Harkness table

The Harkness table, Harkness method, or Harkness discussion is a teaching and learning method involving students seated in a large, oval configuration to discuss ideas in an encouraging, open-minded environment with only occasional or minimal teacher intervention.

Instructor and students at Techie Youth, engaged in the Harkness discussion-based teaching method
Students and instructor seated around a Harkness table at The College Preparatory School in Oakland, California


Harkness method is in use at many American boarding schools and colleges and encourages classes to be held in a discursive manner. The style is related to the Socratic method. Developed at Phillips Exeter Academy,[1] the method's name comes from the oil magnate and philanthropist Edward Harkness, who presented the school with a monetary gift in 1930. It has been adopted in numerous schools, such as St. Mark's School of Texas and The Episcopal School of Dallas, where small class-size makes it effective, but it remains impractical for larger classes. There are also downsides for students who are not good in taking notes. They must first learn the strategies in proper note-taking in the classroom. Harkness described its use as follows:

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.[2]

Harkness practices can vary, most notably between humanities subjects such as English and history and technical subjects such as math and physics.[3] There are general principles and goals, however, that go along with that method regardless of subject matter. The main goal is to encourage students to develop strong listening and critical thinking skills. Depending on style, the teacher may interact very little, interjecting only to guide the discussion.[4]

Whole Group Discussion MethodEdit

The Whole Group Discussion Technique follows the Harkness Method. It involves interaction throughout the class instead of the teacher simply delivering a lecture while students listen passively. Many teachers today prefer this approach because of heightened communication between the mentor and students.[5] There are advantages and disadvantages in using this method. Teachers are able to check what students retain through questioning. Students can concentrate on their lessons and feel more at ease in asking questions during discussions.

Students at The Episcopal School of Dallas engaged around a Harkness table.

However, the Whole Group Discussion approach calls for effective classroom management by teachers. Otherwise, it may be difficult for them to implement ground rules for students.[6] There are also downsides for students who are not good at taking notes. They must first learn the strategies in proper note-taking in the classroom.[7] There are strategies in effective implementation of Whole Group Discussions. The Think-Pair-Share is commonly used for lower elementary pupils to persuade the children in acquiring listening and speaking skills.[8] Philosophical Chairs is another strategy wherein teachers read sentences or topics with only two likely responses. It is either agree or disagree. Each group of students defends the position it adopted.[9] Fishbowl is one of the most popular classroom discussion techniques. A group of two up to four students sit facing one another at the center of the classroom. The other students sit around their peers. Those at the middle discuss the selected subject matter or question while the others take notes related to the dialogue.[10] The other strategies include Concentric Circles Strategy,[11] Gallery Walk,[12] Pyramid Strategy,[13] and Carousel Walk.[14]


  1. ^ "The Amazing Harkness Philosophy". Phillips Exeter Academy. Retrieved 2011-06-25.
  2. ^ Christophe G. Courchesne, "'A Suggestion of a Fundamental Nature': Imagining a Legal Education of Solely Electives Taught as Discussions", Rutgers Law Record 29, no. 21 (2005): 26.
  3. ^ "How You'll Learn". Phillips Exeter Academy. Retrieved 2018-06-30.
  4. ^ "Progressive Education - How Children Learn". ThoughtCo. Retrieved 2018-06-29.
  5. ^ "The Pros and Cons of Whole Group Discussion". ThoughtCo. Retrieved 2018-06-29.
  6. ^ Partnership, Great Schools (2013-05-15). "Classroom Management Definition". The Glossary of Education Reform. Retrieved 2018-06-30.
  7. ^ "How To Take Study Notes: 5 Effective Note Taking Methods". Oxford Learning. 2017-05-03. Retrieved 2018-06-30.
  8. ^ "Think-Pair-Share | Classroom Strategies | AdLit.org". www.adlit.org. Retrieved 2018-06-30.
  9. ^ "Philosophical Chairs Discussion | Scholastic". www.scholastic.com. Retrieved 2018-06-30.
  10. ^ "Fishbowl Technique | Better Evaluation". www.betterevaluation.org. Retrieved 2018-06-30.
  11. ^ "Concentric Circles". Learning Strategies For ELL's. Retrieved 2018-06-30.
  12. ^ "Gallery Walk - The Teacher Toolkit". www.theteachertoolkit.com. Retrieved 2018-06-30.
  13. ^ "The Learning Pyramid". www.educationcorner.com. Retrieved 2018-06-30.
  14. ^ "How To Use the Cooperative Learning "Carousel" Strategy". Shelley Gray. 2016-05-12. Retrieved 2018-06-30.

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