Champions of the round table: The view from here

23rd November 2007 at 00:00
It is not unusual for a school to have famous pupils. But when one institution lays claim to the author of The Da Vinci Code and the inventor of Facebook, there is bound to be interest in what that school is doing to nurture its students' creativity.

Dan Brown and Mark Zuckerberg are both graduates of Phillips Exeter Academy, a prestigious boarding school in New Hampshire, which facilitates collaborative learning through classrooms comprising a single oval table seating 12 students - suggestive of Da Vinci's The Last Supper.

As part of a sabbatical before taking over the headship of Portsmouth Grammar in January 2008, I exchanged old Hampshire for New and went to see this philosophy at work.

Classrooms at Phillips Exeter used to be dustily familiar. Groups of 35 students sat in lecture-style rows. Students snapped their fingers to attract the teacher's attention.

In 1930 came a revolution. Edward Harkness, a leading US philanthropist, offered the modern equivalent of $69 million if the school could devise a method to support the child who is "not necessarily a dull boy, but diffident, and not being equal doesn't speak up in class".

Convinced that learning could be transformed by a conference-style approach, Harkness persuaded the school to transform his vision into the provision of a large oval table in every classroom.

Sitting in the round may not seem that radical today, but an hour-long discussion in which the teacher speaks only twice is revolutionary. Rather than straining to be the magnetic centre of everything that happens in the room, some teachers I watched became silent figures attentively mapping their students' contributions.

Instead of an emphasis on objective analysis, I also found a culture of reflective writing. In the weekly chapel meditation, for example, students, teachers and even trustees were invited to share personal experiences in carefully crafted prose.

The Harkness approach characterises school management as well. Weekly meetings of the academic staff are conducted in the round. Student disciplinary cases are heard by a representative teacher committee. Walk into any administrative office and you usually find an oval table in disguise.

So what are the drawbacks and could such an approach translate to the UK?

The Harkness method is not cheap. Exeter enjoys a staff-pupil ratio of 1:5, partly because of its generous provision of a sabbatical year every five years. And then there is the cost of the tables themselves. Some teachers admit to finding it difficult to balance the pace of pupils' discussion with the pressing demands of curriculum content - a problem that would be exacerbated by the UK's predilection for intensive assessment.

But much of what I saw is portable. Teachers set homework that prepares for tomorrow's lesson rather than consolidates today's, restoring the learning initiative to students.

And as one teacher commented: "You don't need a table to teach this way. Just put the seats in a circle."

But the furniture is not to be underestimated. As one student asked after a pause in discussion of The Grapes of Wrath: "What does the table think?"

James Priory, Headteacher-elect of Portsmouth Grammar in Hampshire.

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