Wednesday, 8 April 2009

A School where tables make a difference in the classroom

It is always interesting to visit other schools and this is particularly the case when they are well funded and based on a distinct educational philosophy. In this respect Phillips Exeter Academy NH, one of the leading co-ed 13-18 independent boarding schools in New England, did not disappoint. Looking like the younger sibling of Harvard it has every facility imaginable [including two full-size ice hockey rinks!], but there was much more to Phillips Exeter than the fruit of an extravagant endowment [of just under $1bn!].

At Exeter no class has more than twelve pupils and every classroom has a “Harkness table” around which pupils dispute and discuss with their teacher. The concept comes from one of the school's foremost philanthropists, John Harkness:
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.
Whilst this method may be familiar to us from History or English lessons at A-level, at Phillips it extends to throughout the school and to every subject: the large oval tables can be found in every classrooms including the labs
. The result is that the people are eloquent, motivated and outstanding independent learners. In these classes there is no place to hide.

One interesting feature of the tables is that each pupil can pull out a work station so that when they sit tests they cannot copy their neighbour [also see top illustration]

Harkness Table Manufacturer

1 comment:

  1. Clearly the Berkhamsted version would have a touch screen that would pull out, creating a digital ink pad, plus Web access, upon which to work....

    On a serious note, this all harks back to Socrates and ancient Athens - sitting in a group and debating ideas until the core meaning could be established. In some respects, we haven't progressed much, or rather, the tried and tested ways are sometimes more productive than the new fangled.

    Do you think that such practices have been eroded in the British system, due to excessive pressures to cram students and achieve good exam results, rather than produce rounded individuals, who can function in group scenarios too?