Why The Classes At Phillips Exeter Are Different Than At Any Other Private School

Phillips exeter academy, russell weatherspoon, class, harnkess tableMelia Robinson/BIRussell Weatherspoon sits at the Harkness Table, the centrepiece of a Phillips Exeter Academy education.

Russell Weatherspoon, or “Spoon,” as his students call him, took a seat at the sand-coloured table in the center of his classroom at Phillips Exeter Academy, a prestigious boarding school in Exeter, New Hampshire.

“Where do you want to start?” he asked the 11 upperclassmen enrolled in his social ethics course, signaling the start of class.

And that was the last we heard from Weatherspoon for a while. 

“One of the parts that bothered me,” a student began as he fanned the pages of “Ethics: Theory and Contemporary Issues,” “is on page …”

For 70 minutes, the teenagers batted around text citations, asked open-ended questions, and led the discussion without interference. No one raised a hand. There were few lulls. And yet, no one talked over a peer.

This classroom experience is not unusual at Exeter, as I learned during my recent visit to the school.

In the 1930s, the academy established a model of teaching called the Harkness method, which calls for an oval table in every classroom, and places students in charge of their own learning. Schools around the world have studied and adapted its pedagogy, but Exeter remains the only private high school (that I know of) to use the system in every one of its courses.

Phillips exeter academy, russell weatherspoon, class, harnkess tableMelia Robinson/BI‘Exeter teaches you more than talking,’ one student tells me. ‘It teaches you to listen.’

History Of Harkness

The story begins with Edward S. Harkness, an American philanthropist whose family was once the largest holder of Standard Oil stocks after the Rockefellers. He gave away an estimated $US129 million before his death, including a $US5.8 million contribution to his alma mater, Exeter.

Edward harkness, phillips exeter academyPhillips Exeter AcademyEdward S. Harkness.

When he bestowed the gift in 1930, Harkness challenged the school to use the money to develop a new way of teaching and learning. He wanted to do away with students sitting in rows and teachers lecturing at the head of the classroom.

The school came back with this proposal:

  • Class size is limited to 12.
  • Students lead the discussion.
  • An oval-shaped table, named in the philanthropist’s honour, stands in the center of the room — making students and instructor equal. They sit at the same height, can see one another from any seat at the table, and have “no corners to hide behind,” as Harkness put it.

For more than 80 years, this system has served Exeter students in and outside the classroom. If standardized testing scores are any indication of the Harkness method’s success, it’s worth nothing that Exeter students averaged an SAT score of 2107 out of 2400, a full 610 points higher than the national average.

Phillips exeter academy, chorus, classMelia Robinson/BIThe Harkness table exists even in classrooms without tables, like this advanced music class.

Everyone Gets A Say At The Table

The Harkness method, with its small group setting, comes with an obligation to come to class prepared. Otherwise it will be pretty obvious who did and didn’t do their homework. Speaking up at the Harkness table, however, is just as important as drawing out others around you.

Remember that one kid in your high school class who never knew when to keep quiet?

“I used to be one of them,” one student told me during my recent visit to Exeter. “I was talking a lot. But Exeter teaches you more than talking. It teaches you to listen.”

The entire day I spent at Exeter, I don’t think I heard one student talk over another. Students allowed their peers to finish phrasing a question or developing an idea before jumping in, just as well as they remembered to cite the text. They are encouraged to wait three seconds before responding to what the last person said, and to begin their contribution by repeating part of what the previous person said.

Phillips exeter academy, becky moore, class, harnkess tableMelia Robinson/BIStudents in Moore’s class play a warm-up before the start of class.

During my visit, I witnessed students’ “discussion etiquette training” in action, on even the most minute of scales.

English instructor Becky Moore, who has taught at Exeter for more than 24 years, began her 200-level English class with a warm-up: She challenged the students to recite the alphabet as a group. No one person could say two letters in a row, and if two people talked at the same time, the group had to start over. It began, “A,” “B,” “C,” and so on, at random.

Halfway through the alphabet, the students reached a standstill. No one spoke. Finally, a small girl wearing glasses piped in with the next letter.

Why the lull? A student later explained, “Hillary was the only one who hadn’t spoken yet, so I knew not to talk.”

Harkness table, phillips exeter academyMelia Robinson/BIAn outdoor Harkness table.

Harkness Spreads Around The World

When Edward S. Harkness envisioned a student-centered teaching method, he hoped it would reach far beyond Exeter. Today, that dream is being realised. 

Exeter offers seven on-campus conferences for teachers, allowing them to sit in on summer classes and learn best practices in implementing a discussion-based pedagogy. Last year, according to The Exeter Bulletin, 139 independent schools, 70 public schools, and 16 countries (as far as Australia, China, Paraguay, and Turkey) sent representatives to Exeter.

And at Exeter, the Harkness method continues to evolve. Each department adapts the system in a way that fits its curriculum. It was only in the last 20 years that the science department found a way to fit the Harkness method into a lab setting, and the maths department is pioneering ways to present problems in a collaborative scaffolding.

The Harkness method is far from a “one size fits all” teaching system — just as every student’s needs are unique. But when it works, it sure works well.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.