Harnessing the Power of Harkness


Harnessing the Power of Harkness

As the centerpiece of Pacific Ridge’s signature education, Harkness is a natural focus for the strategic plan. Originated at Phillips Exeter Academy in 1930, the teaching and learning method has been an essential part of a Pacific Ridge education since the school opened.

Dean of Faculty Tim Betzala describes Harkness as a fluid, organic process. Each Harkness lesson is as unique as the teacher and students who bring their perspectives and understanding of the material to the table. This makes Harkness exciting to teach.

“Almost every time I’m in a Harkness discussion, I learn something new about a piece of literature, even if I’ve taught it for many years,” he said.

Harkness is also challenging to teach, requiring special skills and preparation. Many faculty members come to Pacific Ridge with years of Harkness experience. Others have no prior experience at all. Strengthening mastery of Harkness for both new and veteran teachers is an important part of the Strategic Plan, and work is already underway.

Exeter comes to Carlsbad
In past years, small groups of teachers traveled to Exeter each year for training which they subsequently shared with the faculty. This year, three Exeter Harkness coaches came to campus in August and worked directly with over 50 faculty members.

“The training was demystifying and affirming,” said English teacher Kelsey Babin, who is new to Harkness. “It helped us trust the process.”

In-house Experts
Pacific Ridge’s New Faculty Academy provides training for incoming teachers across various topics, including Harkness. Seasoned Harkness teachers, such as Luke Michel, Sarah Peeden and Allegra Molineaux, will continue the thread of the Exeter coaching in these sessions, helping new faculty develop and hone their skills.

Visual Aids
With the assistance of film teacher Christopher Simon, the committee is creating a video library of live Harkness discussions covering multiple disciplines. The videos will be used for evaluation of current practices as well as teacher coaching. 

“Videos are a valuable part of our training,” said Mr. Betzala. “Seeing Harkness techniques in action is a lot more effective than hearing them described.”


Why is Pacific Ridge committed to Harkness? According to Dean of Studies and Student Life John Comforto, there are many reasons. Educational research indicates that discussion helps students learn how to quickly analyze and synthesize ideas, leading to intellectual agility. Along with the strong communication and interpersonal skills that Harkness fosters, these cognitive benefits are lifelong. 

“It doesn’t just make our graduates more comfortable speaking with their professors or in the workplace, while that is indeed valuable. If done well, Harkness also makes them deeper, more rigorous thinkers. They learn to interrogate their own beliefs and challenge others’,” he said.

Mr. Comforto also believes that there is a broader, community benefit to Harkness.

“Harkness promotes the ability to engage in conversation with another and the ability to disagree constructively. It invites students to engage with perspectives that are different than theirown. The Harkness table is a democratic space.”


Harkness launched in 1930, preparing Exeter graduates exceptionally well for the world they were entering. Today’s world is vastly different and presents challenges unknown when Philanthropist Edward Harkness first imagined his oval table. The benefits of Harkness are timeless, but other approaches are important, too.

“Most likely, those Exeter students were focusing on the great books and other primary texts. If, for example, computer programming were part of the curriculum at that time, I wonder how well Harkness would have fit in,” said Mr. Comforto.

Harkness can be effectively utilized across a current-day curriculum -- in humanities, languages, math and science. In fact, the newly revised science curriculum, with its interdisciplinary, phenomena-based approach, may present increased opportunities for Harkness.

At the same time, certain studies may not be as ripe for Harkness. Technology literacy, design thinking, making and other types of hands-on learning are increasingly important, and recent educational studies suggest that the most productive groups for problem-solving are small - three to five people. Student-centered work that takes on additional modalities plays an important role.

What Harkness looks like at Pacific Ridge and how to maximize its benefits in a forward-looking curriculum are the questions the strategic plan committee will grapple with over the next 12 months. Pacific Ridge already stands out among Southern California schools as a Harkness practitioner. How best to harness its power is the goal of their work.