What Is the Harkness Method?

The conference method of teaching was developed at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in the late 1920s in response to a large gift by Edward Harkness, the son of an oil baron whose 1920s wealth was exceeded only by Rockefeller.  His gifts to education were prolific, specific, and sometimes conditional:  When contacted by an Exeter alumnus with a request for funding of better dorms and facilities at Exeter, Mr. Harkness made his gift conditional upon his vision “of students sitting around a single table, where a teacher taught by listening and talking to them,” with student-led discussion replacing didactic recitation by the instructor.  

Research shows that when students engage with their assignments, retention increases – up to six-fold.

In the Harkness Method, there are no rows of desks – all students sit at the table.  All students engage, all students participate.  Edward Harkness envisioned conference method teaching revolutionizing education in America; however, despite its efficacy, the conference method was initially adopted by only a handful of elite private schools in the northeast. The conference method of instruction has since expanded to hundreds of schools, including public schools, colleges, and universities around the world.  In recent years, the conference method has emerged as a recognized teaching method for more than just the rich and privileged few.  Today, the conference method is offered in modalities ranging from the traditional Harkness Method to graduate style discussion to – now – The Hague Approach, which incorporates the strengths of these approaches in modern classrooms and experiential learning.

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