with their classmates. The Harkness Method takes its name from Harper & Row, Harkness’s publishing company. In 1933, Harper & Row published a book about the Harkness Method called The Conference Method of Teaching. If you’re interested, I’ve linked to an engaging research article here that delves into the details of how the Harkness Method was started. 

Harkness believed that students should learn in a “conference” format where they discuss and debate ideas with their classmates. Today, we view The Harkness Method as a unique learning approach that encourages students to interact and discuss ideas with their classmates in an oval table format. This student-centered technique is seen as an alternative to lecture-based learning because it encourages students to participate by asking them questions or giving them a problem to solve together.

conference method used at the oval table

Teachers sit back as observers at first rather than lecturing from the front of the room, which allows teachers to be more intimately involved in the class. As I mentioned earlier, students are seated using discussion tables and are provided problem-solving, debate, or argument questions where students must take a side on an issue to discuss its pros and cons.

Just to give you a sneak peek at what you can expect, here’s an example of a discussion question the teacher might ask students:

  • In your opinion, is discussion necessary for a student’s education? Why or why not?

Sounds incredibly philosophical, doesn’t it? But the reality is, it’s these types of questions that spark deep conversations. For example, perhaps books are stronger than discussions? Maybe not. Once the question has been posed, students have the opportunity to discuss topics with their peers and the entire class at large or in small groups.

Fortunately, Harkness has evolved since the 1930s. More modern classroom discussion techniques via digital platforms are beginning to take shape, where students have discussion opportunities through blog posts and social media interactions while following a discussion prompt. Harkness discussion prompts can be posted by a teacher or moderator to engage students in discussion on a topic that is then voted on by other students who read it. 

Harkness Method pros and cons

Overall, the method is said to promote critical thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as teamwork and collaboration. Round table discussion formats allow students to share their ideas and come up with solutions together.

The discussion-based approach of the Harkness Method is an important aspect that sets learning apart from simply memorizing facts. Although individual students may have a limited discussion with a teacher during a session, students must take the discussion into their own hands via discussion tables to truly benefit from this teaching method.

However, the Harkness Method does have its drawbacks. It can be more time-consuming than the traditional rote memorization method. Students need time to discuss and debate ideas with their classmates.

Additionally, it can be more challenging for teachers to manage a classroom of students who are working independently. For example, teachers do help facilitate balanced discussions but, a student might not feel heard because they think their voice isn’t being listened to enough during discussions where everyone’s opinion matters equally. This means that your teachers need to be well prepared and organized.

Whatever approach you use, Harkness or otherwise, one thing is clear. Students who learn using Harkness typically develop strong critical thinking skills, leadership qualities, and communication abilities along with how to articulate their thoughts and work collaboratively with others.

The Harkness Method is a way to teach and learn that has been gaining popularity in recent years because the goal is for students to have an equal voice and be able to share their ideas without fear. As all teaching styles and methods do, it has both its pros and cons, but overall it seems to be beneficial for learning.