Tabling the Old Approach to Math

It seemed like something out of “The Twilight Zone”: For 30 minutes, Rob Trubiano’s Middle Schoolers sat in the dark learning about graphs while the clock on the wall stood frozen at 10:01. A storm knocked out the lights but neither Trubiano nor his students seemed to miss a beat.

Country Day’s first math teacher to use a Harkness Table and its method guided and encouraged a discussion that ricocheted across the room with each student contributing, oblivious to the dark and the diabolically static clock. The Harkness Table and its dedicated pedagogy aren’t new to Country Day; teachers such as Mike Simpson and Allen Miller have spent a few years incorporating its student-led discussion approach into their teaching of Upper School English and Middle School history, respectively. But Trubiano is the first LCDS teacher to bring the Harkness Table and method into a math class.

“USA Today does this neat thing called ‘Snapshots,'” Trubiano said to the class. “They’re surveys in graph form and that’s what we’re going to do today, so who’s got an idea for a survey?” A torrent of ideas came rushing out, and Trubiano gently helped guide the flow in the right direction, but otherwise took a backseat. “Kinds of pets” — That’s good; keep going — “Favorite ice cream flavors” — Good one. You don’t need to raise your hands — “How many sports you play” — Yes! — “Favorite number” — Are you planning on playing the lottery?… And on it went until the group hit their winner: Favorite superpower, and Trubiano split the class up into groups and had them draw graphs reflecting the results.

The week before that class, Trubiano talked about the difficulty of taking the Harkness leap into math, and why he felt it was a worthwhile effort. “The folks from Phillips-Exeter gave a presentation at the school using the table and the method, and I was very impressed,” Trubiano said. “They focused on the overall discussion-based approach, and weren’t so concerned about efficiency.

“The challenge with teaching math that way,” Trubiano continued, “is that it’s so content-oriented and the fastest way to communicate the content is for the teacher to lecture. But with the Harkness method, students gain a lot from the opportunity to articulate ideas about concepts and content and to obtain feedback from each other.”

Trubiano decided to ask for more training and a table and Head of School Steve Lisk decided to set him up with both. Trubiano traveled to Phillips-Exeter last summer to attend a workshop on recognizing and mastering the challenges of teaching with the Harkness method, and his custom, first-of-its-kind table comes apart to allow smaller group work.

From the Day One, Trubiano saw the opportunities the table provided. “Everyone is on the same level,” he said, “and you get that sense that we’re all in this together; we’re literally all seeing eye-to-eye, and that fosters not only an eagerness to participate, but a willingness to be wrong.

“I want there to be a common goal, and a sense of community around the table. That trust has to be there for students to take the chance of being wrong, because without that, no one would ever attempt anything.”