Much of the way many private schools teach today --with students participating in and helping to direct conversation after a provocative prompt from a teacher--goes back to a special table and a teaching methodology first crafted at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. In 1930, philanthropist Edward Harkness gave a staggering amount of $5,840,000 to Exeter--money that was used to construct dormitories and other buildings and that was also used for the endowment. Harkness was a benefactor of great renown. As Richard F. Niebling wrote in the "The Phillips Exeter Bulletin" of Fall 1982, Harkness had already established the Commonwealth Fund to promote mental health among other causes, and Harkness also gave money to develop the house system at Harvard College and the college plan at Yale. Humble by nature, Harkness would not allow any building to be named after him during his lifetime.
Far more progressive than most of the educational leaders of the time, Edward Harkness was a great educational thinker who understood that the traditional method of teaching-in which the teacher stood at the front of the class and lectured to students, who then recited the lessons-did not do enough to encourage true critical thinking. Harkness was particularly concerned about the shy student who did not jump into conversation and therefore did not learn as much as he could (Exeter was all boys at that time). Apparently, Harkness was this type of student himself during his years at St. Paul's. To change the way classes were traditionally taught, Harkness was interested in making a gift to Exeter that would help classes be more interactive and encourage each student to participate in the conversation. He wanted the student who did not understand the material to be more apparent to the teacher, so that the teacher could help this type of student learn. At the time, Exeter proposed reducing the class size from about 20 to 30 students to just ten students, instituting a one-on-one tutorial system to help students meet directly with their teachers, and a house system in which students were in contact with advisors.
As part of the process of changing teaching methods, Harkness also attacked the traditional seating plan in which students are set up in rows. The tables then used at Exeter did not allow the teachers to look at students and did not permit students to look at each other. The solution that Harkness came up with was the Harkness Table, an oval-shaped table originally designed for 12 students and a teacher that allowed students to look at each other and at the teacher. The original oval Harkness Tables did not fit through Exeter's doors, so the school brought building materials to the classrooms and constructed them within the classroom walls.
The unique shape of the Harkness Table does not permit students to hide, but it also does not leave them too exposed. The table permits students to learn from the teacher and teachers to learn from students. The table allows students to express their ideas and to respect the viewpoints of others. The result is a revolutionary, dynamic style of teaching that encouraged students to think critically and that changed private school education forever. Now, students who are confused about the material or who are too shy to jump into discussion can't hide; instead, the table allows private school teachers to understand the comprehension level of each student.Today, the table is still being constructed and is used at boarding and day schools across the country and in foreign countries such as Japan and the United Arab Emirates use the table and its attendant teaching methodology to encourage conversation. Exeter still uses the table for each and every one of its classes. The table, which seats 12 to 18 people, is at the heart of discussions at schools nationwide and is a symbol of the interactive style of learning at many private schools.