CWA invests in the Harkness Table pedagogy for Upper School students

March 30, 2023


For many years, students in history class with David Adams have utilized the Harkness Table pedagogy to engage in discussion about their lessons, but one thing was missing until now – a Harkness Table! So, what is the Harkness method, and how does it benefit students?


At long last, students in Dr. Adams’s class have a brand new modular Harkness table to use for group discussions. 


What is the Harkness Method?


The Harkness Table method was designed at Phillips Exeter Academy as a tool for promoting meaningful discussions and critical thinking. The table is designed to facilitate student-centered discussions, with the teacher acting as a facilitator rather than a lecturer. Students sit around the table and engage in a discussion on a given topic or text, with the teacher providing guidance and support as needed.


Dr. Adams began using this pedagogy in the early 2000s while teaching AP United States History. Rather than lecturing at the front of the room, he said he would have his students “go through the texts and pull apart the arguments being made.” 


The Harkness Table


The Harkness Table is particularly effective for high school students because it allows them to develop critical thinking skills and gain a deeper understanding of the material. Rather than simply regurgitating information, students are encouraged to analyze, question, and challenge ideas. This type of discussion helps students to develop their ideas and opinions and to think critically about the world around them.


Joe Romano, CWA’s Director of Innovation, is working with faculty to utilize the Harkness Table method in more classrooms at CWA. “The Harkness Table method increases student learning around the Portrait of a Tarrier in a very dynamic mode. Students aren’t offered a polished presentation. They’re listening, responding, building on one another’s ideas, and diving deeply together to create meaning. It especially maximizes the communicator trait (practices effective listening, expresses ideas clearly),” he said.



In addition to promoting critical thinking and communication skills, the Harkness Table also helps to develop leadership skills. Because the teacher acts as a facilitator rather than a lecturer, students are responsible for leading the discussion and keeping it on track. 


“Students also develop the Tarrier Trait of collaborator (knows how to lead, how to share leadership, and to follow),” Mr. Romano added.


“Teaching in a discussion-based classroom requires students to find ways to work collaboratively to understand a text.  It teaches them how to disagree without being disagreeable and how to think on their feet.  Reading a text and coming up with your own interpretation is always expected in a classroom but being allowed to see how other students approach the same text can be challenging.  For some students, it can help them raise the bar for their expectations, and, for others, it can help them see an alternate perspective.  In the perfect environment, it can also help students develop a greater sense of empathy and allow them to find ways to help raise the level of a discussion to a higher academic plane,” Dr. Adams said.


Mr. Romano added, “We design challenge spaces at every level of the CWA experience to cultivate these skills, and Harkness is one of the most dynamic challenge spaces, as it is fluid, evolving, and complex to navigate. It’s a mode of convening CWA learners will see in higher ed as undergrads and graduate students, and it’s one they’ll continue to create and contribute to as professionals, whether as part of a startup refining a value proposition or legal team developing a case.”


While Dr. Adams has been facilitating these discussions with his students for many years, he hasn’t had the proper furniture, but rather a hodgepodge of tables pushed together. 


Of the new table, he said, “It will give the students a sense of this being a different type of class from the moment they step into the space.  Instead of the same desks arranged in a different fashion, this will be a visible cue that the expectations and interactions are going to be very different from the typical classroom.”


To further CWA’s use of the Harkness Table method, on June 16, Becky Moore, co-founder of the Exeter Humanities Institute will visit campus to conduct a professional development workshop for 15 CWA faculty.


By Laura Rose, Director of Development and Communications