Student blog: The best summer of my life

As part of ARK’s University and Careers Success programme, Tolu was one of just six students to secure a summer school placement to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, United States. In his third and final blog about the experience, he waxes lyrical about the Harkness teaching method and remembers what he calls "the best summer" of his life. Tolu graduated from ARK Kings Academy in Birmingham August 2013 with seven GCSEs.

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Very different, very effective

The Harkness method is the style of teaching used for all subjects here at Phillips Exeter Academy.

I can remember the first day we were shown a Harkness demonstration in a huge assembly and worrying that I might not be able to do it. It's one of those things that you have to take part in to understand and appreciate fully. My anxieties were squashed the next day when I realised how to ‘crack’ being a Harkness student. It’s not easy though and it carries a lot of responsibility. Lessons are completely - and I mean completely - driven by the students’ conversation; teachers simply guide the conversation to a meaningful conclusion.

So can anyone be a hot shot Harkness disciple? Yes, if you take the following three responsibilities 100% seriously.

1) Prepare

If you don’t prepare, you fall flat. It’s very obvious very quickly when someone hasn’t done their prep – the conversation stalls, they can’t take part, they have no questions and they remain the silent student while the rest of us share, discuss, analyse and learn. I can’t reinforce enough how key preparation is to this style of teaching and learning. No one wants to be that silent student. The beautiful thing is that, by preparing, you’ve already done your own learning and then by participating in class, you expand on that learning by learning from others and sharing your ideas.

2) R.E.S.P.E.C.T… find out what it means to me

Another essential responsibility is showing respect for others. Respect and consideration for your fellow students is the bedrock of a meaningful conversation, which in turn is the essence of a Harkness class. Throw together a group of young adolescent learners and ask them to have opinions and it is easy to see how things might go sideways and perhaps stop the learning of the class. Although there is no need to raise hands in a harkness class, students are encouraged to wait for a student to stop speaking before they start to speak or to constructively criticise other students. All these things work together to create a better learning environment for the student.

3) Intellectual integrity

Lastly, and probably most importantly, there is a big focus on intellectual integrity everywhere at Phillips Exeter Academy and a big frown on plagiarism.

All students are advised to take extra precautions when researching a project and ensure they reference their sources.

The Harkness method really encourages students to take their individual learning seriously. Because there is no right or wrong in a conversation, students can ‘fail’ without being disheartened and in so doing they are motivated to try harder next time. Surviving failure is an essential life skill - we are all going to face times when we don’t do well – so to learn this in a friendly, supportive and interesting class is amazing. Another benefit is the confidence you gain as a student, not only in voicing your opinion in a group but also in challenging things which you might not understand or agree with. This also seems to seep into your personal life and you just generally feel more confident around people. I found myself saying and doing things that I would have been too shy to do before.

What an experience

I have made a lot of friends at Exeter. I have met a lot of people from a lot of places around the world and one of the things I found fascinating was that although we are a very diverse group of students, we are all pretty much alike in a lot of ways. Our cultural and social differences had little or no impact on our personalities: we all got along, shared the same laughs, saw the world in similar ways and found our differences interesting. Another thing I learnt is that people tend to focus on bad things about their own country and totally ignore the great things about where they come from. I am going to take away from this experience the ability to be open, to learn about other people and interact with them on a deeper level than I have been able to in the past.

I have had the best summer of my life at Phillips Exeter Academy.

I want to thank everyone who made this summer possible for me. First of all, my principal and vice principal Mr Larkin and Mr Horner. Also those who helped me apply for this great opportunity - Miss Marshall and all the staff of ARK Kings Academy. I want to thank my parents, all the staff at Phillips Exeter Academy who worked in the summer session and most of all, my fellow students who have lived with me for the last five weeks. This has truly been an unforgettable summer and the memories will stay with me for the rest of my life.

- Tolu

Related articles:

Tolu's first blog: My first week at Phillips Exeter

Tolu's second blog: Settling in