Learning to learn at Exeter Summer

ACCESS EXETER students dive into Harkness with an 'uncontaminated enthusiasm for learning.'

Patrick Garrity
February 23, 2018
Exeter summer students sitting around a harkness table during math class

Philip Mallinson spent more than 20 years teaching math at Exeter, taking the Harkness table's best shots along the way. But the 14 middle-schoolers who filled his classroom one day last summer had him on the ropes.

Flip-flopped and tanned, the 13- and 14-year-olds buzzed in constant conversation even as Mallinson valiantly tried to focus them.

"I wish I got paid for every word you utter," he said.

"You'd make a lot of money," replied one student, helpfully. 

"I could retire all over again."

"Just think about it for a minute," Mallinson suggested hopefully. "Without words."

In truth, it was the substance of the chatter that made Mallinson a willing captive inside Phelps Science Center on a glorious July afternoon, two years past his retirement. Those middle-schoolers, students in Exeter Summer's ACCESS EXETER program, were going on about Mobius strips and tessellation. They were buzzing about math.

Learning how to learn through student-driven collaboration can take some getting used to, even for full-time students at the Academy. Applying the Harkness approach to eager seventh- and eighth-graders at ACCESS – all within a condensed, five-week window – is ambitious. 

"The biggest challenge is their energy," said Chemistry Instructor Andrew McTammany, who knows Harkness well, not only as a full-time faculty member but also as an Exeter alumnus, class of 2004. "Everyone's talking all at once, and there's a lot of talking over one another. But sorting through that, you still have the core components of Harkness. You still have the work. They're excited about learning, and the passion is there. It's just reining it all in.

"It's like a Jackson Pollock painting, more than anything else."

McTammany inherited the same gaggle of students with whom Mallinson had just jousted and parried, and he pulled out a teacher's trusty tool to temporarily quiet the group: "OK, we have two options," he said. "No. 1, we can start class. No. 2, we have a test."

After having the class experiment with how a variety of compounds react when mixed together, then reporting the results to each other, McTammany explained his plan of attack with his young chemists. "You have to tap into the excitement," he said, getting them working together in small groups and doing more hands-on activities, where they can put theory to practice.

Sure, there's chatter. But McTammany knows that's a happy by-product of collaborative learning. 

"You're trying to develop the community that Harkness brings. A lot of that is the sharing of ideas. You want them to learn from each other," he said. "And yes, sometimes I feel more like a Harkness referee, but any day of the week, and any teacher that I talk to would rather have a class where people are into it and talking than a group that's reticent and silent."

On cue, McTammany is interrupted by a pair of students who have stayed after class to ask about growing crystals in a controlled environment. He said this sort of raw curiosity is what he loves about ACCESS EXETER students.

"There's this uncontaminated enthusiasm for learning science," he said. "It's not so much the pressure of grades or college, so it just feels a lot more pure. They just want to understand what's happening around them."