How can teachers build sophisticated thinking—such as inference, critical analysis, and insight—while introducing the younger generation to the legacy of ideas that illuminate our understanding of the world? How can we enable students to take control of their learning? How can we lead them to see that true learning is not about satisfying the test maker but about satisfying their own wondering?
An answer lies in giving students a forum for conversation.
The Touchstones Discussion Project was founded by professors at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, whose Great Books–based program grew out of an education approach pioneered at the University of Chicago. The discussions incorporate principles of dialogue for use at any grade level: communal reading of a text, exploration of ideas on the basis of inquiry, active listening, respect for differing points of view, facility in expressing ideas, and openness to change.
Touchstones discussions focus on photographs, paintings, and brief written selections that take 3–5 minutes to read aloud. These are included in reading booklets for each grade. My middle school students have read such authors as Aristotle, Euclid, Francis Bacon, St. Thomas Aquinas, Buddha, Thomas Jefferson, Isaac Newton, Immanuel Kant, Mary Shelley, and Richard Feynman. Students have also read and discussed folktales from Chinese, Persian, Nigerian, Japanese, and American Indian cultures. We've discussed such artists as Vermeer and Bruegel the Elder. I encourage the use of primary texts, not textbook copy—it's the difference between fresh and canned peas.
There are only four guidelines for a Touchstones discussion, which are replicable in any discussion: (1) Read the text carefully, (2) listen to others and do not interrupt, (3) speak clearly, and (4) respect others.
We start by reading the essay aloud and ask the students to follow along. We read with attention to punctuation and with appropriate expression. We then ask students to read aloud for a second or third reading.
After the communal reading, students reflect in writing on the selection. For example, when 5th graders read the fable "The Tortoise and the Rabbit" by Aesop and the folktale "The Tortoise and the Antelope" from the Ngoni people from east-central Africa, they write a story about a race between a fast and slow animal. They have to come up with an idea for making the slow animal win. This class often ends with newly minted fables about sloths, hermit crabs, dogs lazing in the sun— and, once, a flat-footed penguin who learned to sled.
Students then shift to small groups, each of which chooses a chairperson who organizes the discussion and keeps the group focused. Shy students may find it easier to talk in these small groups. The class then reassembles in the full circle for discussion.
A Touchstones discussion differs from a Socratic-style dialogue in that the teacher does not angle for a certain interpretation. The teacher facilitates the conversation, but he/she is not an authority on the text. We tell students that they have as much right to question and explore the text as we do. Casting back the mantle of responsibility to them as readers is a fundamental change in the relationship between students and the texts they read
We recognize successful adults as those who are most adroit in knowing when to speak, when to interject, how to build on others' ideas, and how to make a point through humor and style. The person who listens, analyzes what's going on, and presents a synthesis that enables the group to reach another level of thinking—this individual will be the one whom others look to.
Does weekly practice in intellectual discourse help create such learners? What happens to my students after our Touchstones discussions?
High school admission directors and teachers have told me that our St. Martin's-in-the-Field middle school graduates are known for being articulate, at ease in classroom discussion, and civil. A college professor attended a 7th grade two-hour final exam based on a discussion about the roles of religion in society. The students had studied this topic in a social studies unit on Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. He came out of the room shaking his head, saying, "That seminar was as good as any in my college—and better than many."
The transformational moment—the magic—happens when students apply the Touchstones discussion approach to their own interests. After we read On Nature, in which the author Lucretius imagines a man throwing a spear at the edge of the universe, a 6th grader brought in a DVD showing a view of space from the Hubble telescope.
Such discussions teach students not only to have confidence in their own interests but also to become lifelong learners. Reading closely, posing questions, probing an idea—these are the spearheads of curiosity that carry us to the edge of our known worlds, and then a step beyond.