The Touchstones® Discussion Project was founded in 1984 as the “Touchstones Project” to offer all educators a classroom program that systematically builds essential reading, communication, and leadership skills in the K-12 student population. The founders, Howard Zeiderman, Geoffrey Comber, and Nick Maistrellis, applied their combined many decades of experience in the St. John’s College’s all-seminar program to evaluate the specific factors and group dynamics that help or hinder the formation of collaborative discussion. This experience was later amplified and deepened by their work in hundreds of educational institutions, pre-college, community and four-year colleges, and in Howard Zeiderman’s work with executive leadership programming, both through Touchstones and as the Director of the Aspen Institute’s Executive Seminar Programs.
To better understand the reasons why discussion-based learning did or did not occur successfully in particular groups, the three founders intensively and thoroughly examined the socio-behavioral and cultural habits that influence how people see themselves as viable and legitimate voices in discussion. They investigated the particular impediments that typically hindered authentic discussion and shared inquiry as attempted in other “seminar” type programs. This work led to the development of the Touchstones method, which included the Touchstones texts, specific essential teacher and student behaviors, and different activities that included individual, small group, and full class work. The implementation and ensuing research and refinement of the method and its component parts serve as the cornerstones of the Touchstones Discussion Project.
So that the Touchstones Discussion Project could be readily implemented in the classroom—with or without training in the Touchstones method—Zeiderman developed and authored the first Touchstones Teacher’s Guides in the late 1980s. The Teacher’s Guides methodically and harmoniously foster effective classroom management skills and classrooms characterized by high levels of student engagement, differentiated instruction, cooperative and peer learning, improved reading comprehension, more effective verbal and nonverbal communication, and creative thinking. As of December 2013, there are 58 individual Touchstones titles in print. A couple new titles are planned for release in 2015.
Since the Touchstones Discussion Project began, more than 5,000,000 people have participated in Touchstones programs. While the majority of participants are in grades three through twelve and are primarily in the United States, Touchstones programs are now in more than 38 countries. Participants range from elementary school students to those in leadership positions in their organizations and countries. Because the Touchstones discussion method and materials offer many different populations access to essential skill-building—both cognitive and socio-behavioral—Touchstones programs are used in senior centers, prisons and jails, with the homeless, among marginalized citizens in emerging countries, and as a professional development tool in organizations. Components of Touchstones’ extensive offering of participant and leadership materials in English have been translated into at least five languages, including Spanish, French, Haitian Kreyol, Arabic, and Burmese.