Watch The Harkness Method

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The Harkness Method

The Harkness Method, used in many humanities classrooms, is an established and cherished way of instruction which fosters students’ curiosity, initiative, personal confidence and problem-solving. Students sit around a table and the teacher serves as a moderator for a lively discussion in which everyone participates. Students have equal opportunity to provide input and lead the class, allowing for healthy debate, discussion and meaningful homework.

Episcopal's endowed fund for Harkness teaching provides ongoing funds to ensure the effective integration of the Harkness method in Episcopal’s curriculum. The fund provides training, evaluation, and support for teachers using the Harkness method and helps to spread and maintain the culture of Harkness teaching.


"I am in my 26th year of teaching high school English in an independent college preparatory school context," says Bert Harrell, English Department Chair. "I was blessed with superb mentors whose approach was grounded in the best of both lecture and Socratic styles, and I developed my own blend of these approaches over the years, for the most part very pleased with the results.

However, my first encounter with the Harkness philosophy in 2014 proved to be revolutionary for me; Unlike the trends I had seen come and go over the years, Harkness drew me to the heart of the educational task: effective discourse. Sitting with students around a table with the unequivocal expectation that we will discuss material on which we have prepared has been rediscovering the teaching vocation all over again. Students doing the heavy lifting opening up material with and for each other proves over and over again to generate learning of a very different kind than lecture or Socratic approaches.

Lecture focused on me as the source; Harkness focuses on students collaborating as a process of thinking things through. Socratic method is always between teacher and student, even in a class with several students--the teacher is still the focus; Harkness is a whole array of voices, listening to each other and speaking to each other in a continuum that demands a high standard of decorum. Manners matter in Harkness; manners establish the possibility of high level discourse.

The first set of semester exams I read after trying Harkness full time proved to be a wonderful surprise. My students manifested a depth of mastery and ability to think with the material far beyond what they had done in previous years. Students reporting back on their college experiences are very clear that they are advanced in their ability to lead in classes to both generate and support substantive discussion. Our students have found that their writing also grows in new ways.

As one of my own Harkness mentors put it, 'A good session around the Harkness table is, in effect, the same process as writing an essay.' For me, this has been both energizing and productive. My students are so much better served than even my best work of years past."