By Jack Kugler, Contributing Writer
A 7 x 11 foot oval piece of wood, outfitted with twelve cutouts and circumscribed by twelve chairs, serves as a uniform aspect of classrooms across Phillips Exeter Academy. An onlooker from the corridor would likely not glean much more than observing a generously sized table situated in a modest classroom. It is not until one has the opportunity to take a seat at this simple structure and engage amongst peers, that one can truly experience the magic of Harkness unfold.
The use of the table itself originated at Phillips Exeter Academy in 1931 after a monetary gift from Edward Harkness, yet the philosophy of learning through argument began 2,400 years ago with the development of the Socratic method. The Harkness Table is a potent tool used to facilitate learning through diversity and discovery. Classes engage in respectful argumentation, utilizing dichotomy of thought to stimulate intellectual conversation. At the oval table, no one can shy away, resulting in an inclusive discussion. This dialogue requires preparation in order to be a valuable contributor to the conversation. Even in mathematics and science courses, where there is often a single solution, a Harkness discussion facilitates finding multiple ways to arrive at an answer.
In addition to promoting diverse intellectual debate, Harkness also kindles understanding. A quintessential lecture style of teaching provides students with theorems, facts, or even a specific way to approach a problem. Students around the Harkness Table, with some guidance from the teacher, are able to derive and discover these facts organically. This unearthing of concepts results in comprehension as opposed to memorization, and encourages collaboration of thought to cultivate concepts. With learning however, it is inevitable that there will be different levels of mastery. Students help to teach one another because it is essential that cognition is ubiquitous in order to maintain thoughtful conversation. In essence, students arrive at a solution using guidance from one another, rather than being given the answer from a professor.
Although the Harkness Table is a staple of each and every classroom, each instructor is unique in his or her utilization of this powerful learning mechanism. The teacher orchestrates the discussion around the table and guides progression in order to ensure accuracy while empowering freedom. The table facilitates conversation between diverse individualis, yet it is truly the people around the table (students and teachers alike), who optimize learning and certainly define Phillips Exeter Academy.
Throughout my first week at Exeter, the power surrounding the Harkness Table has been extremely provocative and exhilarating. The energy around the table is palpable. Discussions have been unpredictable and captivating. The diverse backgrounds of my peers at Exeter enrich discourse and make the conversations around the Harkness Table unforgettable.
Harkness is global thinking in an intimate forum. To have the opportunity to sit and be an active member of Harkness has been inspiring. It is quite remarkable that the established decades old tradition of Harkness has the flexibility to apply to all areas of academia and ability to remain at the forefront of higher learning. Harkness is a tradition, yet one that is progessive and malleable.
Harkness fosters both difference and commonality all while instilling the merit of discussion and listening to perspectives. In our technology dependent modern world, Harkness provides a vital venue for dialogue and critical thinking. Social media and digital means have undoubtedly affected verbal communication. Harkness is ever more critical in our evolving contemporary world. I look forward to the next four weeks of collaboration, understanding, and learning around this deceptively ordinary table of prodigious thought.