The Harkness Method

The Harkness Method is a teaching and learning method involving students seated in a large, oval shape in order to discuss ideas in an encouraging, open-minded environment with only occasional or minimal teacher intervention.

The Harkness method of teaching is a kind of socratic, discussion-based  approach, mainly used in high school classes. The method is content-focused and teacher-led, but student-centered; that is, the students carry the load of discussing (and learning how to ask) the questions raised by the content they are studying in class, whether this is Milton’s Paradise Lost, a topic in ancient history, or a problem in mathematics. Students discuss arranged in an oval and all are expected to be able to articulate their understanding, and to ask questions both of the text and of each other. There is no hiding in a Harkness discussion—careful preparation and a thoughtful search for truth are critical. Ideally, these discussion s occur around an oval-shaped table where all students can see and interact with each other. Since the architecture of a place (and a classroom is no exception) significantly impacts what goes on it in, we have purchased some of these tables for our humanities classrooms, and hope to add more as we’re able. As McLuhan pointed out, the medium is the message. A seminar-style seating arrangement encourages engagement and participation, in contrast to the standardized rows of students focused on the front which is typical in many classrooms.

Veritas doesn’t approach Harkness discussions as a kind of free-for-all “sharing time”. Rather, teachers guide students to discuss carefully and thoughtfully, applying both their content knowledge and their biblical worldview to the problems raised. But the bulk of the work in the discussion is placed squarely where it should be—on the students.

Student Self-Education and Harkness Discussions