Pioneered in the early 20th century, the Harkness Table is a method of teaching young people how to discuss an idea. Seated around tables in a relaxed atmosphere, an instructor will take a lower profile role as students gather around a previously read assignment to discuss it. A Harkness Table Seminar may begin with one or two prompts on the board, but soon it becomes a full-fledged discussion of the text before the class.
Each Harkness discussion has a moderator – not the teacher – but a student whose task is to keep the discussion moving. It also has a “scribe” who tracks the discussion: who speaks, who asks a question, who responds. At the end of the discussion, the scribe gives an assessment of how the seminar proceeded. Are students graded? Yes, the teacher takes a seat in the background, intervening only if the discussion stalls or gets seriously off-track.
The purpose of the Harkness Table Seminar is to give the student the sense of how as young adults they can discuss a topic, even a controversial one, in a productive effort to understand or break down an idea. It becomes a way to understand those who disagree or have other points of view. It also requires the student to come to the assignment with ownership of the material, prepared to contribute in a meaningful way.