What is a Touchstones discussion?

Touchstones discussions are unique, open-ended, and designed to spark curiosity and active thinking.

They are part of structured program designed to build fundamental learning skills, including: improved listening, speaking, reasoning, comprehension, collaborative problem solving, and shared leadership in students of all ages and backgrounds. These skills emerge from structured activities integrated into our programs.

Touchstones programs require no preparation for participants and feature primary sources selected from works of philosophy, science, the social sciences, literature, history, mathematics, and art and edited for accessibility .

Every text offers themes to which all participants can relate.

Each Touchstones discussion includes:

1 Ground Rules

Five ground rules anchor your participants in respectful discussion, and are referred back to throughout the discussion.

2 Text for Discussion

Each primary source text is adapted from diverse authors, addresses foundational concepts of humanity, and is read aloud by the discussion leader.

3 Independent Work

Individual activities provide space for participants to connect their own experiences and opinions to the ideas in the text.

4 Small Group Work

Small groups provide a safer space for sharing ideas, and help participants practice collaborative learning.

5 Whole Group Discussion

Participants share and explore ideas together while learning to recognize their own strengths and make space for others.

6 Discussion Evaluation

Our evaluation tools help all participants reflect, recognize and take responsibility for group dynamics, and set goals for the next discussion.

How are texts in Touchstones different?

At Touchstones, we view texts not as ends in themselves, but as tools for navigating the processes that move a group toward inclusive discussion. The texts in each Touchstones volume have been chosen and ordered in an intentional sequence with the goal of supporting inclusive dialogue as groups build Essential Skills and move through The Four Stages.

  • The texts help participants work through the challenges of voice, power, and perceived legitimacy that arise in every group.

  • Every text is a primary source, allowing exploration of ideas at face value.

  • Each text is short, requires no outside preparation, and is adapted for grade-level accessibility, allowing everyone an equal entry point to participation.


An inclusive discussion is a collaborative exploration of ideas with no set agenda where every participant, including the discussion leader, recognizes an equal right to speak and learn and an equal responsibility to listen and make room for others.

  • Intentional sequence ensures inclusion of participants with different skills and strengths

  • Discussion evaluation tools provide the space and vocabulary to address issues that inhibit full participation in discussion: reluctance, perceived authority or lack of authority, dominance, passivity, etc.

  • Shared leadership means it is often difficult to distinguish the leader from the participants.


The texts included in Touchstones’ volumes have been deliberately and carefully selected to highlight diversity in perspective from several approaches. This breadth of perspectives is essential for building reflective and inclusive classrooms and communities.

  • Works are interdisciplinary: chosen from philosophy, social sciences, physical sciences, mathematics, poetry, fine art, and literature

  • Texts are drawn from authors of many cultures, time periods, genders, and beliefs

  • Volumes represent the voices and talents of those who have historically held significant power and of those who have not, offering the opportunity to consider the variety of constructs, norms, systems, and outcomes that shape our world

Touchstones programs develop vital skillsets in all participants.

These skills include the ability to:

  • Teach themselves and others to address gaps in skills, experience, and knowledge
  • Work with others regardless of perceived similarities or differences
  • Listen actively and read closely to glean intended rather than expected meaning and consider the implications
  • Share leadership such that each person in a group acts both as participant and leader

Touchstones consistently yields measurable and significant improvement in communication, inclusion, respect, critical thinking, and collaboration.

The many benefits of a Touchstones program include:

  • Increased self-confidence
  • Improved self-moderation
  • More accurate self-perception
  • Willingness to change one’s mind
  • Greater comfort with uncertainty
  • Greater respect for diverse perspectives and opinions
  • Improved civility
  • More inclusive, responsive, and collaborative leadership

The Four Stages of a Touchstones Program

All Touchstones programs progress through four stages of a developmental continuum. Although each stage describes and addresses a specific set of abilities and challenges associated with inclusive dialogue and collaboration, the skills learned and practiced at each stage work in tandem with skills learned in other stages. Each of these respective skills are necessary for effective, inclusive, and constructive discussions.



Goal: Students begin to speak to one another and not only to or through the teacher.

In this stage, Touchstones lessons focus the discussion leader’s efforts on establishing a class in which each participant feels he or she can speak safely to and learn from peers. Work done in this stage sets the groundwork for authentic exchanges of ideas and questions in an inclusive group.



Goal: Each student has a voice and opinions that have a place in the discussion class, regardless of that student’s academic performance or background.

Touchstones lessons in this stage guide the teacher to create a class in which all students are able to work together cooperatively and respectfully. Each student must feel comfortable being a speaker whose perspective is valued by the group.

During the first two stages of a Touchstones program, students work just as much on understanding and improving the dynamics of the discussion process as they do on exploring and understanding the text.


Active Listening

Goal: Students examine their own assumptions and presuppositions to more accurately understand other points of view—both those of the author and of their peers.

Touchstones lessons in this stage help the teacher to use complex texts as tools for building student’s close reading and active listening skills. Just as close reading requires more than mere seeing words on a page, listening is a complex activity requiring much more than our sense of hearing. Active listening occurs when a person actively strives to understand another speaker’s or author’s intended meaning. In this stage, students move beyond reading or hearing things as corollaries or extensions of their own thinking. They begin to recognize diverse viewpoints as distinct from their own and worthy of examination.


Collaborative Leadership

Goal: All students function as participants and leaders.

In the final stage of development in Touchstones programs, the lessons provide focus and practice in shared leadership. This is achieved when each member of the group acts with a shared sense of responsibility for the success of the discussion. When a group achieves shared leadership, it is often difficult to distinguish the leader from the participants.