Harkness Method

Daniel Walden's picture
Submitted by Daniel Walden on Sun, 2006-09-10 14:12

Has anyone besides me heard of or had experience with the Harkness method of teaching in a high school? It's the only method employed at the school I currently attend, and so far it seems to be extraordinarily effective.

The basic idea is that the class and teacher sit around an oval table (so that everyone can see everyone else) and carry out the class in seminar style, with the teacher serving as a moderator to ensure that the discussion doesn't go off into irrelevant territory. However, with the exception of the occasional clarification or Socratic question, the teacher remains an observer and evaluator, and the students do all the talking.

The experience is spectacular, because the format fosters creativity and rigorous argumentative skills. One had better be prepared to support any assertion that one makes, because someone is sure to question it if one's line of reasoning is unclear.

Harkness works best in small classes; Exeter (where the method was invented and where I'm currently at school) does not allow classes larger than 13 students. It also tends to fall flat if students haven't prepared the night before; it's the teacher's responsibility to evaluate a student's preparation and address the matter if it becomes a problem.

I'd love to hear people's thoughts on this, so start letting them fly!


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Sounds Like Shared Inquiry

Luke Setzer's picture

I had to refer to the Wiki article about this to learn more:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harkness_table

The moderated discussion method appears to bear some resemblance to the Great Books Shared Inquiry method involving a moderator asking interpretive and evaluative questions for discussion:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Books

Regarding the latter, our local Objectivist Club uses Shared Inquiry effectively to discuss the works of Ayn Rand.  I understand Marsha Enright intends to start a College of the United States based on this discussion method combined with Objectivism.

So, yes, I have experience outside formal academia with a similar method of learning, and no, I have not directly experienced the Harkness Method.

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