Harkness at Hun: More Than a Table

Over ninety years ago, Edward Harkness, an American philanthropist with an unshakable vision for educational reform, believed wholeheartedly that education should be centered around intimate, “conference-like,” discussions. His blueprint for educational reform proposed that every classroom at Phillips Exeter Academy replace traditional desks with large, oval tables that encourage open discussion and collaboration. Thus, the Harkness discussion was born. 

Today, Harkness discussions have taken root at Hun and independent schools around the world; the oval-shaped wooden tables are the focal point of nearly every Humanities classroom in both divisions. Around these tables, Hun students in English, History, Modern Languages, and Academy and community classes, engage in respectful rebuttals with their classmates, exercise their social intelligence and communication skills, and leave no stone unturned in their studies.

Dr. Ahmet Bayazitoglu, Upper School English teacher, who prefers the Harkness style of teaching, notes that his Harkness discussions are most successful when they are the least defined. 

“My grading rubric for a Harkness discussion is a statement of principles rather than criteria for achieving an ‘A’,” he says. “I find that Harkness discussions become stilted when the subject is too defined, so I prefer to leave the topic as open-ended as possible. To be successful in the classroom and in life, students must make the shift from consumers of information to producers of knowledge, and the Harkness discussion does just that.” 

In Dr. Bayazitoglu’s class, Harkness discussions present themselves in a variety of shapes and forms. Around the table, students consider and discuss themes of identity, uncover the complexities of literature, and connect their readings to real world experience.

“A Harkness discussion in the classroom should emulate a dinner party with a handful of your closest friends,” Dr. Bayazitoglu says. “It should be a real, enjoyable, intellectual exchange that you would have with people whose opinions you are genuinely curious about. You should be eager to hear their opinions and discoveries as well as contribute your own thoughts.” 

Similarly to Dr. Bayazitoglu’s sentiments, Dr. John Matsui, faculty in the History and Global Studies department, reiterates the value of the Harkness discussion outside of the Hun classroom. Prior to joining The Hun School this fall, Dr. Matsui taught at the collegiate level and notes that students will see this form of learning again in their future studies.  

“Hun students will see this style of Harkness discussions again in college,” he says. “It won’t be called a Harkness, but rather a Socratic seminar. And at the college level, the stakes are much higher. Professors are checking each week to see which students contributed to the conversation, and if you don’t speak, your participation grade will suffer. I always use that as a teachable moment for my students to encourage them to  adequately prepare so that they are always able to contribute and engage in conversation.” 

In a recent Harkness, students in Dr. Matsui’s AP Government class engaged in a discussion revolving around the idea of political sectarianism in today’s society. After reading and annotating text relating to the topic, students brought to the table multiple talking points to engage in conversation. 

“I believe that a true Harkness encourages different perspectives, is open to all opinions, and includes plenty of respectful disagreements. I have found that it’s important to have a Harkness where different perspectives are present because when there is too much consensus in the conversation, the conversation isn’t able to develop in a healthy and vigorous way.” 

Most importantly, Dr. Matsui notes that one of the most important aspects of a successful Harkness discussion is relevancy. 

“When the topic at hand is relevant and students are passionate about discussing it, that is when the remarkable conversations happen. I’ve witnessed some really great Harkness discussions in my few short months at the School and they all truly demonstrate the knowledge and passion that students have for their studies.” 

When you enter a Hun classroom, the notion of being right versus being wrong is left at the door. Instead, students are encouraged to speak up, share their thoughts, listen, and engage with their classmates in a new and empowering way.

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