A namesake, table and significant pedagogy
‘Harkness’ isn’t a common family name, and so I’ve been flattered to discover a namesake pedagogy – the Harkness Pedagogy. Not heard of it? Google ‘Harkness Pedagogy’, ‘Harkness learning’ or Harkness method’ and you’ll discover it’s better known than you might guess.
Back in 1930 Edward Harkness, a US philanthropist (I’m not a relative, so I’ve not seen any of his wealth), donated the equivalent of about US$80 million to a New Hampshire college to encourage the purchase of – wait for it – large oval tables, and to fund the salaries of the teachers to sit with students around those tables.
So the Harkness Table (a cool 1,120,000 hits on Google) came to be, as an essential item for the Harkness Pedagogy. These tables were sometimes so large that they had to be installed before the walls of the room were built around them. You can buy Harkness tables via the internet – I rather like the look of the 17 foot ’eco-friendly’ model.
The genius of the Harkness Pedagogy is certainly not a 20th century novelty, although traditional schooling models don’t reflect it widely. One commentator has suggested, ‘the table is the method’. For – in contrast to the unilateral transmissive model that marks much education – having a small group of students sitting around a table with a teacher lends itself to a much more participatory and interactive form of learning. Think of the likely dynamics:
- Numbers of participants are limited – up to a dozen or so comfortably. No-one can be lost in the crowd, and all have time to contribute.
- There’s no ‘front and back of the room’, and no backs-of-heads. All participants can have eye-contact with each other. Thus a web of interactions is possible.
- The teacher is seated among the students, rather than on or behind some sort of ‘pedestal-of-power’. Potential for a mutuality, being learners together.
- All can hear each other. No need for a microphone, with its assumption of unidirectional communication.
All in all, the Harkness Table provides a much more hospitable space for learning than the traditional classroom. Recognising the power of the interaction between the use of space and relationships for effective learning in theological education, I wonder what might happen if we made greater use of Harkness tables.
I’m reminded of features of the teacher/learner relationship in the early churches:
- Faith, not knowledge per se, relates us to God, and so all are on common ground before God.
- The Holy Spirit is ultimately the primary teacher of God’s message, and thus teachers need to be learners from God as they teach.
- ‘Formal teachers’ needed to be open to learning from God and others, so all were teachers and learners almost simultaneously.
- The quality of knowledge is more important than quantity, so learning came from all with relevant insights.
These features lie at the heart of effective theological education for ministry formation too. Imagine how the Harkness Table might enhance them. It’s to recognise TE as providing hospitable space for a communitarian endeavour, in which all (and their contributions) are welcomed, and hosted ultimately by the One who ‘will guide us into all the truth’.
Hmmm. It leads me to think also of tables of welcome – especially with food and drink – we see at deeply formative occasions in the Bible, especially the table we Christians are drawn to week-by-week and month-by-month.
So, thanks for the reminder, Edward Harkness!