Abell Salutes: Touchstones

August 1991 / Salutes / Education

Making an art of the science of discussion.

dis-cuss-ion: the consideration of a subject by a group; an earnest conversation; a formal discourse upon a topic; exposition.

American Heritage Dictionary


Discussion is thought by many to be the key to learning, but too often discussion as it is now conducted in the classroom fails to unlock closed-in minds.

Which is where Touchstones comes in.

The object of the Touchstones technique is to tum routine classroom interchanges among disinterested students into purposeful discussions among students newly inspired. The concept was developed at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland by Geoffrey Comber, Howard Zeiderman and Nicholas Maistrellis; Touchstones teachers are trained, and the program is monitored, by them and the college.

Touchstones seeks to transform the bored into the curious–and the curious into the productive.

It is doing this in Pittsburgh, Hartford, Philadelphia, numerous sites in Alabama-­-and now in Baltimore at Dunbar High School–creating in each case a special kind of classroom discussion with its own definition, which might, in a dictionary, read something like this:

dis-cuss-ion: interchange whereby students learn the skills of teaching themselves; try out new ideas to modify old roles; learn to appreciate differences; think coherently even while remaining uncertain about the right direction.

Every one of Dunbar’s 750 students is in one of the schools’ 24 Touchstones classes.

There is a Touchstones class every Wednesday, taught by a teacher trained in the Touchstones method. Brenda Johnson, vice principal, has watched the Touchstones program take hold among the students. “The Touchstones discussion idea seems to bring out the best and the most from the students. Many who barely expressed themselves before now, after involvement in the program, are quick to volunteer, to give their ideas and invite fellow students to give theirs. And the fact that the Touchstones experience is a nongraded one seems to encourage the students to take risks in what they say­ and that helps stimulate others to do the same. The result often is discussion that has come alive. The discussions prove not only engaging and liberating, but instructive.”

Johnson points to an evaluation test that supports her impressions. “At the beginning of the school year we gave each of the students a particular set of test questions. We gave them the same set of questions at the end. In the second set of test questions, given after a year of Touchstones training, the students answered more fully, more precisely, and had obviously developed better thinking skills.”

Touchstones has demonstrated its ability to make students think more effectively–changing the education of students by changing the definition of discussion.