Touchstones discussions are unique. They are part of a highly structured program that is designed to build fundamental learning skills. Such skills include improved listening, speaking, reasoning, comprehension, collaborative problem solving, and teamwork. These skills emerge in the structured activities of the Touchstones Discussion Project.
The goal in all Touchstones programs is to enable every participant to be both leaders and collaborators and to move between these roles seamlessly. This is a prerequisite for achieving a genuine exploratory and creative discussion and this ability transfers to other environments and activities. In Touchstones, the texts are strategically selected and adapted to work in conjuntion with participant experience and the reflection on process and discussion dynamics. Each Touchstones group learns to govern and lead itself and explore questions that welcome multiple perspectives. These are increasingly important skills in our global and highly technological world.
The program includes carefully selected and edited works of philosophy, literature, history, and art- readings that offer common themes to which all participants can relate. Individual worksheets and small group activities are also vital components of the program and enhance the effectiveness of the large-group discussions. Systematic reflection on the seminar discussion process itself leads to self-governance. The texts, individual work, small-group work activities, large-group discussions and meta-discussions all serve as critical tools for the purpose of developing discussion and learning skills.
Early phases focus heavily on group dynamics and full participation. Discussing issues such as power, certainty, respect, and control allows participants to reflect on the topics as they relate to the text, their own experience, the group’s progress, and their own participation. Over time the group evolves to advanced questioning, reasoning, and problem solving. Rather than bring each discussion to a neat conclusion, participants leave with a heightened sense of interest, an understanding of differing viewpoints, and the realization that there are rarely simple solutions to complex problems.
As the group progresses, participates learn to evaluate their discussions, monitor their development, and strategize on how to improve the overall effectiveness of the discussion sessions. In doing so, participants gain crucial experience in self-reflection and self-governance that helps them to become more productive in their everyday lives. The Touchstones discussions also supply fertile material and ideas for follow up classes to develop writing skills.
A Typical Touchstones Session
Touchstones sessions are typically held weekly or biweekly in forty- to sixty-minute sessions over the course of a year. Most programs require no advanced preparation from participants, ensuring that all participants begin on equal footing. Individual and small group activities allow participants uncomfortable with speaking in large groups to become more familiar with the topic at hand and to become more comfortable with one another. All sessions culminate in a large group discussion based on a provided text. Participants, including the discussion leader, sit in a circle. The discussion leader reads a short text aloud as the group reads along silently, thus helping all students better understand and fully participate. During the small group work, students formulate and offer questions of their own. The teacher then starts the discussion with an open-ended question that is provided to bridge the students individual and small group work into the text. As the group progresses, all members take on increased responsibility. They begin to share leadership for the content and direction of the discussion.
The Four Stages
The Touchstones Four Stages of Discussion Group Formation
The Touchstones program takes each discussion group through four stages along a developmental continuum. Although each stage describes and addresses distinct abilities and challenges in group discussion, the skills emphasized at each stage work in tandem with the skills learned in other stages; all are necessary for functional and productive discussions. As a group leader, you will want to consider the particular barriers that your students face in each stage. Focusing your students’ efforts on developing specific skills to overcome those obstacles will help them—and you—reap the benefits of more respectful and cooperative interaction and strengthened higher level thinking skills.
STAGE 1: PARTICIPATION
Goal: Students begin to speak to one another and not only to or through the teacher.
In this stage, the discussion leader focuses effort to establish an environment in which each participant feels he or she can speak to and learn from peers. This is the beginning of authentic group formation.
STAGE 2: COOPERATION
Goal: Each student has a voice and opinions that should play a role in the discussion.
In stage two, each participant must feel comfortable being a speaker whose perspective is valued by the group. Participants in the first two stages put as much effort into understanding and improving the dynamics of the discussion process as they allocate to exploring and understanding the text.
STAGE 3: ACTIVE LISTENING
Goal: Students accurately understand the points of view of other speakers and the text.
Listening is a complex activity that requires much more than our sense of hearing. Active listening occurs when a person deliberately tries to understand what a person or author intends to convey. This activity develops an increased awareness of one’s assumptions and presuppositions.
STAGE 4: COLLABORATIVE LEADERSHIP
Goal: Students are both participants and leaders.
Shared leadership is achieved when each member of the group is equally responsible for the success of the discussion. When a group achieves shared leadership, it is often difficult to distinguish the leader from the participants.