Harkness Learning


In 1930, The Harkness Method was proposed by philanthropist Edward Harkness and accepted at Phillips Exeter Academy. "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," Harkness said. Since 1999, Dunham students have benefitted from the practice of this challenging method of instruction.

Learning is a collaborative effort in a Harkness classroom where each student has a vested interest in the discussions. Seated around a large, oval table with their teacher, students learn to bring to “the table” their observations, questions and prejudices from the reading, equipped to support their comments with textual evidence.  They also learn to become listeners, as one goal of Harkness Method is to enrich perspective, not merely to share a sole opinion.  Harkness is student-centered; the method builds confidence because each student’s opinions are valued.

The teacher directs the discussion of the day’s readings, occasionally changing the direction of the discussion and suggesting other areas of importance.  Students speak as they see fit rather than waiting to be called on by the teacher. Together, the class’ responsibility is to uncover truths in the text.

There is nowhere to hide around a Harkness table, no seats in the back row or classmates in front of you. Since the discussion at the table depends on active participation, the expectation is to come into class prepared to do the “work of discussion.”
The teacher does not give students the answers because there is no value in that. There is great value, however, in learning to think critically. This takes tremendous effort as students sit and struggle with the text at hand.  The correct answer is not as important as the means by which they arrived. Thinking critically will affect the way they approach a new problem tomorrow, or ten years from now. 

Dunham is one of more than 40 leading independent schools around the country now using this method. With 14 years experience and ongoing teacher training, Harkness has revolutionized the way we teach Humanities at our school. It is the best-kept secret in Baton Rouge.

Questions? Email Sharon Towry.