What is Harkness teaching?

The best resource on this might be from the Phillips Exeter Academy website itself:


My thoughts on What is Harkness Teaching?

To me, Harkness is a philosophy of teaching, not a method. And this philosophy starts with a core belief in the student, as well as a belief that students can be teachers and that learning happens best by participating and engaging. The form this takes is often through student-centered discussions. So, if I adhere to this philosophy, I try to give over as much of the class as possible to the students. If you looked quickly at my, or any, Exeter class, you would see that the students are doing most of the talking. You would see that they ask questions, they use the text (or problems, or data) as the base of their discussions, and so you would see a lot of reference to the text and attention to the details of it. (If the students weren’t doing this themselves, you would see me pushing them back to the text). You would definitely see students eager to state their minds on the text, and hopefully you would also see them unafraid to play devil’s advocate, or to question the text, or to disagree, or express confusion. If things are going really well, you would also see the students’ attention to the dynamics of the discussion itself: ceding the floor to a quieter student, asking others what they think, wondering, “So, where are we?” or asking, “Can we slow down for a minute?” You would see me participate. I am not a cipher, but I also try to avoid being overly involved. This is the fine line, and the one that all of us who teach at Exeter continually work to navigate well. You would see me ask questions, play traffic cop, note a line from the text that I am wondering about, and perhaps draw the class to conclusion. But this exact line of when and how to intervene – or not – is approached differently by all of us. It involves a myriad of variables including teacher personality, the course itself, the specific material of the day, and the dynamics of the group. So, please don’t rely on any one teacher’s way of leading class to become the full personification or definition of Harkness! What it comes down to for me are two things:

  1. Are the students the ones doing the heavy lifting? (Instead of me. I don’t lecture. And I try hard not to ask a series of Socratic questions to get the students to read my mind. Though admittedly I do this on occasion, not as the end goal, but as a means to further open up discussion. What I do is work hard to choose the readings and create an atmosphere of trust and then leave it, mostly, to them. More of my thoughts on that are here.)
  2. Does everyone have an oar in the water? (Yes, there are quiet people and there are people who think best by talking, and many other comfort zones with speaking in class. I am attentive to these natural proclivities, and I want to teach the students to be attentive to them too. But it is not OK to just sit and listen careful and yet not offer something. I will work extensively with quiet kids to get to them in. Those techniques are for another discussion. But my philosophy is that everyone must participate. This teaching does not work if people will not talk. One is not allowed to opt out of writing in my history class. Similarly, one is not allowed to opt out of Harkness discussions. We need every voice.)