At the Table

We often speak of a teacher’s philosophy of teaching, but we rarely speak of a classroom’s, and yet classrooms do have their philosophies and can impress them on teachers. Sometimes that is a good thing.

In the 1930’s the Phillips Exeter Academy adopted the “Harkness Table” as the result of a gift whose donor specified that the classrooms using his gift should have classes conducted as conferences in which students were encouraged to speak up and discuss.

Some years ago I watched a video of a math class being conducted at a Harkness table at Exeter. The dynamic was decentralized and exploratory, with small groups of students working independently at different problems, discussing and chalk-talking their way through them either on boards or in clusters at the table on paper. The teacher had a noticeable but unobtrusive presence: his role was advisory. During this class he did not direct any comments to the group as a whole, but let them get on with their exploration and learning.

At some point later in my own career I thought I was ready to try some of the Harkness lessons. I got some encouragement from a colleague and from a classroom. By an accident fortunate for me, the classrooms at the school where I taught were furnished in half-hexagonal tables that could be arranged into a kind of doughnut that simulated a large Harkness table. My colleague had done so, and I decided to follow suit.

Some good things immediately ensued, and some bad things vanished. No more students in the back of the class doodling (it was too long ago for them to be texting their friends). No more of the kind of student who vanishes in the third row, never to be heard from again. Everyone was in the front row in places of equal importance. The quality of discussion improved, and with it, understanding. It turned out that the doughnut had its uses. When the class broke into its discussion and work groups, I could stroll inside and outside them.

Another colleague of mine used the tables to form hexagons for a number of work groups when they were needed. He could also form the doughnut. A third colleague went with the doughnut as I did. The only time we arranged the tables traditionally was during exams, and our classes were better for the other arrangements.

Of course, more than just an arrangement of tables is needed for a good class. To start with, classes should be small enough that the whole group can function as a discussion group. In my experience the ideal size of such a class is from twelve to fifteen students. I once attended a class at St. John’s College, Santa Fe, whose object was to read and discuss The Ambassadors. A group of twenty-two was workable in that class because all the members of the class understood St. John’s way of conducting discussions, all were motivated, and all were mature. One can’t count on those conditions among ninth-graders discussing the tenth chapter of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or eleventh-graders digging in to William James on “The Perception of Reality.”

The next requirement is that all students—and the teacher!—share a way of discussing. That way is an old-fashioned one: conversation. For the same reason it takes years to prepare a dinner for six, it takes much time and effort to get ready for a twelfth-grade colloquium on Isaiah Berlin’s “Equality.” Students should know or be taught how to manage themselves in one. They should understand why a class is not like those televised eruptions of shouting heads, not even during a “class debate.”

Now, the teacher is of course not strictly a conversationalist and must be ready to advise students when they need it. Students should learn to recognize certain traps and not to fall into them—post hoc—question-begging—tu quoque—special pleading—ad hominem. My beginning students easily and frequently beg the question, most of them not having learned what question-begging is until I tell them in 11th grade. It would also help if students learned to avoid bad habits of speech such as using “like” as a space-filler or saying “I’m like” instead of “I said.” (A New Yorker cartoon shows a Valley Ophelia telling Gertrude, “So he’s like ‘To be or not to be,’ and I’m like ‘Get a life.’”)

Another line tells us that a classroom is a place where twenty children sit and watch a grown-up work. That is the approach invited by the classroom arranged in rows facing a teacher’s desk, or lectern, or podium. For a traditional lecture, nothing could be better; and there are times when only a traditional lecture will do. But other aims call for other means, and a classroom and teacher adaptable to those means can bring about results achievable in no other way.

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