Guest post by Andrew Stacy

It is a pleasure to invite teachers who are also passionate about their craft to contribute to this blog. I was thrilled when Andrew Stacy, a colleague of mine in the English department, agreed to write about his use of The Harkness Method, a student-centered approach to deeper, richer encounters with the text. I hope this will be yet another tool you can use in your classroom to engage your students and expand their thinking.

The Harkness Method:
The Best Class You’ll Never Teach

“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.”

-Edward Harkness, philanthropist,
Letter to Phillips Exeter Academy (N.H.), 1930

In short, “Harkness” is a student-initiated, student-centered, discussion-based approach to learning that emphasizes peer-to-peer interaction and collaborative inquiry.

So how does Harkness work?  The key to Harkness is prior student preparation.  Indeed, without fully engaged, well-prepared students, these discussions are destined for failure, grades will suffer, and (most importantly) learning will not happen.

Traditionally, Harkness discussions take place around big, oval tables called, conveniently enough, Harkness tables.  Traditionally, the teacher does not sit within the circle.  In fact, teacher involvement in these discussions is purposefully limited.  The burden of discussion, therefore, is placed upon the students.

Say what?  The students are in charge of the discussion.  The teacher should not come to class with an agenda for what must be covered in any given discussion.  It is the students’ responsibility to read the assignment and “prepare the reading for Harkness,” which means that, as they read, they should be coming up with “Harkness worthy” questions for the table, underlining meaningful or confusing passages, coming up with their own unique insight into the text that they want to share in discussion.  Again, prior preparation is key.  Along with prior preparation is the assumption that every student will participate on some level in every discussion.

What are the ways to participate in a Harkness discussion?  Here is a list of some possible ways to contribute:

– organizing, leading
– summarizing, restating, clarifying
– offering examples from the text
– asking good questions
– commenting or giving an opinion
– making a suggestion
– asking for clarification
– reacting to comments
– analyzing the text, a comment, or the discussion itself
– restarting the discussion
– filling in a hole
– arguing a point
– asking for new information
– asking for comments or reactions
– making connections with other texts, situations, or discussions

But why?  Harkness encourages students to engage actively in discussion, analyze information, evaluate text, form opinions, listen to others, defend ideas, gain perspective. Harkness moves away from the idea that the teacher has all the answers and the students must simply figure out what the teacher wants them to say.  Harkness teaches and encourages students to think for themselves.

About the author:

Andrew Stacy has been teaching English to high school students for 14 years.  He’s been doing this thing called Harkness for the past 7 of those years. While a plethora of additional information on the method can be found on the internet, he’d be happy to answer any questions or provide any resources you might need.  Reach out to him via email at



4 thoughts on “Harkness: Student-Centered Learning

  1. This method sounds fantastic. I used to be in the English department, and will be passing this information along to my colleagues there. It’d be great to see your grading rubrics and/or get suggestions on how to implement this with low-level learners / unmotivated students. Our English classes are filled to the gills with IEP’s, 504’s, and, unfortunately, plain-old “I hate English”-students these days.

    1. I love putting the students in charge of their own learning which can be quite uncomfortable for them at first, but certainly well worth it. Harkness is a great way to show students we value what Ron Ritchhart of Creating Cultures of Thinking calls “deep vs. surface learning.” Feel free to email Andrew to inquire further about how he introduces it and the rubrics he uses for evaluation ( Thanks for your comment!

  2. Naomi,

    I was not familiar with the Harkness method until now. It feels like something out of Dead Poet’s Society. Prep school boys sitting around a table with Mr. Keating discussing which part of the text must be ripped out next. I wonder how your colleague specifically uses this in his classes. It seems more for a small group of students in a more intimate setting. The level of interactivity would also make it a great fit for ESL/EFL classes. Language students simply cannot practice speaking enough and a method like this puts that responsibility squarely in their laps. Now where can I get one of those Harkness tables?


    1. How can we forget Mr. Keating of DPS fame? What a great reference, Todd! Harkness is certainly more effective with smaller class sizes to encourage authentic, more meaningful interactions. I like your idea of using it in ESL/EFL classes to grow students’ language acquisition skills. I’m sure Andrew would be happy to share specifically how he introduces it to his students, the rubrics he uses, and the growth he’s seen as a result. Feel free to email him at Thanks for your comment!

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