TABLE TALK. Students from the class of 2019 sit around a Harkness table during their World History II class. Nowadays, history classes arrange single desks in a circle. (PHOTO: SPA SmugMug)
TABLE TALK. Students from the class of 2019 sit around a Harkness table during their World History II class. Nowadays, history classes arrange single desks in a circle.

PHOTO: SPA SmugMug

Harkness tables: necessary or no big deal?

October 26, 2022

Harkness tables have been a selling point in the past for SPA, representing the discussion-heavy curriculum of classes such as English and history. This specific brand of oval, wooden tables was in the majority of humanities classrooms at SPA and was representative of encouraging discourse. The usage of the tables was brought to a halt when COVID-19 interrupted school. When students returned to school from being online, the oval tables had been replaced with individual desks lined up and spaced six feet away from each other.

The Harkness method was such a staple in the humanities classes that the change was shocking to not only students but also faculty. It was hard to say whether the absence of the tables would cause a difference in the learning style of SPA. Now that most other safety precautions like masks, sanitary wipes and plexiglass have been removed, community members have had time to reflect on the absence of the infamous Harkness tables.

History teachers have arguably felt the loss of these lecture tables the most. “I have noticed a difference since SPA lost the Harkness tables. I’m not sure if it is because of the tables or because of COVID, but it is harder to get kids to talk and participate,” history teacher Mollie Ward said. The curriculum of history classes at SPA is dependent on student participation, so the decrease in participation has been hard for teachers to work around.

[S]ince we’ve been back in the classroom… it feels like the level of discussion hasn’t changed.”

— Simon Assefa

It is hard to isolate the cause of less participation considering the jump from online school to in-person learning, but students seem to have their own opinions. “I haven’t noticed a difference in learning. It was definitely a lot harder to be discussion-based when we were online, but ever since we’ve been back in the classroom, it feels like the level of discussion hasn’t changed,” senior Simon Assefa said. As a senior, Assefa spent half a semester with the Harkness tables pre-pandemic. The comparison to discussion with the tables versus with the individual desks does not seem to have impacted his experience.

All other grades besides the seniors, however, were never able to experience class with the tables. “I don’t mind the desks; they are usually assembled in an oval shape anyways. As someone who never experienced the Harkness tables, I don’t see how they’d be that different. I still think that SPA is accomplishing its learning style without the Harkness tables,” junior Natalie Vogenthaler said.

Students seem to believe that even without the specialty tables, SPA is still heavily discussion-based and is still accomplishing what it has promoted. That being said, faculty members are wondering why the tables have yet to return. “There has been discussion among the history department about wanting them back and wondering when they will return,” Ward said. It is unsure when or if the Harkness tables will make a return, but even in their absence, discussion-based learning persists and students don’t seem to be harmed by their departure.

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