Students Polishing Their ‘Table’ Talk

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — June 05, 2002 9 min read
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The classroom is filled with chatter—questions, comments, and, mostly, opinions fly around the room—yet Sarah Wadleigh, the teacher, sits quietly at the lectern doodling. The unfolding events are all by design in Ms. Wadleigh’s 9th grade English literature class at Central High School here.

The seemingly free-flowing conversation is carefully structured. Sitting in desks circling the room, several of the students are moderating the discussion, coaxing classmates to identify compelling themes from George Orwell’s 1984, the assigned novel, and to draw comparisons between life in the fictional community of Oceania and their own.

“People now are given freedom to do or say or believe whatever they want,” one student says as he refers to a page in the book describing the government controls in Orwell’s police state.

Ms. Wadleigh’s sketch is evolving into a spider-web diagram that tracks participation by her 24 students and the quality of their contributions. Fifteen minutes go by before she interrupts with a question of her own. But her role is simply to reinforce or redirect the conversation, and she refrains from reclaiming control of the class.

It may not be precisely what Edward Harkness envisioned some 70 years ago when the philanthropist underwrote the development of the innovative instructional method that continues to drive the curriculum at Phillips Exeter Academy.

Liberation From Lectures

What’s taking place here at Central High is the “Harkness method,” public school-style, a discussion-based format uprooted from the elite prep school an hour’s drive away in Exeter, N.H. Exeter’s trustees and faculty members have encouraged such adaptations of the distinctive academic approach. They’ve been sharing strategies for expanding the use of student discussion through a summer institute that has drawn teachers like Ms. Wadleigh from around the country and abroad.

“We are trying to liberate teachers from lecturing,” said Marcia Carlisle, a history teacher at Exeter who leads the Humanities Institute, a week of intensive training for teachers interested in incorporating Harkness strategies into their instruction. “When you no longer believe the class rises and falls on your shoulders, you begin sharing what you know as opposed to just telling.”

Fostering deeper discussion of content and issues is just one antidote, Ms. Carlisle says, to the mile-wide, inch-deep curriculum that has guided instruction in many high schools.

When some four dozen teachers converge on Exeter’s 470-acre campus for the institute this month—the third summer it is being offered to outsiders—they will model the discussion skills they hope to teach their students.

They’ll each be handed a thick packet of readings from literature, history, and current events and be told to prepare for meaningful discourse on the dominant themes. Once in the program’s classrooms, seated around specially designed Harkness tables, the teachers, grouped appropriately by dozen,will learn how to engage students in the task; how to guide, manage, and redirect discussions without reverting to lectures; and how to assess student participation.

At the end of the week, the participants are generally eager to take what they’ve learned back to their own schools. They are also a bit wary of the practical challenges of doing so.

Ms. Wadleigh, a 1983 graduate of Exeter, became a teacher three years ago following a career in banking. After a couple of years as what she calls a “stereotypical English teacher,” telling students what to think about classic texts, their themes and symbolism, she was determined to re-create the discussion-based classes she had experienced during her own schooling. The institute at her alma mater last summer helped her do just that.

Over this school year, students in Ms. Wadleigh’s class have steadily taken on the responsibility for leading discussions of the five novels required in the honors course.

“It’s easy to say this can’t be done in a public school, but my chairs aren’t bolted to the floor,” Ms. Wadleigh said. “If you’re flexible, you can do it, and it has value for students.”

Too Many at the Table?

Few schools, public or private, can reconstruct the ideal educational setting of Exeter. The 220-year-old boarding school admits just one in four applicants and costs upwards of $20,000 a year, plus room and board. The 1,000 students are held to high academic standards, and, because most teachers and students live on campus, ample time is available for interaction and discussion in and out of class. Moreover, class size is limited to about 12 students.

That number fits neatly around the Harkness table, a custom- designed hardwood oval that ensures all students can be seen and heard by the teacher and one another. The table, which has a pullout desktop at each space for notetaking, is a dominant feature in nearly every classroom at Exeter and is used for every subject. Even the lab space in the school’s $26 million science center, which opened last fall, was designed to accommodate Harkness tables.

Beyond Exeter, teachers and students have found rewards in adapting the prep school strategy to more ordinary classrooms—but not without challenging the constraints of the school day and the traditional classroom structure.

The table is not practical for many public schools or even the more affordable private ones, where classes are often considerably larger. But teachers can adapt their classrooms by arranging desks in circles. Some have gone so far as to have sheets of plywood cut into ovals to place over the square or rectangular tables used in their own schools.

Other restrictions are far more difficult to get around than the furnishings inside a typical classroom.

A packed curriculum, the demand for standards-based instruction, and pressure to fit a prescribed number of books, topics, tests, and activities into the typical class period combine to make setting aside time for in-depth discussion tough.

“I have problems implementing Harkness that Exeter doesn’t have to deal with it,” said Glenn Whitman, a history teacher at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Md. “There is a constant battle between coverage of material in the traditional sense and uncovering material through quality discussion.”

Mr. Whitman attended the institute last summer after experiencing increasing frustration in his own classroom, where he struggled to cultivate, and assess, student participation.

“Our kids write a tremendous amount in history. We can assess that,” Mr. Whitman said. “But we need our kids to be able to articulate equally well through discussion. I kind of hit the wall on how to gauge how well they are doing.”

Now, Mr. Whitman said, he spends at least one day a week in a Harkness-style exercise. Other teachers in the 450-student school have followed his lead. In a recent informal survey, students reported that they were enthusiastic about the method and asked for more discussion-based classes, according to Mr. Whitman.

Yet problems with student motivation, ability, and preparation still must be overcome. At Exeter, a majority of students take their studies seriously and feel pressure to excel academically. They are likely to have read more of the classic texts than the average public school student—or even those in many other private schools—and they’ve become accustomed to delving deeply into course content.

Mr. Whitman hesitates to depend too much on discussion, fearing that some students may not be ready intellectually.

“They clearly felt empowered by it,” he said of the method. “But I still think that they missed some of the nuances of the material.”

When to Step In?

The public schools, particularly those with large numbers of disadvantaged or low-achieving students, may pose more daunting challenges for teachers looking to use the Harkness method.

The 2,300 students at Central High School here in Manchester, while predominantly white and middle class, display a broad range of academic abilities. So Ms. Wadleigh has chosen to introduce Harkness only to her honors classes.

On a recent spring morning, most students in Ms. Wadleigh’s class are attentive, if not engaged, in the conversation. But even among these top students some clearly have tuned out. A handful dominate the conversation. Yawns, rolling eyes, and heavy sighs emanate from others. Some students have trouble articulating their points, and eventually give up.

Few are aware of the latest national or international news that might help them see connections to the war described in 1984. There are awkward silences and embarrassed snickers.

“The discussion was concentrated to one area [of the classroom]. I was trying to get everyone involved, but I just couldn’t,” freshman Steve Paquin, one of the moderators, complains in the debriefing afterward. “And Nate was sleeping!”

For Ms. Wadleigh, part of the teacher’s challenge is knowing when to step in to guide students or offer some context for the issues.

And it takes time to establish the right culture in the classroom, whereby students respect one another’s opinions and trust that they won’t be ridiculed for what they say.

In every high school and in every class, Ms. Wadleigh argues, there are going to be students who can’t or won’t participate, even when traditional pedagogy is used. While using discussion is not a new method for giving students a deeper grounding in their subject matter, she said, the institute gave her specific ideas and strategies for making it a more successful one.

“Harkness can work in a public school,” she said.

Although most of the participants in the summer institute are from private schools, at least two dozen are public school teachers.

The number of public school participants has increased each year thanks to targeted invitations and scholarship incentives provided by Exeter. One such scholarship program pays the $750 tuition for a handful of public school teachers from Southern states to attend teh session each year.

Teachers at Exeter acknowledge that they, too, struggle at times to keep the conversation flowing in a meaningful direction—no easy task if students have not read the assigned materials and pondered the messages within.

Relinquishing leadership in the classroom and allowing students more autonomy is also daunting. But the expectations for a class that depends on informed debate puts more responsibility on individual students and can motivate them to approach their assignments more seriously.

Ms. Wadleigh has been encouraged by the effect Harkness has had on students at Central High School who might not otherwise participate so actively.

The exercise in discussion has pushed Jake Pfaff to read the entire novel in a more deliberate fashion.

“When you are expected to discuss the book in depth, you can’t just skim it,” he says. “This forced me to read it for deeper meaning.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 2002 edition of Education Week as Students Polishing Their ‘Table’ Talk

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