“A Revolution in Methods” for the 21st Century

Note: The following was originally published on my school’s blog. It is designed as a brief reflection on my professional development experience at the Exeter Humanities Institute this past summer.

In 1930, philanthropist Edward Harkness donated more than $5 million to the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy. In a letter to the head of that school, he laid out his plans for the money. “What I have in mind,” Harkness wrote, “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.”

Harkness had himself attended St. Paul’s School in nearby Concord, New Hampshire, but he had been disenchanted with the style of his own education. As was common at the time, instructors lectured almost exclusively. To keep students on their toes, they peppered their lectures with questions, and students were expected to snap if they knew the answer. Harkness felt that although such a system might work for the top students, the vast majority was being left behind. It was with this in mind—and with the hopes that he might play some part in improving education—that Edward Harkness pledged to Exeter a small part of his vast fortune.

In June, I had the privilege of attending the Exeter Humanities Institute along with more than fifty other teachers from around the world. Under the tutelage of several Exeter’s master teachers, we spent a very intense week learning and practicing the student-centered, discussion-based pedagogy that has become known, appropriately, as “the Harkness method.”

By the end of the week, my experience at Exeter had totally changed the way I look at my own teaching, but during my first couple of days there, I found myself questioning my decision to attend. I was frustrated because we spent the bulk of our time discussing various texts centered around the chosen theme, but I hadn’t traveled to New Hampshire to learn about the theme. I was there to learn the famed Harkness method! Anxious for some practical knowledge that I could take back to Saint Mary’s, I asked the teachers, “How would you do X?” Or, when that didn’t yield a satisfactory response, “What would you suggest that I do to accomplish Y?” Regardless of which instructors I asked or how I phrased my questions, the result was the same: they all avoided giving me a straight answer. It was maddening.

Somewhere around Day 3, though, it finally clicked: this was what Harkness was really about. In fact, there was no right answer, no “one right way.” Precisely because the instructors had denied me the easy “how to” knowledge I sought, I was forced to think through my questions more deeply and develop stronger answers for myself. It was in that moment that the true power of student-centered learning became clear for me.

Of course, life would be much easier for everyone if we teachers could just tell our students exactly what they need to know—and if we limit our conception of “what they need to know” to what’s on next week’s test, I suppose we can. In our complex and rapidly changing society, though, what they truly need to know is constantly shifting, and so we must be willing to shift our approaches to teaching and learning as well. These days, as many students carry the world around in their pockets, simple recall of factual content is less essential than it perhaps once was. Critical thinking, communication, and collaboration, meanwhile, have never been more important.

To be sure, lectures are much more efficient than what takes place in my classroom, but in the 21st century, efficiency should not be our ultimate goal. The truth is that real, lasting learning is often quite messy, and in the long run, it is far more empowering for students to discover ideas for themselves. The Harkness method is the perfect vehicle for this kind of intellectual self-discovery, and just as its namesake once hoped, it has revolutionized my approach to education.

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