Mathematics with Harkness

The Harkness Classroom

All classes at Phillips Exeter Academy are conducted in a discussion setting around a table with an average of 12 students. (For more information on the Harkness plan see the Amazing Harkness Philosophy.) In mathematics classes this allows for a unique learning environment and Exonians are exposed to problem solving in a very student-centered, discussion-based classroom. Students are held accountable for attempting solutions to homework problems and the class as a whole decides on correct solutions.

Our Problem-Based Curriculum

The department does not use traditional text books. We decided that the most appropriate way to teach mathematics with the Harkness method was to write our own materials, consisting simply of books of problems. There are problem sets for each of the four levels of the mathematics curriculum. These problem sets are continually evolving; they are edited after each school year based on the feedback from teachers and students over the year. See the department's mission statement for more information.

A Student Testimonial

Exeter students have different views on the way they learn mathematics while at the Academy. However, they will concede that their problem solving skills are extremely developed by the time they graduate. The following is a piece excerpted from the final paper of a 1998 Transition to American Culture student:

At the beginning of the school year I felt like a stranger to the Exeter classes. I felt even worse in math class. I'm accustomed to having a lecture of math in which the teacher explains all the theories and the way of doing a problem and then our homework is to do similar problems. Here the math class was very bizarre in all aspects. In this class the teacher gives us some problems for homework. These are problems we have never done before, and we have to solve them in whatever way we can. The next day every student in the class has to explain one of the problems at the board. Then the teacher and the students have a discussion at the Harkness table if the answers to the problems are right and what other way of solving the problems are possible.
With the math class I feel that I'm learning and I inspire myself. Every time I'm doing a problem I've never done before and I don't know how to do it, I just think that I'm inventing a new theory that is going to help the world (it sounds cheesy but it works). I love this class because if you find the answer to the problem, you learned how to solve it by yourself, and you learn how to solve that type of problem by yourself and you don't have to remember anything because it is all logic for you. But I think the teaching system is more profound because I have learned how to analyze and think. I have become more patient and calm because you need it to think. A consequence of this type of teaching that is very important is that it teaches you that you are going to have difficulties and problems in life and you are going to use all [of these skills] and you are accustomed to that already. If I were to decide which math system the world should have, I would like to change all the math systems in the entire world to this one because it's more effective, and you learn math and other things essential for life.

Learn more about how Exeter teaches math, and why students like it, at What's my day like?