Math with an audience

Harkness demonstration for new students takes center stage.

Adam Loyd
September 17, 2019
Math Instructor Jeff Ibbotson leads a Harkness discussion in the Goel Center

With a week of classes under their belts, new Exeter students filed into the Goel Center, filling a majority of the seats in the main theater. Typically a space for the arts, the on-stage set more closely resembled the inside of a classroom than a Shakespearean scene. Surrounded by cameras and microphones and below a massive projection screen was something even the newest Exonian could recognize — a Harkness table.

Seated around the table, an ensemble of three- and four-year students, all veterans of the Harkness method. The group’s role was to engage in a discussion, meant to serve as an exhibition of how the core principals of Harkness work. The subject on this day: math. 

Led by Math Instructor Jeff Ibbotson, the group worked its way through a series of problems utilizing calculators, a white board and, most important, collaboration. As Ibbotson and the students began the lesson, Gabe Rodriguez ’20 took the lead on a problem, offering to explain his thought process at the white board. Standing at the board, stage left, Rodriguez was far from alone as the group collectively worked until a solution could be agreed upon.  

Seated near the front of the theater, Christine Staller ’23 watched intently as the students collaborated throughout the 30-minute session. The prep says she came away with a better understanding of the level of teamwork that can be achieved in a Harkness math setting.  

“I found everyone to be very respectful of each other,” she said. “Everyone seemed to understand that if someone didn’t know the answer, they would really work through it together.” 

Staller hopes to bring back some of what she observed to her math class. 

“I noticed how people didn’t try to push their way of doing the problems on each other,” she said. “They would just demonstrate their thinking on the board instead of trying to talk over one another.”  

Ibbotson talked about the students’ ability to perform under the bright lights of the Goel Center main stage.  

“It’s not as easy to be relaxed knowing so many are watching,” he said. “But the students showed some good conversation across the table and they built on each other’s ideas. That’s something that we always hope for.” 

Phoebe Weil '20 works through a math problem with the support of her classmates.

The session was the second of a two-part series demonstrating Harkness. Earlier in the week, new students assembled to observe a mock English class led by English Instructor Alex Myers, where senior students discussed “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin. 

Ninth Grade Program Coordinator and English Instructor Tyler Caldwell talked about the importance of new students seeing Harkness exhibitions on different topics. 

“Even though they’re entirely different subjects, there are similar behaviors and mindsets that go into each discussion,” he said. “It’s good for the kids to see the messiness or the different avenues you can take in a class that’s more content driven or in a class where there are right and wrong answers.”   

Before closing the session, Pepper Pieroni '20 provided the new students with some parting words of wisdom.

"I've learned that it's OK to not know the answer and when you collaborate at the board with someone, you develop a greater understanding of that problem."