The student news of St. Paul Academy and Summit School

The Rubicon

The student news of St. Paul Academy and Summit School

The Rubicon

The student news of St. Paul Academy and Summit School

The Rubicon

More than a piece of furniture

Do Harkness tables change classroom dynamics?

Martin: Hi, my name is Zadie Martin and welcome to the Rubiconline Opinions podcast. Harkness tables are a unique approach to learning that originated at Phillips Exeter Academy, a private high school in New Hampshire in the 1930s. The goal of Harkness tables is to foster collaborative and student-centered learning experiences in a classroom setting. SPA has adopted this type of teaching and classroom setting to promote an independent style of learning for its students.
Unfortunately, Harkness tables have been hidden in the basement of the upper school campus for years now since COVID, but they have recently made a comeback in history classes, the debate room and some language classes.

Bollinger Danielson: Ben Bollinger Danielson, upper school faculty member, he/him pronouns.

Martin: And why were the Harkness tables put away originally?

Bollinger Danielson: From my understanding, they were put away as part of the social distancing protocol around the COVID pandemic.

Martin: And how have Harkness tables changed the classroom now that they have been reintroduced?

Bollinger Danielson: I mean, at the end of the day Harkness tables, just really nice furniture, you know, so we were always doing student-centered activities, student-centered discussions. One thing I like about the Harkness table is that it does start everybody sort of in a connected democratic space where we’re all looking at each other. You know, it actually in our classrooms, shrinks the footprint of the furniture a little bit, providing more space than when we had all those desks in before. So I think ,two ways: one, it really makes us confront that we’re starting on the same page sitting together in community, which I think is great. And then two, it’s opened up our classrooms a little bit more for space.

One thing I like about the Harkness table is that it does start everybody sort of in a connected democratic space where we’re all looking at each other

— Ben Bollinger Danielson

Martin: How has it helped or shaped discussions in class?

Bollinger Danielson: You know, again, it is just furniture, but I do notice that the way those are designed, there aren’t really corners where you’re left out, there’s no back of the room. So in that way, I think it makes us think a little more intentionally about discussion. I think we did it with desks just fine. But I think the furniture sort of does in a kind of a unique way, pulls us together a little bit more and it just makes it a little more easy, easy to do.

Martin: Do you think class participation has become more equal with the help of the Harkness table?

Bollinger Danielson: You know, I don’t know about that. I think. I think that’s the art form of both the students and the teacher thinking through how do you elevate voices and how you, you know how you encourage balanced participation? I think that’s beyond furniture. I think the Harkness table can help with that. But I think it is a tool, not a solution.

Martin: And is there anything that you dislike about the Harkness table?

Bollinger Danielson: You know, sometimes it feels like we’re sitting really, you know, pretty close. Together. And sometimes you lose a little flexibility of being able to move the furniture around. Obviously, there’s ways around that we can get up and move away from the table and we can move people into small groups away from that, but occasionally, it feels a little close.

Martin: The round table is meant to facilitate discussion-based learning for students. This way, students are able to strengthen their collaboration skills through one another and avoid having a lecture-style class. Many students have found that Harkness stables allow them to have a more fluent conversation with their peers in class.

Bhargava: I’m Rishi. I’m a senior and I use he/him pronouns.

Martin: How has the Harkness table changed a classroom within your Spanish class, at least?

Bhargava: For Spanish, especially it’s a very like, conversation-guided class. I mean, we are learning a new language. So that’s kind of that’s pretty obvious, but it’s nice, especially coming from like COVID. We were distance learning, and that’s the other extreme like we’re on computers and we’re clicking an unmute button whenever we have to talk. Now we’re facing each other, sitting around a circular table and you’re able to not only talk but also like read each other’s expressions. I don’t know, it just feels more natural. It’s like you’re having a conversation in class.

Martin: And do you think class participation has become more equal with the help of a Harkness table?

Bhargava: What do you mean by equal?

Martin: Like more people are participating.

Bhargava: Okay, I feel like some people still participate more than others, at least in my Spanish class. I feel like it makes talking in class a bit less stressful, and that might encourage people to talk more than they used to, but I still feel like there are times when at least, it’s an environment where some people might not feel so like they want to share and I want to speak up.

Martin: And what do you like and dislike about the Harkness table?

Bhargava: There’s this really annoying thing where people like click the bottom of the table which has like a little slide up straight, like up and onto the table surface and it makes this like clicking sound that’s really annoying. I also am not a huge fan of the chairs. They are not too comfortable. But I do like the concept of a roundtable with everyone like sitting facing each other instead of having desks spread out across the classroom.

Martin: Next year, Harnksss tables will continue to be used in a variety of classes and will allow students to foster more control over their own learning. My name is Zadie Martin and thank you for listening to the Rubicon Opinions podcast, see you next time.

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About the Contributor
Zadie Martin
Zadie Martin, Feature Editor
My name is Zadie Martin(she/her). I work as a Feature Editor for the RubicOnline. At school, I’m involved in book club and choir. I love to ramble about sci-fi and character building. I can be reached at [email protected].

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