Head of School Blog
Susan Tyree Dempf, Ph.D.

The Harkness Method

Every once in a while I receive a marvelous email offering the Academy a “treasure.” These treasures come in many different forms—the one I write about today was an inquiry as to whether the Academy would be able to use a very large conference table. My response was a pretty near immediate “YES! Thank you.” Now the only challenge was to get it up to the Theology classroom in Regis Hall!

I was so excited to be the beneficiary of this gift because I saw the potential in this table. This was more than a lovely piece of furniture, it was going to offer the opportunity to bring the Harkness Method to our school. The Harkness Method was developed by philanthropist Edward Harkness for use at Phillips Exeter Academy starting in the 1930s. Still in use at many college prep schools, this Socratic learning environment encourages students to express their ideas and opinions and refine them while in dialogue with their teacher and classmates.

With students seated around the table facing each other, the teacher facilitates the students’ learning by posing questions and fostering the exchange of ideas. Students are encouraged to explore and grow in understanding rather than to just accept the “word of the teacher.” This may seem like a radical idea, and possibly even a scary thought! But here is the glory in the “results,” by not being “fed” all the answers students claim ownership of their learning, their understanding and when applied to the Theology course—their faith! In the awkward silences, and sometimes they happen, reflection occurs. These moments allow for the development of authentic spirituality.

My thanks go out to the Centorbi family for the gift of this table and for the opportunity it will provide Seventh and Eighth Class students to engage in dialogue, practice active listening and grow in their ability to learn from others.

I look forward to seeing you at Back-to-School Night!

Dr. Dempf

September 5, 2019