What is a Touchstones discussion?

A Touchstones discussion is a weekly, open-ended exploration of ideas designed to foster active, authentic learning. Over time, our structured, standards-aligned program supports students of all ages and backgrounds to build essential discussion skills, including active listening, intentional speaking, analytical reasoning, collaboration, and shared leadership.

Touchstones discussions require no outside preparation for students and feature short, interdisciplinary primary source texts edited for grade-level accessibility.

What happens in a Touchstones discussion?

1 Ground Rules

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

2 Text for Discussion

Texts serve as tools to support inclusive group dynamics and raise ideas that all your students can explore.

3 Individual Work

Individual activities provide space for your students 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 your students practice collaborative learning.

5 Whole Group Discussion

Your students 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 your students 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 class toward inclusive dialog. The texts in each Touchstones curriculum volume have been chosen and ordered in an intentional sequence with the goal of supporting inclusivity as classes 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, is read aloud by the teacher, and 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.


  • Lessons are intentionally sequenced to ensure 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.

  • As a group moves toward shared leadership and student-led discussion, it is often difficult to distinguish the leader from the participants.


The texts included in Touchstones’ volumes have been deliberately selected to highlight diversity across several dimensions. 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.

What skills are built through Touchstones?

Our Essential Skills support social-emotional learning goals and help all learners develop the competencies they need to navigate our changing world. Touchstones strengthens the work you’re already doing to build your students’ civil discourse skills, enhancing the outcomes of programs and strategies like Socratic seminar and restorative practices.

Touchstones Essential Skills



Active Listening


Reflective Thinking

Analytical Reasoning

Cooperative Learning


The Four Stages of Group Development in Touchstones

To build a truly effective, inclusive, and collaborative discussion group, all Touchstones classes progress through four stages of development. The skills learned and practiced at each stage build upon and work together with those learned in other stages.

1. Participation

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

In this stage, the teacher focuses on establishing an environment where every student feels able to speak to and learn from peers.

2. Cooperation

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.

In Stage 2, every student must feel comfortable as a speaker whose perspective is valued by the group. Students in the first two stages need to put as much effort into understanding the process of group dynamics in discussion as they put into understanding the text.


Active Listening

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

Listening is a complex activity requiring much more than our sense of hearing. Active listening occurs when a person strives to understand another speaker’s or author’s intended meaning. In this stage, students begin to recognize diverse viewpoints as distinct from their own and worthy of examination.

4. Collaborative Leadership

Goal: All students act as both participants and leaders.

Collaborative leadership 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.