What Is the Harkness Teaching Method

Of the many ways to teach, one method exists to create and facilitate peer discussion: the Harkness teaching method. 

The Harkness teaching method is a student-centered approach to learning that encourages active, engaged participation from all students in the classroom. This method was developed at Phillips Exeter Academy in the 1930s and adopted by schools worldwide.

So, what is the Harkness teaching method, and how can it help students thrive? Pull up a chair, and let’s get started.

The Harkness Teaching Method

The Harkness method is flexible and adaptable to many subjects and grade levels. It serves history, English, and the humanities best, but can enhance student learning in any subject. 

Using a Harkness approach in teaching encourages parents to help their children take the reins of the teaching process through deep-dive discussions. 

In a classroom, the key features of the Harkness method are small class sizes, a roundtable discussion format, and a focus on student-led inquiry. In a Harkness classroom, students sit in a circle around a table and take turns leading the discussion. The teacher facilitates and guides the discussion, ensuring all voices are heard.

This approach to learning promotes deep, meaningful understanding as students are actively engaged in the material. It also develops crucial skills like critical thinking, communication, and collaboration.

Teachers might use several methods to employ this teaching method to create a dynamic and engaging learning environment. For example, students may break into smaller groups to participate in a roundtable discussion. The teacher sets a date, explains the process to the class, and provides plenty of time to prepare for the roundtable discussions.

The Teachers’s Role in Harkness Teaching Method

It’s important to understand the teacher’s role in this method because it differs from traditional lectures or explanations. While it puts a significant onus on the children, the teacher serves as a guide and sets forth ground rules.

Teachers need to create a safe and supportive environment where all children feel comfortable sharing their ideas. They set aside plenty of time for discussion and step back to facilitate rather than lead.

The Harkness teaching method requires teachers to develop specific skills to make it work well. They may need to ask probing questions, keep whatever they are trying to teach on track, and make sure that all children are actively participating.

To reinforce the idea of collaboration, teachers need to create an atmosphere of trust and respect. It can be challenging when you have teenagers, but that’s where teachers need to keep a pulse on the children. Stepping back to a less hands-on role allows teachers to observe more and identify situations they might not recognize in a traditional setting. 

It is vital to be able to assess child learning effectively. Teachers must give meaningful and helpful feedback. That feedback aids in assessment tools that accurately measure a child’s understanding.

History of the Harkness Teaching Method

The Harkness teaching method is a student-centered teaching method developed at Phillips Exeter Academy in the early 20th century. The key features of the Harkness method are small class sizes, student-led discussions, and a focus on critical thinking and analytical skills.

The method, developed by educator Edward Harkness, was inspired by the Socratic teaching method. Harkness believed the best way to learn was through active discussion and debate rather than lectures. He also believed that small class sizes were essential for promoting open discussion.

Harkness came to New York City to teach at a prestigious private school. He quickly developed a reputation as an innovative and effective educator, and his teaching methods soon spread to other schools.

Harkness believed that education should be tailored to the individual needs of each student, and he developed a method of teaching that emphasized small group work and student-centered learning. Harkness put his approach into practice, and soon other educators took note. 

Today, Harkness is recognized as one of the most influential educators of the 20th century.  Many prestigious universities, including Harvard, Yale, and Stanford embrace the Harkness teaching method. Secondary and private schools also introduced the method to their curriculums to better prepare students for higher education, including Buffalo Seminary.

Visitors to Buffalo Seminary might be struck by the large oval tables in the school’s English and history classrooms. Students know them as Harkness tables, a physical representation of the school’s commitment to the teaching method. 

Buffalo Seminary incorporated the Harkness teaching method during the 1920s, and the practice remains a staple in today’s classrooms. Students appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with peers in a conversational analysis to develop a deeper understanding of key issues and topics.

Benefits of the Harkness Teaching Method

The Harkness teaching method fosters critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Students become active learners instead of passive recipients of information and develop critical skills. 

Enhance Communication Skills

Students learn how to share their ideas and perspectives with their peers. This method helps build confidence to speak in group settings. It’s especially useful for shy students who do better in smaller groups and may serve as a stepping stone to larger venues.

They must also learn how to listen to others to arrive at a community consensus. Only through listening to their peers can students formulate a rational response and arrive at a group consensus. 

It’s not always easy to hear other perspectives, but the Harkness teaching method helps students develop those critical skills. 

Encourages Independent Learning

While traditional lectures train students to memorize and reiterate content, the Harkness method sparks independence. Encouraging free thought and deeper analysis prepares students to work together to achieve a common goal.

Giving students power over their education increases engagement and encourages them to follow their interests. Students gain the confidence to express and explore their ideas and form opinions independently.


The Harkness teaching method is a student-centered approach that encourages active and collaborative learning. It is based on the principle that students learn best when they are engaged in the learning process and when they can share their ideas with their peers. 

Buffalo Seminary students experience the Harkness method benefits in all English and history classrooms. Whether discussing a book in literature or contemplating the impact of current affairs on the global economy, the Harkness method encourages collaboration, critical thinking, and communication skills that will prepare them for future success in the real world.

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About the Author

Buffalo Seminary is an independent day and boarding school for college-bound girls in Buffalo, NY.