Speaking Up at the Harkness Table

In this classroom, there are no desks. Instead, there is a long, oval table. It has a name. It’s called a Harkness table. And when girls gather around the Harkness table, something exciting happens —they are engaged in learning.

The Harkness table and method were first used at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and were named after philanthropist Edward Harkness, who had given Exeter a gift in 1930. His desire was to have small classes in which 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 …” The oval table ensured everyone could see the eyes of everyone else, making discussions more direct and meaningful.

The girls at Hutchison get to experience the Harkness table and method in John Reynolds’ eighth-grade global studies class. “It’s a method of teaching that is very student-centered, which is what we’re all about here at Hutchison,” Reynolds said. “We want the girls to be self-reliant and self-advocates, and so when you take the desks out of the classroom and it becomes a big table, you are putting the girls at the center of attention and at the center of learning.”

Before they start a Harkness discussion, Reynolds explains to the girls how to have a meaningful group conversation, how to engage one another, and also how to listen. Then, the girls read a book or an article, view a video, or research a topic at home and come to class prepared to discuss and ask questions about their homework. Instead of listening to a lecture about what they’ve studied, the girls start the discussion, sharing their thoughts and questions.

Reynolds facilitates, posing questions to help steer the conversation. Striking a balance between letting the students drive the discussion and providing context and guidance is something that Reynolds has trained on and practiced over years of leading Harkness table discussions.

The onus is on the girls to keep the discussion going and to get involved. One or two people cannot dominate the conversation; everyone must participate, so there’s motivation for students to pull fellow students into the discussion, even those who might be reluctant to talk. Every class reacts differently, Reynolds said, so he has to constantly be gauging the level of discourse.

“One of their guidelines is to come to class prepared. If you come to class with something to say or a question to ask, you’re halfway there in contributing to the discussion,” Reynolds said. While the table inspires the girls to talk, it’s also important for them to listen. Reynolds calls that being a mirror and a window.
In other words, being able to look at yourself and what you know, but also being able to look out and see what other people are saying. “The Harkness table provides a great opportunity for the girls to think critically and learn to articulate ideas and support them with evidence. They have to ask questions and they have to synthesize and put information together, and the table facilitates that.” He challenges them to come to conclusions together, as a group, not just individually.

Sydney Shy ’20 remembers being a little uncomfortable at first, but said she ended up enjoying the class. “It was a good way to learn about other people’s perspectives, because you get to hear what everyone else thinks, not just your own thoughts.”

Samantha Tancredi ’18 recalls how the table opened up the conversation. “Having the freedom to discuss and own what we wanted to talk about and share our interests was something that only the Harkness environment could have given us, rather than a lecture format.” Now a junior, Tancredi has returned to Mr. Reynolds’ class to talk with the eighth-grade girls about a World War II research project she’s worked on in Upper School and to help facilitate a discussion.

And although the Harkness table is too big to leave the global studies classroom, some of the discussions at the table are tied into topics being discussed in other classes, such as English or science. Reynolds said that it’s exciting to see the girls make connections between global studies and just about every other class.

“My goal is for them to use the content to work out their own questions, which allows them to understand the information more deeply than if I presented it to them,” Reynolds added.

He continues to hone his talent as a facilitator, too: as a recipient of a Hutchison faculty grant for professional development, Reynolds attended a conference at Phillips Exeter over the summer. The conference put him in the role of the student around a Harkness table, so that beyond just understanding “how it works,” he has some empathy for what Hutchison girls experience. He’s brought aspects of what he learned there back to his classroom.

Developing Confidence and Negotiation Skills at the Table

Why is eighth grade an ideal time for this type of learning? “Developmentally, the girls are at that stage where they can think on an abstract level,” Reynolds said. “They’re starting to become less concrete. They’re right at that age where they’re willing to be challenged and willing to engage.”

Anna Murrey ’18 remembers being shy and quiet at first in eighth grade. But she said that the Harkness table helped her. “When you’re sitting around the Harkness table, it’s almost like a dinner table, and you can see everyone, and it creates an atmosphere where you can say what you think. If I say something that maybe someone else doesn’t agree with, it’s fine. She can add her opinion and everyone can talk. It’s a good way to get your voice out there. You can grow in that atmosphere and be nurtured. And now, as I become more involved in leadership roles in my junior year, I can say that the Harkness table helped me. It got my confidence going.”

Of course, Reynolds also offers the girls reassurance. “I tell the girls from the beginning of the year, that if this isn’t your thing, if the table is daunting to you, I promise that by the end of the year, you will feel more comfortable.”

He noted that the table and method also sharpen negotiation skills. For instance, how do you manage a conversation with so many other people? How do you be a good listener, and how do you insert yourself into a discussion where you don’t feel as involved? “We want the girls to be able to ask questions and not just ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions. We want deep-thinking questions that get everybody to be on their game.”

“It’s not a class where you can sit back and look out the window for a minute, because you’ve got to be involved,” Reynolds concluded. “It takes everybody at the table working and listening together.”

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Hutchison is the leading private girls school in Memphis for ages 2 years old through twelfth grade.