How we started

How has Wellington’s Mathematics Department found itself here?

Wellington’s Head of Mathematics, Aidan Sproat, exmugshotplains.

Three years ago, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to participate in the Exeter Math Institute. The four-day course has had a serious impact not only on my own teaching but on the entirety of Wellington’s maths department, and we now hope that some of what we have learnt can prove valuable to other schools in the UK. When I participated on the course, I was able to see how a group of outstanding ‘math’ teachers had applied some fantastic teaching ideas to the American mathematics curriculum.


Phillips Exeter Academy is a leading independent school in New Hampshire. They are well-known for their approach to teaching – The Harkness Method – and the independent learning that this encourages. The hallmarks of their approach are as follows

  • Discursive lessons driven by student responses to questions they have prepared in advance
  • Horizontal articulation of topics, so content is introduced gradually and slowly, and several topics are tackled simultaneously
  • No ‘traditional instruction’
  • Material is introduced by rooting topics in context

The Exeter Math Institute has now been running for over 20 years. PEA staff serve as instructors on the four-day course, and they move around the US providing professional development for public school teachers. The style of instruction on the course mirrors Exeter’s own Harkness style, and so in addition to helping to build subject knowledge – one of the core purposes of the course – they model styles of interactive learning that teachers are able to implement in their own lessons. They teach the course entirely from their own bespoke teaching resources: far richer sources than any textbooks. Their resources are shared freely through the Academy’s website.

A different curriculum

The ideas that I was exposed to on EMI left me with many questions about how I could apply what I had learnt to the British curriculum, where the structure of our examinations,

So inspired was I by my visit that I immediately set about restructuring parts of our own teaching to follow Exeter’s model. It has been a challenge to set up, but now, in our third year of Harkness teaching, we have produced complete resources for C1 to C4 for Single and Further Maths, a Mechanics Course, and some fledgling resources for other classes, too. It has been a success with students, yielding improved results, greater confidence and – very pleasingly – a desire to continue with the style of teaching when given a choice. We have plans to introduce the Harkness method for our teaching of Mechanics and IB Maths Studies next year with other courses following soon after.

It has enlivened my teaching and my approach to delivery; it has inspired my colleagues to learn new skills and develop new resources; it has helped my classes to become more independent and to learn how to learn. Furthermore, it has turned me into an Harkness evangelist – and that is why we have taken the move to share our resources freely and organise a course to help people access our material.

For two days this Summer (July 4th-July 5th), teachers will have the opportunity to learn more about the Harkness method; discuss their experiences with other mathematicians; get to know our Harkness resources; build subject knowledge and consider how Harkness can enhance their own teaching. My Harkness journey over the last three years has transformed my teaching; please consider coming to Wellington to see how Harkness could change your teaching too.

You can follow Aidan on Twitter at