Gabbing Helps Kids Learn in West Hartford

Students learn in various ways. Some learn best through reading. Others learn best through observation or participation. For some students, discussion is the most profound tool for teaching and learning.

At Kingswood Oxford school in West Hartford, discussion is especially important in the English department.

There, you'll find a unique approach to teaching and learning that has students speaking up.

When you walk into Kathy Lynch’s Sophomore English Honors course, you see a sprawling wooden table surrounded by chairs. It’s called a Harkness Table.

"It starts out by forcing people who wouldn't normally talk to talk, and at the same time, it's also making you get used to conversation," sophomore, Alexi Vecchio, said.

The method of teaching started at Phillips Exeter Academy, in Exeter, N.H., and is named for philanthropist Edward Harkness.

"Having the table is a nice metaphor. The round table was a good metaphor for discussion. This table is also,” Lynch said.

Using a Harkness discussion, the teacher sits back and observes while the students converse. Students recently talked about their impressions of the book “The Crucible.”

“She's choosing faith to her husband over her moral foundations,” one student said.

"A real Harkness isn't an opportunity to do a song and dance about what you already knew before your class. It's learning through conversation," Lynch said.

This approach works best in small groups of no more than 18 students.

The idea is to teach students to be independent thinkers who are able to communicate their views.

"Sometimes I think one thing but then three other students could have something else to say about it, something different, and it opens up a light in my mind -- Oh, I never thought of that, but that seems like it could work,” sophomore Valerie Courtney said.

The Harkness approach also encourages timid students to become active participants.

In the long run, these students think it will help long after the end of this class.

“In high school and college, and work afterward, you're working with people, you're having conversations with people. You're not being told what to do all the time so you have to figure it out by yourself and this is definitely helping you with the process of getting there," Vecchio said.

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