By Aakash Koduru ’20 News Reporter
A hot topic at Mercersburg Academy centers around the Harkness table, once a marketing point of the Mercersburg classroom. Some feel that it’s a very valuable asset, but the majority feels otherwise. In particular, the nay-sayers believe that discussions around the Harkness table do not correlate to gaining valuable knowledge or critical thinking skill and instead only promote getting a high grade. Students simply focus on saying what they think will get them points, neglecting to listen so they can connect their points back to those previously mentioned.
Also, students are rather concerned about the other ways which the Harkness tables affect academics. Sean Fiscus ’20 says, “They are an unnecessary waste of space. Small, individual desks could easily be put in a circle for a group discussion. Instead, taking tests and writing essays is uncomfortable and there is not enough space to work on the pullout boards.” He argues that small desks could help move away from this idea of graded discussions, instead focusing students on carrying a natural conversation throughout an entire class.
Additionally, Clay Pritchett ’20 believes that rounded table discussions are tough because there are many kids so focused on scoring well that they dominate the conversation, preventing others from speaking. This detracts from the purpose of these conversations, and contributes to some students losing interest in participating as time goes on. Instead, everyone should be given a chance to speak rather than people just jumping in because this promotes more of the conversational philosophy, giving more emphasis to developing an analytical conversation than serving an individual grade.
However, English department faculty member Michele Poacelli’s view differs, as evidenced in the ways that she uses Harkness tables in her classes. She is an avid promoter of the fishbowl method, which prioritizes a group of people talking at the Harkness table and another group listening in. Through this, she thinks that students develop critical thinking skills, and that is certainly fair. By reducing the number of people in a discussion, more people have the chance to talk. Those on the outside of the circle must remain silent until they are invited to give feedback. Poacelli knows that this is beneficial for all the students
More teachers should strive to use this technique as it undoubtedly promotes listening to others and connecting points with a Harkness table. History and religion faculty member Will Whitmore points out that students should be focused on building upon other’s points. Whitmore is confident that students can learn to uphold a high standard, instead of forcing ideas for the grade point.
Owen Ying ’21 comments, “To make the most out of education, students should try to get away from this idea that a grade means everything, and instead focus more on understanding and applying learned material which is more helpful towards knowledge.”