To Harkness or Not To Harkness

To Harkness or Not To Harkness
Whether a school uses the Harkness Table™ or doesn't use the Harkness Table™ is a matter of teaching style worth exploring in some detail.

My apologies to Shakespeare! Whether a school uses the Harkness Table™ or doesn't use the Harkness Table™ is a matter of teaching style worth exploring in some detail. That is what you and I shall do in this little essay.

What's a Harkness Table™? Well, depending on how you look at it, it is a table. Some would say it is a method. We will look at Harkness™ from all angles so that you can understand it and decide whether sending your child to a school which uses Harkness Tables™ is something you value.


First of all, the Harkness Table™ gets its name from a wealthy philanthropist by the name of Edward Harkness. He was a graduate of historic Saint Paul's School Concord, New Hampshire. In 1930 he gave $5,840,000 (approximately $60,000,000 in 2015 dollars) to Phillips Exeter Academy with the stated purpose, among other things, of changing the way students were taught. About one third of Edward Harkness' gift was used for the tables and necessary alterations to the classrooms in which they were installed. The rest was used for a host of other projects at Exeter including the addition of new teachers and halving the class size.

In Harkness' own words: “What I have in mind is (a classroom) where (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, where (each student) would feel encouraged to speak up. This would be a real revolution in methods.”

Interestingly enough, the modern Harkness Tables™ are oval. But the first prototypes were round. What's the difference? A round table does not allow the teacher to have eye contact with all his students. An oval design allows that all important eye contact. Being able to see your students' eyes is a critical part of teaching. It's one of the reasons I am not wild about online teaching. But we'll save that discussion for another day.

The basic idea behind the Harkness Table™ is to have 12 students seated around the table together with their teacher as opposed to having 12 students seated at desks facing a teacher at the front of the classroom. A Harkness Table™ facilitates discussion. It compels every student to be part of the discussion. It encourages collaboration.

Back in 1930 Edward Harkness's concept of teaching this way was pretty revolutionary, indeed progressive. It was rarely used in secondary education as indeed it was rarely used in colleges and universities of the time. Today it is a widely, accepted though hardly universal, teaching method.

How the Harkness Table works

The Stevenson School in Carmel, California puts it succinctly:

  • "The Harkness™ philosophy is a form of collaborative learning that doesn’t involve lectures.
  • Teachers and students come prepared to discuss, share, and discover relevant classroom content with one another.
  • The oval design of a Harkness Table™ allows everyone seated to see the eyes of everyone else at the table, meaning no student is left out of the discussion."

Brian Mulgardt describes his experiences teaching with the Harkness Method™ of teaching for the first time in an essay entiled Introducing and Using the Discussion (AKA, Harkness) Table:

"International affairs expert Fareed Zakaria has recently suggested that America’s edge in education comes from its habit of making students think rather than just memorize and regurgitate (191-195). Discussion based teaching (also called the “Harkness method,” after the oval discussion tables designed to facilitate conversation) challenges students to sit at the center of education, making meaning of new information together, talking, listening, and ultimately thinking. While some schools have relied on the method for many years, others, like mine, have not. In such cases, introducing this style of learning, in which no student can hide, can be difficult if students aren’t used to it, and making sure it’s productive also presents challenges. However, once included in a curriculum it allows students to more deeply understand material and think for themselves."

Educating with the Harkness Table™...Dr. Tyler Tingley

"Harkness Tables™ are oval and seat a dozen students and a teacher, but they are much more than places to sit. Classmates learn by discussing their thoughts and ideas rather than just by taking notes. Teachers participate in discussions and guide students without lecturing."

And I will add my own personal experience. When I taught English and history at a private school in Nassau, Bahamas, I organized my class of 12 around two 12 foot tables. It was no Harkness table, for sure, but it was the next best thing. My idea from the outset was to facilitate discussion and critical thinking as well as encourage every student to participate in the process. Having been a choirmaster in the Episcopal church most of my life, I was accustomed to having eye contact with my choristers. We made the best music when we had everybody watching me and me watching every singer. I found the same principle worked in the classroom even though back in 1994 I had never heard of the Harkness Table™. If I were teaching today, I could not imagine myself teaching any other way.


How many schools in the United States and Canada use Harkness Tables™? Over 200 schools use Harkness tables in their classrooms according to the licensed manufacturer of Harkness Tables™.

Add finding out how the schools which you are looking at actually teach. when you visit schools on your short list, ask to see some classrooms. Did you you see traditional desks in rows or a Harkness Table™? Both are pretty hard to hide. So whatever is being used will be on full display. I am not suggesting that you cannot teach collaboratively and facilitate discussion in a classroom with traditional desks. It can be done with a class size of 12-14 students. It is simply not as effective in my opinion as teaching at a Harkness Table™.

Who manufactures and sells Harkness tables?

Phillips Exeter Academy has registered Harkness ™, Harkness Method™, Harkness Table™ as trademarks. Hence you will see tables which are essentially similar to the Exeter Harkness Table™ styled as Collaborative Learning Tables in order to avoid violating the trademark protection which Exeter has in place. To order a genuine Harkness Table™ you will do so through the exclusive manufacturer which is D.R. Dimes & Company. Collaborative learning tables are available from a small number of manufacturers. A competent furniture maker could make a collaborative learning table. It just could not be called a Harkness Table™per se.

In conclusion remember that Harkness™ is more than a piece of classroom furniture. It is an approach to teaching and learning. You need the furniture and the method to make things work the way Edward Harkness intended.

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