Table Talk

By David Ruenzel — September 01, 1992 27 min read

“You memorize formulas. You get a paper-pencil test, bubble in the right answers. Now you’re a critical thinker; it’s so ridiculous.”

John Gatto, a former New York teacher of the year who taught almost two decades in a Harlem public school, was telling me, with much exasperation, about how he thought the vast majority of American schools functioned.

In most schools, he said, the teacher’s job is to parcel out information and keep students in check. “Anyone taught to think critically would become absolutely unmanageable in such an institutional setting. ... Because once people learn to think the universe is exciting, deep, and complicated, the mind will race ahead.”

Gatto pointed to the nation’s elite private schools. “When you get into the stratosphere of formal schooling—Groton, Exeter, St. Paul’s—you discover the kids have a great deal of independent choice, that the faculty would never dream of representing themselves as experts. I’ve had my Harlem kids study these schools. We get the catalogs. I tell them the photographs will tell you more about the life of ambition and success in the United States than anything else.”

I had a number of these catalogs at home, and after my talk with Gatto, I paged through that of Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite Eastern boarding school founded in 1779, trying to figure out just what it was about these schools that made them so different. On the first page is a portrait of the powder-wigged founder, John Phillips, sitting solemnly at a table, his finger marking his place in a book, as if he were slightly piqued at being interrupted. The accompanying text is spliced with lofty phrases like “high purpose,” “timeless vision,” and “lifelong habits of industry and intellectual curiosity.”

But it was the photographs on the following pages that made me curious, for they prominently—and somewhat peculiarly—featured an oval table. In the first photograph, students, apparently teacherless, sit around this table with the ease of confident professionals; in the second photograph, the vacated table is the sole focus, its surface cluttered with well-worn books.

The table, I learned from the catalog, has a long history. In 1929, millionaire Edward Harkness told his good friend, legendary Exeter headmaster Lewis Perry, that Perry should “get up a scheme,” for which the millionaire would pay. The nature of the plan was open-ended, but it must, Harkness insisted, include changes “of a fundamental nature, sweeping and so different that were they adopted the whole educational system would be changed enormously for the better.” After a number of false starts, Perry and his faculty came up with a comprehensive plan—the Harkness Plan—that had, as its central aspect, “the substitution of round table discussion in groups of 12 boys and an instructor for the former recitation rooms with 235 boys in a class.”

The radical aim of the plan, which eventually cost Harkness more than $5 million, was to eliminate the duality that had always existed between the teacher and students. The teacher, in the table’s egalitarian society, was to be more of a facilitator than an authority; while the teacher could and should promote discussion, he or she must never dominate. The students, not the teacher, had primary ownership of the table, and learning—the active engagement of young minds—had priority over teaching. In theory, it seemed, the teacher was most effective as a self-effacing, even retreating, figure.

The Harkness Plan has been influential in small circles; most elite college preparatory schools utilize some form of its discussion model. Yet teachers at a majority of American schools remain dispensers of information. In fact, the zeal for reform has frequently resulted—especially at schools attended by poorer children—in a redoubled emphasis on the “basics,” producing a never-ending succession of worksheets and standardized tests. While students at schools like Exeter, sitting around a table, supposedly learn to think for themselves, to exchange ideas with coherence and ardency—all the things now classified as “critical thinking”—millions of other students sit in a sullen silence shattered by occasional outbreaks of temper and dismay.

Still, I wondered: Does the Harkness Plan really work or does it encourage, as some believed, verbal glibness and ruthless competition? And if it does work, could the methods by which Exeter students learn be, in some manner, duplicated at much less privileged, less handsomely endowed schools? I went to Exeter, N.H., to find out.

I was not quite sure how Harvey Knowles’ senior English class started—an impression I was to have of several Exeter classes. One moment the students—a few of the boys out of dress code in baseball caps and open-collared shirts—were boisterous, irrepressible; the next they were so animatedly engaged in a discussion of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, so responsive to one another’s comments, that I fleetingly wondered if the class weren’t a piece of prepared theater. (The students had not known I was to attend.)

“Andrei,” a girl was saying, “is beginning to figure out how to unite the whole, to see a common bond with all humans. Andrei has found out how to do this not through transcendental means but through love”—here she quotes Tolstoy—“Sympathy and love for our brothers, for those who love us and those who hate us.”

“Earlier, Andrei said he only lived for family,” another student offered. “Now he’s expanding the circle.”

This inspired a discussion about the differences between Andrei and the control-minded Napoleon, during which the teacher was—strangely, I thought—silent. A thin, scholarlylooking man in his mid-50s, Knowles seemed, literally, to remove himself from the table; drawing in his head and shoulders, he hunched over his book, continuously flipping through its pages. Then a soft-spoken boy was cut off by another classmate in mid-sentence, and Knowles glanced up. For perhaps a minute, he said nothing; only when there was a pause in the conversation did he look directly at the boy who was interrupted and say, in little more than a whisper, “You were saying, Peter?”

Peter commented that Napoleon, too, was acquiring a capacity for sympathy, to which another boy responded that it didn’t count if Napoleon had remorse in his heart but didn’t stop the fighting. Then a student put a number of issues into perspective: “Is the problem that Andrei has all these insights, all these feelings of eternity, but doesn’t act on them? Is Tolstoy saying you have to act?”

She looked only at her fellow students as she spoke, yet it became increasingly clear that Knowles did not play a superfluous role. He began to guide the discussion from issues of character and motivation to a theoretical plane, finally asking the class if they had any questions about Tolstoy’s theory of history. This transition he accomplished with a remarkable unobtrusiveness. For at Exeter, I was to learn, the teacher is not an operator through whom all lines must travel; ideally, he or she is rather a benign mediator whose greatest concern is that the lines remain connected to one another, functioning with minimal interference. The teachers, in this vision, must accept their occasional invisibility as a sign of their students’ growing independence.

Toward the end of class, the conversation took a remarkable turn:

    Student one: We teach history as if it’s leader-based—too much emphasis on great generals.
    Student two: No one takes the time to record the infinitesimal will of the people.
    Teacher: How does history become so distorted?
    Student three: We pick out fragments the decade of so and so. We ignore the whole.
    Student four: Like in the LA riots, it wasn’t just the tape—the fragment—but a whole series of things we can barely comprehend.

A few weeks earlier, in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots, I had followed a quite different classroom discussion that never got beyond “racism is wrong” or “violence is stupid.” Here at Exeter, on the other hand, the discussion of an important contemporary event grew, seemingly organically, out of a classical text.

After class, I told Knowles I was surprised at how inconspicuous he had been. “You must see to it that the students are in charge,” he emphatically told me. “You really have to negate yourself at the table. Because if the teacher frequently leaps in to redirect matters, the students will come to expect that.”

This theme, of what might be called negative capability—the ability of the instructors to render themselves almost invisible—was to be reiterated by many teachers during my visit; some even claimed to disguise their hours of preparation in order to give a greater semblance of spontaneity. As one teacher told me, “You’re the catalyst, but never the director.”

This went against much of what I had always believed about the best teaching, which I had always equated with controlled showmanship; the greatest teachers, armed with knowledge and strong personalities, won over and mesmerized a typically reluctant audience. Here, though, teaching seemed to demand a diminished ego, even a kind of colorlessness. Teachers, I noticed, even resisted the normal human tendency to praise thoughtful responses, undoubtedly because praise would have the students thinking that the point of the discussion was to please the teacher, to provide the right answers as in a game of Jeopardy. Yet while I was impressed by the nonjudgmental aspect of the Harkness Plan, I was bothered by the open-ended nature of each class period: What happens, I asked Knowles, if students don’t develop important points, make significant connections?

“You efface yourself because you know that certain moments will come back. You see, they’ve made Tolstoy their own. If something is a central part of Tolstoy’s vision, they’ll come back to it. The discussion is never really over. Besides,” he added with a smile, “I do allow myself some moments of intercession.”

But while the Harkness Plan may work at Phillips Exeter Academy, where most of the students come from accomplished families and are bound for the nation’s most elite colleges, it is an altogether different matter to imagine this approach working in a classroom of average students. Knowles, without prompting, addressed this issue.

“Not too long ago, I sat in on a discussion of Macbeth at a public school. It was great until the teacher interfered, asking a question when there was no need to do so. And, as soon as the kid began to answer it, she cut him off. He was talking about how bravely Cawdor faced up to his execution, but she didn’t want to talk about that. She wanted to talk about methods of execution and proceeded to lecture on how they’d behead someone. I wanted to stop the class, to say, `Why are you doing this?’ At every turn her students were denied.

`Now, my feeling is, why not carry on the kind of discussion you just witnessed with as many kids as possible?” he continued. “If War and Peace is too demanding, use a text that’s more accessible. Yes, it would take a lot of money. But if they took the money they now use to feed the bureaucracy and instead used it to reduce class size in half in schools across America, they’d function a hell of a lot better than they do now.”

Later, I attended a European history class for sophomores and juniors. The energetic teacher, Jack Herney, began by asking his class what they believed inspired 19th century imperialism; the students were eager to answer, citing greed, competition, and the need for export markets. But when students answered without citing textual evidence—from a packet of articles, editorials, and speeches—the teacher quickly intervened. “Where do you find that in the text?” he repeatedly said. “What is your evidence?” It was clear, and would become clearer in the following days, that underclassmen had not mastered the Harkness Plan, the principles of discussion, with anything approaching the lan and precision of Knowles’ seniors. Quoting evidence and meshing small details with a broader picture was not second nature for Exeter students; discussion was a learned skill like composition and algebra, and needed—especially at the earlier level—greater guidance from the teacher.

“Superior races have rights over inferior races,” a student said. “That was their excuse for imperialism.”

“Is that it?” Herney asked. “An excuse?”

Students picked up on this. No, it was more than an excuse; imperialists, with their white-supremist values, bought into social Darwinism. Still, Herney wanted the students to find more in the documents, and while they pored over them, he whispered to me that he wanted the students to discover that it was the will of the people that drove their leaders to rampant colonialism.

The student response was fast and furious: There was talk of the rubber and diamond markets, fear of the British, and then a sudden leap: “All of these things caused World War I!” a girl said in a synaptic flash. But none of this was quite what Herney wanted, and at the end of the period he conceded his point: The common citizenry most encouraged the imperialistic spirit.

When the teacher has specific material to cover, even the Harkness Plan, with its implicit trust in spontaneity, cannot tolerate too much digression.

If many American secondary schools are preoccupied with the testing of students, at Exeter many teachers give few tests and no final exams at all. Testing, for one thing, seems superfluous when classes are conducted as discussions in which virtually everyone participates. (In most classes I observed, all students did take part.) The teacher, in classes of 12 or 13, quickly identifies the poorly prepared student.

But perhaps more important is the fact that the very philosophy behind the Harkness Plan seems inhospitable to testing. Testing, after all, typically presupposes that the students are duty bound to assimilate knowledge provided by the higher authority of teacher and text; furthermore, the emphasis on standardized response means that students have ideally learned the same things. In the Harkness classroom, on the other hand, teachers are less authoritative dispensers of information than coaches who help students master knowledge in their own particular ways. Because each student’s contribution is unique, there is no sure-fire way—for example, testing—to evaluate performance.

Still, students are of course evaluated—often, particularly in the humanities, on the basis of their written work. But here, too, in keeping with the notions that students must be allowed to demonstrate their unique talents, student writers are given a good deal of latitude. In history, for example, students may write an editorial from the viewpoint of a 19th or 20th century newspaper columnist; in English, in addition to the traditional expository essays, students write everything from poetry to family narratives; topics are frequently self-chosen. These writings, which typically go through several drafts, are often critiqued not by the teacher but by the writers themselves and their peers.

Even here, though, evaluation is somewhat problematic as an essay—like a discussion—can succeed or fail in any number of highly individualistic ways. Indeed, the Harkness Plan is perhaps best characterized by an open-endedness that resists tidy assessment; a given class is less defined by predetermined objectives than by the way participants—students and teachers—shape its course over time.

Yet the more classes I observed at Exeter—mostly English but also history and math (science is the sole department that doesn’t use the Harkness Plan)—the more I wondered if there wasn’t some kind of structure undergirding the discussions, even if it was implemented in a less-than-fully conscious way. For while all teachers had ideas on what made for a successful classroom discussion, different temperaments resulted in very different kinds of classes. A few teachers led their students through a rigorous series of questions and answers culminating in a tentative conclusion, while others, like Knowles, preferred an almost Zen-like approach, the teacher more or less surrendering to the uncertain nature of free discussion, wherever it might lead. Yet I felt that there must be something that gave the Harkness Plan some pedagogical consistency and coherence.

Much of what I saw of the Harkness Plan reminded me of what Sophie Haroutinian-Gordon, in her book Turning the Soul, calls “interpretative discussion.” Interpretative discussion means teaching through conversation, making it possible for students to connect aspects of their own lives to what they discover in a text. The teacher’s task “is to guide the students’ focus toward objects (i.e., literature, mathematics, art) that will draw out the understanding that they have. The teacher does not, however, tell students what to find in the objects.”

In a recent interview, Haroutinian-Gordon, a professor at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy, told me that successful discussions do follow certain patterns. “I think the discussion must begin with a question, frequently but not always raised by the teacher,” she said. “The question must be a genuine question—by `genuine’ I mean that the person raising it does not know the answer to it. There must, in fact, be genuine doubt about the answer in the teacher’s mind. It must also be a question about which both teachers and students have concern. Discussions are, in truth, more about finding questions than solving problems.”

To ask a question to which the teacher feels convinced he or she knows the answer—a natural tendency on the part of almost all teachers, who have been trained to think of themselves as authorities in their subjects—is to have not an authentic discussion, but rather a canned discussion in which students try to divine what’s on the teacher’s mind.

Furthermore, Haroutinian-Gordon said, the question must arise out of the text. What is the meaning of the book? Why did a historical event unfold as it did? What motivates people to act the way they do? What do people in a particular novel, for instance, do to make themselves happy, and how can this have relevance for our own lives? These, she believed, were natural questions in that teachers and students care to think about them, as opposed to questions that hinged on literary terms, historical dates, or mathematical formulas.

This key to a successful discussion—asking a genuine question that connects students to a text—was routinely (but not always) implemented at Exeter, perhaps more intuitively than consciously. Often, it was the students rather than the teacher who began the class, asking one another how to approach a calculus problem or why characters in a given story acted the way they did. Or sometimes a class would begin with a simple declarative statement (“I don’t like this book”) followed by another’s direct examination (“What didn’t you like about it?”), to which the first student would respond, quoting or citing a passage to support his or her point of view. When a teacher did begin a class, it was often with a question the students themselves might have asked: What do you have to say about the reading? What do you like about this student’s essay? What could be improved?

The consequences of this approach—namely considering the work at hand on its own terms with no teacherly directives—meant, in the English Department, that literature was less taught than presented as a series of highly individualistic works. Never, in the half dozen English classes I attended, was a work of literature placed into a historical context or approached in literary terms or through thematic structures. Writing was approached similarly; the teacher never lectured on grammar or composition. Instead, students sat around the table earnestly discussing the strengths and weaknesses of one another’s work, like young editors meeting in a New York publishing house.

I mentioned this apparent absence of programmatic teaching to Peter Greer, chair of the English department at Phillips Exeter. Greer, an articulate, sandy-haired man with a friendly, self-deprecating manner, said my observations were correct:

“A senior,” Greer told me, “may have no idea of whether Jane Austin wrote before or after Virginia Woolf. We try not to forget that we are a high school, despite the obvious sophistication of some of our students. To study a book independent of other books draws the student more deeply into it, making students deal with a text on their own terms. Articulating your own reactions to things gives you great power. I want them to gain confidence—not to struggle with literary history and issues.

“Here’s my radical contention: I believe that when kids walk into the classroom they have in their perspectives and reactions all I care we get to,” he said. “You see, we want kids to share their particular version. The idea of a Harkness class is for the teacher to say nothing, though I mean that metaphorically, not literally. Ideally, the teacher only facilitates, helping them listen and speak to one another. Teachers have different ways of removing themselves from discussion. For instance, we have an imposing teacher who essentially puts his hands in front of his mouth as a way of saying, `I’m listening; I’m not going to talk.’ Another teacher, Harvey Knowles, tends to slump down, to get pretty low. There’s also the issue of eye contact. If I make eye contact, the student can’t break away. But I don’t want students to focus on me, so I’ll look away; I won’t let a student lock eyes with me.”

All of this was well and good, but I remembered, from my own schooling, the best teachers as having forceful personalities, their strongly expressed opinions sparking equally strong reactions in their students. Did the Harkness Plan, with its emphasis on self-effacement, do away with this kind of teacher?

Greer thought for a moment and then suggested that I sit in on a class of Fred Tremallo’s, a veteran teacher he described as “brilliant, if a bit cranky.” I would discover, Greer felt, that Tremallo had a very powerful presence in the classroom.

Fred Tremallo was intimidating. In his mid-50s with a Hemingwayesque gray beard and a weight lifter’s massive shoulders, he had a way of fixing his gaze on you while you were speaking that made you wonder if you were making sense. He began the class by telling his freshmen they could write whatever they liked for their next assignment. The students were still and alert; there was none of the casual bantering back and forth I had seen in other classes. Later Eric Gershom, the student editor of The Exonian and an admirer of Tremallo’s, would tell me: “He humbles you. He’ll say, `You know this, of course,’ even though you both know that you don’t know.”

Tremallo introduced me to the class and then asked me if there was anything I’d like to say. Referring to their writing assignment, I told the students they had my sympathy, for most of us preferred to be told what to do.

Tremallo began a discussion of the novel the class was reading, Michael Dorris’ A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. The discussion was brisk and efficient until Tremallo asked whom the protagonist blamed for another character’s death; here the responses were hesitant, varied. “What’s going on?” Tremallo asked somewhat severely. “Why so many different responses?”

There was a terse silence that I would later associate with a story Gershom told me about Parent’s Day. “Tremallo, far from trying to impress the parents, was particularly silent that day,” he recounted. “I had done my reading meticulously because I didn’t want to look like an idiot in front of my parents. But he was silent.” Most teachers I knew were terrified of silence; in the traditional teacher-centered classroom, it was a sign of ineptitude; it meant that the teacher had exhausted his or her resources. But in the context of the Harkness Plan, silence made perfect sense; it indicated not incompetence but a willingness, even an insistence, that students take responsibility for the class.

“There are different responses because it’s all a matter of point of view,” a boy said meekly.

“But aren’t there things we all must know in common?” Tremallo asked.

“It’s about.”

“About what?” Tremallo challenged. No one spoke; Tremallo suggested they reread the text for the next class. Then something that struck me as peculiar occurred: He asked certain students to recall what other students had said at earlier points in the discussion. What was he trying to do? Teach them the importance of listening?

“And what,” he asked, gesturing in my direction, “did Mr. Ruenzel say at the beginning of class? Or is it a matter of point of view?” The students glanced at me; I could see them struggling to remember. Suddenly, I thought I understood what was happening: Tremallo was transforming a discussion of a novel into a seminar on the nature of relative vs. absolute knowledge.

One finally said, “Each of us would probably have a different version of what Mr. Ruenzel said.”

Another said, “We’d have to compare notes.”

“How many people would it take to know for sure? 10? 12? Exactly what number?” Tremallo questioned.

Class was over but everyone remained in their seats. Tremallo gave them one last thing to think about:

“And if it’s 12, then what was LA all about?” He was referring to the Rodney King jury.

After class, Tremallo and I talked for about an hour. He told me the class I had seen was atypical. For one thing, he had directed the class quite a bit, as he needed to with freshmen who were unaccustomed to discussion; with seniors he was often virtually silent. For another, much of class time was usually spent discussing student writing. He plucked an essay from a pile of papers and began reading. I thought the descriptive essay magnificent but said nothing.

“They’re all this good,” he said, as if he could read my mind.

Tremallo had taught at Exeter for some 30 years and now, in the after-school silence, became nostalgic. He read me a letter he had recently received from a former student who was now a millionaire. The millionaire was deeply appreciative of having once been Tremallo’s student, and specifically mentioned a class, some 20 years ago, in which they had discussed the issue of rights vs. obligations.

“You know,” Tremallo said softly, “I still remember that class.”

Even before my visit to Exeter ended, I was reflecting on what I had seen and what it said about schooling, teaching, and kids. Exeter students impart little of the downcast, slightly surly awkwardness one usually associates with American teenagers. On the other hand, I discovered in them little of the glibness and arrogance I had thought I might find. Talking with them gives one a sense of talking with equals in every sense of that word; politely but firmly, they won’t hesitate to dispute any adult’s point of view. As one student told me, “We’re trained to challenge.”

Much of this self-assurance undoubtedly stems from the students’ generally privileged backgrounds (though 25 percent are on full or partial scholarship); but much of it, I’ve concluded, also extends from their eventual mastery of the Harkness Plan. For four years, sitting around an oval table that could be in a board room or political headquarters, students learn not just to calculate equations, to read Latin, or to write polished essays, but to talk with a kind of studied naturalness, a practiced spontaneity, that virtually ensures their future success. Accustomed to performance and thinking on their feet, Exeter students are, in a very real sense, being trained to run the world, as it is talkers our nation most respects and places in its most preeminent positions.

But seeing Exeter students being trained to take their places in the top of the social hierarchy dramatized for me how massive numbers of less-advantaged students are parceled out a regimen of back-to-basics, resulting at best in a passive, mechanized learning that will almost certainly prevent their rise from the lowest orders. This, it strikes me, makes little moral or social sense.

This is not to say that the Harkness Plan could or should be replicated at a majority of American secondary schools. For one thing, the cost of such a plan, which requires that there be in a classroom no more than 13 students for every teacher, would be prohibitive. For another, there is no reason to believe that lecturing can’t sometimes be a helpful teaching tool. Indeed, there were occasions during my visit to Exeter when I felt the students would have benefited from a systematic presentation of material. (I was surprised to discover, for instance, that some seniors still made basic grammatical errors, such as “between you and I.”)

Yet everyone I spoke to, from Exeter teachers to prominent educators, agreed that the principle behind the Harkness Plan—that student conversation about significant matters is essential to intellectual and moral growth—has validity for any classroom.

“Let me say something revolutionary,” John Gatto told me. “The truth is that you can do that [Harkness Plan conversations] with 12-year-old black kids from Harlem. Not from day one, because they don’t trust you; it takes three to four months to win them over. But all they need is a target they’re shooting for, and they don’t know if you’re there or not. They’ll reproduce the rhetorical form of ancient Greece.

“The reason we don’t center the English curriculum around speaking when it’s so central to vocation is that the underclass is so much more verbal than the repressed kids of the upper class,” he insisted. “If speaking were behind the logic of the curriculum, they’d all be on the dean’s list.”

This view struck me as somewhat extreme. But others struck a similar chord, including Theodore Sizer, who, as chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools, has fought to recreate schools so that students assume greater responsibility for their own learning.

“Really resourceful teaching is by definition revolutionary,” Sizer said. “Because once kids get in the habit of asking why—especially poor kids—they begin to understand how society works and become boat rockers.

“In many public schools serving poor kids, it’s very hard to simply deliver information. A lot of these kids, worldly as they are, simply won’t stand for bad teaching, and some of the most imaginative teaching I’ve seen is with the least docile kids.”

While Sizer, former headmaster of Phillips Andover Academy, insisted that rich conversation could occur among all kinds of students—indeed, he said he had observed many such conversations—he also believed that they occur only in humanely restructured schools. Higher per pupil expenditures and more time for teachers to prepare were essential; but most important was a new attitude toward teachers: “Show me a school that is respectful of teachers’ needs and understands that teachers need to talk about ideas all the time and I’ll show you a school where such discussions happen. It has nothing to do with whether schools are private or public. It has to do with the priorities of the governing authority.”

The revolutionary aspect of the Harkness Plan is not just that it results in what we now call critical thinking. What’s truly revolutionary about the Harkness Plan, or skillfully guided interpretative discussion, is that it insists that the teacher invest enormous faith in the creative and intellectual capacities of the students while resisting all patronizing impulses. For while the teacher must listen to and respect the student, he or she must also, by insisting that the discussion be connected to a text, create an atmosphere of intellectual rigor that discourages the normal human tendency to cheerlead when attentive silence is more appropriate.

But how would American students feel about a curriculum based largely on disciplined discussion? Undoubtedly, there are a few who, made uneasy by their required participation, would prefer that the teacher perform. But many students, once acclimated to such an approach, may well take advantage of the new responsibility they’d acquire for making their classes successful.

Clearly, Exeter students have a deep appreciation for the Harkness Plan, an attitude best exemplified by a talk I had with a student just before my departure. He worried that aging faculty members might be replaced by a new breed of teachers who prefer to lead students toward their own established opinions. Referring to Knowles and Tremallo, he said: “Both men let you see it their way. They’ll present their viewpoint, the author’s viewpoint, but they won’t reject your stance on the matter. They’ll not force an idea on you.”

Is there a danger, he wondered, that when great teachers like them leave the school that “ax-grinders” will take over? “What then would happen to our Harkness Plan?”

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Table Talk


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