Stillwater Christian School

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Harkness

Origin and Name
Stillwater is proud to offer a new classroom specifically designed for a proven teaching method employed by an increasing number of our faculty. The Harkness Room features a beautiful, large table as its central feature. The table is named after American philanthropist Edward Harkness (d. 1940), whose educational vision included the use of tables instead of rows of desks to encourage student interaction. Many educators use the name Harkness to refer to the discussion method employed.
 
How it Works
Sitting around a table, students look at one another, rather than sitting in rows looking at the teacher standing in front. Harkness discussions focus on a prompt or reading assignment, and because all of the students must participate, all of the students must prepare. Teachers may join the discussion to help direct it, or make concluding comments when it is complete, or in some other way make sure that the students’ collaborative efforts are related directly to the larger course content.
 
Benefits
Our high school students will tell you that they come to understand ideas and how they relate to life best when they are required to process and explain these ideas themselves. This is why they face each other, and not the teacher. And this is why the teacher is often absent from the table, looking on and making notes. Students learn to articulate ideas and make connections through discussion. Besides teaching particular content, Harkness teaches civility. Students are required to patiently listen to one another, to affirm each other, and to disagree in a charitable manner. They need to sit up in their chairs and look each other in the eye, confidently but cooperatively stating their views, skills that are increasingly rare in society today. Formal conversation teaches them to communicate better in an informal setting, too.
     - Micah Tinkham, HS Teacher
 
"Civilized discourse must be at the core of all good education and all full lives." - Edward Harkness 
 
Harkness
 

Talk time: Student-focused discussions at the heart of Stillwater class

Posted: Friday, October 24
By HILARY MATHESON/The Daily Inter Lake

A large table replaces rows of desks when students are using the Harkness method at Stillwater Christian School.

At the Harkness table, there aren’t teacher lectures or passive listeners. Instead, the teacher becomes a facilitator and all students are encouraged to lead discussion and respond to each other’s comments.

The Harkness philosophy originated at Phillips Exeter Academy and was named after philanthropist Edward Harkness, who suggested a donation he made to the school be used to redesign the classroom setting so that teachers and students would sit around a large, oval table conducive to discussion, according to www.exeter.edu.

On Wednesday, high school students in Micah Tinkham’s Apologetics class sat around their version of the Harkness table — two tables pushed together — where they discussed an assigned book, “Christianity for Modern Pagans — Pascal’s Pensees Edited, Outlined and Explained.”

Rather than sitting with students at the table, Tinkham sat nearby.

“I’ve sat at the table before and the tendency is, when the teacher is at the table, all the kids look at the teacher. Instead of talking to each other, they all talk to me,” Tinkham said. “What I want them to do is turn toward each other and interact with each other. That skill set is really important.”

While discussion is primarily student-led, students aren’t entirely left to their own devices. Tinkham provides them with a list of questions they move through to cover the material.

“It’s not just a sharing time,” Tinkham said. “They’re supposed to address their comments to what others have said.”

Senior Courtney Beaver said this helps keep everyone focused.

“I prefer Harkness over a lecture. It helps me engage,” Beaver said.

Occasionally, Tinkham will interrupt to emphasize key points and comments, move the discussion along, redirect conversation or make clarifications.

Back at the table, students take turns to comment on one of the questions. Speaking in turn is part of the ground rules, according to senior Sarah Paolini.

“There are specific rules like you can’t interrupt; you have to respect people that are speaking; and you try to enhance the conversation so that you can come to a better understanding through working it out yourself instead of just having the teacher tell you,” Paolini said.

Equal speaking time is also a key component, Tinkham said.

“The kids at the Harkness table who always want to answer questions have to restrain themselves and include other people. The kids who never want to speak have to speak up,” Tinkham said.

Beaver said students can sometimes get passionate about topics while other students such as senior Alex Sulzbacher are more subdued.

“I’m more on the timid side,” Sulzbacher said. “I prefer not to talk, but that’s the whole purpose.”

Next semester, sections of the Apologetics class will be reassigned to change the group dynamic.

“It’s an interesting teaching method and a lot of our teachers use it,” Beaver said.

Stillwater has used Harkness for about five years after Tinkham received informal training on the teaching method at a high school in Texas. Tinkham said Stillwater Superintendent Dan Makowski asked him to research the method as a way to supplement lectures.

Several Stillwater teachers now use Harkness in their classrooms.

While lectures have their place and purpose in the classroom, Tinkham said he finds the Harkness method lends itself to deeper learning.

“It’s not just the information they were able to retain that I taught them and they wrote down in their notebooks; it’s their ability to articulate it themselves, which I think is especially important,” Tinkham said.

“The process takes a little bit longer than it would for me to teach the same material lecture-style from the front of the room, but when they basically have taught the ideas to each other, they have a much greater understanding."

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