Harkness is the way of teaching here at Phillips Exeter. This is one of the unique features of Exeter. Such method is new to some students and it takes time to adjust to the way of discussion-based classes.

The Harkness table, Harkness method, or Harkness discussion, is a teaching and learning method involving students seated around a large, oval table to discuss ideas in an encouraging, positive and open-minded environment with little teacher’s intervention.

Harkness tables are not only used in PEA, but also in other private boarding schools such as Milton Academy, Phillips Andover Academy,  Deerfield Academy, and Choate Rosemary Hall, among others.

Exeter Summer session is almost half way through and students are gradually getting used to discussions, spreading ideas and making comments to each other.

Madeline Sloan is one of the four Australian students of Phillips Exeter Summer 2017. Age 14, she has been to the U.S multiple times. Every time it takes 24 hours of flight from Sydney, Australia, to the U.S. Harkness was completely new to her. In Australia, classes are lecture-based rather than discussion based.

It gave her the opportunity to communicate with classmates and teachers. She said she wasn’t used to it at first. But after a little while, once she got used to it, it felt comfortable and nice. “Harkness is really great because it is really interesting to learn off everyone else and be able to share and compare knowledge,” said Madeline, “And while it was hard to adjust at first I am now becoming more used to talking and participating.” 

She also said that her favorite class was politics because it’s a great opportunity to talk to people with different and diverse political views coming from different backgrounds. Meanwhile, it is challenging for her to think on a deep level about political issues. “Also, it’s cool because we don’t have any politics classes or anything similar in Australia,” said Madeline.

Andy Chang is 17 years old from New Jersey. He mentioned that in his school, lessons are taught mainly by lecture rather than discussion. Harkness is different from the way normal teachers teach where he lives. Right now, discussion is the way of learning for him. He said that in his leadership class he was able to expand his horizons and concepts when understanding the meaning of leadership.

Such method enabled him to create new ideas and promote positivity. At first, he was challenged by this new method too. He’s outspoken, and able to contribute in different environments. In some classes of his, according to Andy, students are quieter and he has the responsibility to provoke a conversation. From a small area in New Jersey, he has the chance to meet more people from different backgrounds and religions here at Exeter both through classes and free time. For him personally, this is an opportunity to enjoy the positive energies in classes. “Culture is what expands horizons that creates tomorrow,” said Andy, “ Within learning about others from other regions of the world sparks individuality and creativity.”

Chris Papachristodoulou is 16 years old from Greece. According to him, he was taught differently and Harkness is an interesting approach. He doesn’t really know how Harkness works in sciences and math because these subjects are based on facts. But subjects like economics are perfect because they provoke thoughts and ideas. It is challenging for him because he has to find the right thing to say in class—things that are contributing to the conversation. It’s important for him to come to class prepared with discussions.

Haden Smith, Age 16, is from North Carolina. He got used to the Harkness method by listening to others who grasp the ideas. Slowly, he worked himself in and gave input to the conversation. According to Haden, on one hand, Harkness is interesting. On the other hand, if he comes to class unprepared, it would be a lot more difficult. “Exeter is very unique because it brings out the best in people, “ said Haden, “Even though we come from multiple parts of the world, religions, and social classes, under the same program, we can all be united. Free free from labels and other such things.”

Indeed, Harkness is an innovative way of teaching compared to the traditional lecture-based method. Each has its own advantages. But what makes Exeter unique is that everyone can contribute to the table, and be treated the same. Students feel free to express their own thoughts such that new ideas, concepts and bonds will then be created.