I remember the chafe and soft thud of dry logs landing on burning kindling. The fire picking up. And I remember the circle forming around the fire on the sand at the edge of the water. The scrubby hill sloped down to the shoreline and we were nestled into that hillside, so we could see half the night sky. We looked out to the east of the island, across the Pacific Ocean and to the dim lights of the California coastline. It was dark and very clear, starry with some fast moving clouds, and growing late. We had spent the week stepping in and out of kayaks and lab rooms, slipping in and out of wetsuits, working the island crafts and sharing the literature–huddled in places we meandered to on thin, dusty trails bound by tall, drying grasses, or off alone and silent on promontories or leaning back into trees, journal and pencil in hand.
I always loved Catalina and Channel Island expeditions. Now it was time to say goodbye again. The island had been generous. Around the campfire, the group leader spoke in deference, thanking someone for some small action. Then, looking left, the next person spoke as the circle proceeded in gratitude, one after another.
How odd it would be to even mention that no one thought to sit in rows all facing one direction on a night like this. Nor had anyone decided to sit in a circle. But there is the beauty of archetypes: leadership expressed through universals and natural axioms, through generations and, in groups, on trips, around fires and treasures, the circle is always our host.
For connecting and engaging as humans, the circle has prehistoric roots, and naturally it finds its way into great classrooms led by great teachers. “The circle way” has been codified and passed along into great schools by educators everywhere; but none more archetypically than at “Exeter.” Originally developed in 1930 by Edward Harkness, a trustee of Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, the wide oval table was intended to be the centerpiece of any classroom that employs a Socratic or circle methodology. This has come to be known as the Harkness method of teaching, employed at great schools, including The Grauer School, for generations now.
The Harkness teaching method allows students to sit with their classmates and teachers around the table and discuss any and all subjects, process any issues, from mathematics to history, in detail and depth. As a result, in a way transcending what can be done in rows, individual and whole group opinions are formed, raised, deepened, and revised—they are challenged or rejected, courageously and openly.
Class size is critical around the table. For millennia, great, Socratic teachers have engaged with approximately 12 students as an ideal number. In a 2006 interview with NPR before his death in 2007, Kurt Vonnegut was asked: “If you were to build or envision a country that you could consider yourself to be a proud citizen of, what would be three of its basic attributes”? Vonnegut responded: “Schools with classes of 12 or smaller.” I once asked the great teacher Christina Baldwin, founder of Peer Spirit, transformational circle leader, and bestselling author of “StoryCatchers,” what the optimal circle number is. “I think 12,” she answered. Likewise, the Harkness tables of Exeter were designed for 12 typically with a maximum of 14 possible student seats, as most of The Grauer School’s tables are. Larger conversations can be had, but they are not authentic Harkness, and they tend to lack the intimacy and inclusion of true Socratic seminars.
In Grauer’s classrooms, where the teacher’s main responsibility is to support each student in the development of clear thinking, Socratic circles form in all humanities classes. Exeter actually has Harkness tables in math and science classes, as well, but several students I interviewed while visiting Phillips Exeter Academy all noted that they are not used as much in those forums and that they primarily used in the humanities classrooms. The Grauer School has found the same.
Supported, acknowledged, and listened to at eye level, students gain in confidence, critical thinking, and engagement. Meanwhile, the group develops a sense of connection and focus. Around the Harkness, students carve out their unique voices. The Harkness table is custom-made for students developing multiple perspectives, perhaps the ultimate scholarly practice.
Imagine being an English student and walking into the classroom. Last night, you read a section of Homer’s epic poem, “The Odyssey.” An impassioned classmates claims, “Odysseus is annoying! He thinks he’s so heroic, but it costs some of his men their lives!” You and your classmates are trying to weigh that comment. Someone jumps in and says, “I like him, he’s commanding. He’s a leader! Check out what he says on page 213…” But you don’t think so. You point out his betrayals. Students’ ideas fly around the table, caught and released. Someone weighs in with Penelope’s viewpoint from back in Ithaca, and someone else expresses the voice of their son Telemachus having to defend her while Odysseus travels in far off lands. No one is left out of this discussion. The discussion is like a thread leaving its traces. Everyone speaks his or her mind. Students learn to interact directly, to pass the idea around the circle rather than deflecting every comment off the teacher, as in the typical rowed and columned classroom.
Not every comment goes straight back to the teacher for his approval or judgment, and this is what is revolutionary. The ideas keep moving around and after a while many ideas seem beyond right or wrong. In a safe and connected environment, learning is authentic, exciting and inclusive. Everyone is drawn in.
Harkness tables are not for beginner teachers. But master teachers reclaim the art of Socratic teaching and great conversation around the table. I remember my classroom years ago, starting out as a public school teacher … The students walking in, the chairs scattered about, the students taking them with no thought of guidance, the uneven rows that formed. Years later, I wondered why I had not said something, not told the students that I felt something was wrong in this room, not acted on my vague sense of disconnection and artificial hierarchy. It took many years, but I speak now. Around the table, at any great school, our vague senses as Socratic teachers have become intuitions that are somehow truer than anything we can prove. Archetypes.
What if every teacher were a host? What if every classroom had a center, and the task of the teacher/host was to “hold” that center. This Socratic teacher is in the role of guardian or “midwife,” as Socrates called it. And the roles can shift. Sometimes we are clearly the teacher, and then someone else is and we become the student. We pass leadership around like a ball.
Unlike the teacher that I stopped being, the host is not responsible for the progress or happiness of those in the circle, or even for knowing all the answers. The host-teacher is responsible only for holding the open space of the circle so that everyone has the opportunity to be a part, so that every voice is heard. The teacher is patient and encouraging, and does not deem answers as wrong: “I arrived at a different conclusion than that, so how did you arrive at your answer?” the great Socratic teacher might ask. The host cares about the clarity of every thought expressed, and probes for this, never judging. Eventually we all probe. Once we can sense a leader in every seat, we know that we are becoming successful. At Grauer, we have added Harkness tables almost every year for some years now, as we can fund them. (An authentic Harkness table is always custom-made and costs around seven thousand dollars.)
Teaching is an ancient art. Once we grow accustomed to forming Socratic seminars, we wonder, how have we drifted so far from the circle? What ever made us think that rows and rows would be a way of engagement and connection? When did the teacher become the manager, boss, or captain … or drill sergeant? Those are ways of forcing compliance, but rarely of refining thought or developing ideas and creativity. Around the Harkness, or wherever there is a center, a fire ring, or a treasure, we rediscover the powerful, elegant, origin role of the teacher,
That long ago night on the shores of Catalina, one student became the fire tender. It was Ryan, grade 10. I remember because back home his identity always seemed in turmoil, but here it was simple. We gathered around the fire. Above us, the dry trails ran inland. Red toyon berries jutting out over the sand. Mackerel skies—tomorrow, clouds were moving in but we’d be gone. No one decided that this would be a circle, and everyone was heard in an infusion of gratitude as the circle did its work.
We have hosted gratitude circles like this in almost every expedition we have run for approaching three decades, and we have found no greater way to define success at our school than the kind of gratitude and acceptance we have come to expect from around the circle. Increasingly, we have brought the circle back home to all of our humanities classes.[View our just-released video, “The Harkness Table at Grauer”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nE5bQsFYVsg]
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