The ongoing format of the Humanities classes is discussion based learning around the Harkness table. The reason for the oval table is that in the development of meaningful discussion and the ability to speak well, it is essential to be able to make eye contact with those who are listening. Therefore it creates a physical environment where everyone is comfortable to speak and listen carefully. The Table also creates an intellectual environment where students come to class prepared to discuss the underlying currents of politics, philosophy, theology, science, and culture that drive and are driven by the history of ideas.
A colleague's Comment about the Tables:
I wonder sometimes what visiting parents and students think as they pass by the window of Humanities class at Regents. In particular, I wonder what they think when they see students gathered around the large, oval table unique to the Humanities department. Above is a good summary and implies a fundamental assumption of the School of Rhetoric at Regents: what our students say and the way they say it matters. Students must learn to collaborate with one another in an open dialogue throughout a particular course. Evaluation of participation is not by a curve. The ideal Harkness discussion would yield an “A” for every student because the goal of the class is dialogue, collaboration, and respectful persuasion. The common misperception of students is that the goal of participation at the table is to say exactly what the teacher would say if the teacher were lecturing; therefore some students are prone to make a comment and then give a subtle look to the teacher as if to say “was that good? Was that right? Do I get an A now? Do I need to say anything else?” Some students just say these things aloud. This is not an “anything goes” method of teaching. I will affirm and critique the content of the students’ conversations before moving to another unit in the class. Furthermore, reading selection and supplemental, reflective homework assignments have great influence on the direction of the students’ dialogue. Nonetheless, the Harkness discussions in the School of Rhetoric primarily are student run. This means students depend on and trust one another to do their homework. Unlike other styles of teaching, students are accountable to come to class ready to discuss, deliberate with their peers, and after much collaboration and reflection, to persuade and influence toward a particular opinion. As Christians, we share a life together within the community of God’s people: we respect one another; we have patience with one another; we care about the marginalized and oppressed (no community is free of this); we consider others better than ourselves; we care about the diversity within God’s people; we come to conversations in humility, ready to listen before speaking. Far from being a style of teaching that emphasizes the relativity of individual opinion, the Harkness method at Regents seeks to point students toward that which is true, good, and beautiful and to care about how the true, good, and beautiful matter for their neighbor.
Click here to learn about the History of Harkness. Exeter has a great deal of information about Harkness discussion on their website . Check it out if you would like to learn more. However—as a disclaimer-- Exeter is neither a Christian school nor a classical school and there are, therefore, many ways in which their pedagogy is different from ours at Regents.