Listen: A Guiding Power in a World Between Worlds

If you’ve followed my blog here for a while, you’ll know I champion speaking and listening as cornerstones of my classroom. And while I was an accomplished student in my HS and College seminar classes, it wasn’t until my introduction to and adoption of the Touchstones Discussion Project in 1996 that I shifted not only how I used speaking and listening in the classroom, but also the entire culture of the classroom and, without question, my own identity as a teacher.

10th grade students in a Touchstones Discussion

Over the course of 25 years, I have used several different iterations of Touchstones. I have attended workshops, invited one of the founder’s and the executive director to my school, and joined the project’s board of directors. And I have never stopped using the project and honoring the power of student voice and story in my classroom. From middle school, to high school, to college classrooms, my students have explored and struggled (productively) through now countless sessions learning how to self-manage and lead their own discussions in civil and synergistic ways. And learning, perhaps, one of the greatest things of all, the ability to listen actively with the intention of understanding, and not merely responding with the echoing din of one’s loud opinion.

Listen… the world needs more of this learning right now. In fact, deep, empathetic communication represents the only way I can see out of the crises we find ourselves in. The philosopher Zachary Stein’s 2018 book, Education in a Time Between Worlds, as well as the work of the others in the “Integral Theory”/Meta-Modernity movement, lays out the changes facing us rather clearly: “We live in a time of global transformation, when major social and natural systems are in transition, and our only hope of survival is to find ways to support future generations in their development and learning” (Stein 2).

What greater support could we offer future generations than the development of active, empathetic listeners who seek connection rather than competition, community over conflict, and who can navigate with calm through the chaos.

The Touchstones Discussion Project develops just such skills

Listen…In 28 years in the classroom, 27 years as a speech and debate coach, and countless years as a speaker and presenter on education, nothing I’ve ever encountered comes close to building the cognitive and social skills that accrue through regular participation in the Touchstones Discussion Project.

Touchstones is used in 47 different countries, has touched the lives of over 5 million students worldwide, is used in prisons, women’s correctional facilities, with veterans returning from war-torn lands, and is has been used in executive sessions with leaders of billion-dollar, multinational companies for decades. Few educational products have such history of broad success.

Listen…supporting a generation in developing these kinds of skills is not easy, but it will be impossible if we do not understand that teaching is, at its heart, a relational event, not merely a transactional one–ie. deep learning happens only when the heart and the head are aligned. It cannot be forced, it follows no schedule, and it abides no dictates. But it flourishes, as does our humanity, in environments where all voices are heard, all ideas are honored, and all spirits bring light to the existence of each other.

Touchstones Discussion Project skills visualization

Listen…such a community in a classroom is possible. I’ve cultivated it with Touchstones as its fertile soil for over 20 years. And an education that grows in such an environment and is nurtured and tended to by caring, future oriented mentors will be the only way to reimagine humanity with any hope of reaching the 22nd century better than we find ourselves now.

When Students Realize “This is Different”

Each September I welcome over 100 new students and learners into my classroom.  And each year by around mid-September, I begin to note they walk a bit slower, their shoulders droop a bit more, they flop in their chairs rather than sit attentively, and they wonder less.  And this is not for lack of trying.  I pepper our days with varied rituals and routines intentionally designed to get students up and moving, or which challenge them creatively or critically, to think in new ways.  We engage in improv theater activities, collective storytelling, and group work that challenges them at their creative core.

High School VolumesHowever, each year when I introduce them to the Touchstones Discussion Project ( they perk up.  This year has been no exception.  My 9th and 10th-grade students just finished their first discussion on Monday, and their responses to the process were as insightful and revealing as ever.

“Much different than any other discussion I’ve had.  We actually got to ask questions.”

“Instead of the teacher asking questions with definite answers, getting the answers and moving on, we actually built off each others’ ideas.

“I like how Mr. Heidt stayed on the side of the discussion, helping to guide us but not judging our answers.”

These responses are but a few from my 9th graders this year, but they are not unusual.  The Touchstones Discussion Project opens students to themselves, the importance of their language and their listening, as well as to the importance of community in all they learn.  And Touchstones does this better than any project I’ve experienced in 25 years in the classroom.

A quick look at the opening discussion from the High School Volume 1 text proves why:

“Touchstones discussions differ from your regular classes.
1. Everyone sits in a circle.
2. The teacher is a member of the group and will help, but isn’t the authority who gives the correct answers.
3. There is no hand-raising; instead, everyone will learn how to run the discussion.
4. No one does homework for this class.”

IMG_1308No hand raising?  The teacher is a member of the group? Students learn how to run the discussion?  Sure, programs that seek to level power structures in the classroom are numerous.  However, few of them are as thorough and deliberate in their intention as Touchstones.  And none of them are as focused on developing the skills necessary to engage in civil discussion as Touchstones.

Over the course of a year, students experience 30 discussions in which they are guided to pay careful attention to the dynamics of their discussions, from their troubles and successes in coming together as a group, to listening to others, to developing themselves as leaders of the discussion.

This focus on the process of the discussion rather than merely analyzing and discussing texts shifts the students into a different role.  It problematizes their traditional understandings of the purpose of texts, of what it means to be a student in the classroom, and it empowers them to see themselves as creators of meaning and structure.

Touchstones calls their attention to their power as self-directed learners, offers them guidance, and helps them take charge of their own learning.

Indeed, so “different” is this method from what most of them have experienced in their public school classes that when asked to choose a goal for themselves for the year, their rationales indicate a recognition of the potential this kind of class has for them.  And while their rationales may be brief, they are honest and incisive in their insight:

“I want to ‘admit when I’m wrong.’  As a person with very definite opinions, I think I’m always right.  It’s very hard to change what I think.”

“I would like to ‘become more aware of how others see me.’  I’ve never really thought about how I or my standpoints come off to others.”

“I would like to get better at ‘speaking with everyone…whether you know them or not’ because sometimes I go straight to my friends, even if I know what they will say.  It would be good to talk to everyone.”

“I would like to ‘admit when I am wrong’ because I rarely admit when I’m wrong and I don’t let my ideas change.  I want to become more open and respectful of people’s ideas.”

Image result for congressional debate

<I know…I see it, too.>

I am not so naive as to think that 4, 10, even 12 years of exposure to all levels of Touchstones would help us resolve our own issues with civil discussion at all levels of the social strata in our country, but it couldn’t hurt.  And the costs?  A day-a-week or every other week.  Surely a democracy is worth at least as much.

I was a young teacher, barely 4 years into my career, when I first encountered the Touchstones Discussion Program.  One year later I wrote a statement about how Touchstones had shifted my understanding of myself as a learner and a teacher.  That statement has become my personal philosophy as a teacher:

“When we trust our students, empower them to take charge of their learning, and offer the necessary guidance, they will astound us.”

I realize the success of programs like Touchstones are driven by the passion, dedication, and pedagogical beliefs of the teacher.  There are still too few teachers willing to engage with learners on a playing field of leveled power.  But if you agree to risk your power status, to shift your position to that of Lead Learner rather than “teacher” you will realize a seismic shift in your work.  I guarantee it.  And if you are there already??  Well, so much the better to have another arrow for student voice and inquiry in your quiver.

(In the interest of full disclosure, the author notes he is a member of the Touchstones Board of Directors)

I Want to Tell You a Little Secret…

Yesterday, a student taught my class.  From start to finish, this student handled the class (well, aside from the administrative tasks of attendance, etc).  And the secret?  It’s not that a student(s) taught my class.  (I’ve had students do that many times.)  It’s actually the fact that I’ve been waiting for this.

The lesson was based on the Touchstones Discussion Project I’ve used for almost 20 years. But instead of me leading the discussion, I stepped aside, way aside.  You see, I’m in “20 Time” mode and the students in my 10th-grade Gifted English classes are involved in pursuing their own interests and developing real-world solutions to problems or innovations they’ve identified.

Touchstones Logo

One of my students, Aidan, is interested in dialogic learning, in particular, The Touchstones Discussion Project.  After a brief but fruitful discussion with Stefanie, Executive Director at Touchstones, Aidan engaged his fellow classmates in a discussion about sensory perception and human consciousness.  Aidan’s goal in his project is to improve the Touchstones experience for students and teachers, as well as to develop blog posts and videos on how students can better engage in and benefit from the project.

As I noted, I have a deep history with the project.  I will make no claims, however, to expertise.  I have ideas, I have experience, but as with any work where human beings and their interactions are the focus, what works this year may be entirely different from what worked last year.

So Aidan’s project has me interested on two levels.  First, I’m interested to see what insight and criticisms he can bring to bear on his classmates as well as what he’ll discover about the act of moderating a discussion.  But second, I’ll be listening intently for the insights he’ll offer to me and to my own moderation of these discussions.  For, regardless of the number of meta-discussions we do as a class, students can’t get past my status as the teacher.  Such power dynamics are almost impossible to escape, even in a once-a-week project like Touchstones.  Aidan’s insights and frank observations will offer me a perspective I’m currently lacking.

IMG_1308In the best of world’s, Aidan’s insights and frank observations will offer me a perspective I’m currently lacking.  Twenty years of work with the same project, even if the texts for the project have changed…twenty years of work in any field can yield complacency.  Especially during the past three years where I’ve worked with only gifted students I’ve felt myself drifting off, even–especially!–when the discussions are good.  There’s a difference between “hands off” in order to facilitate student ownership and learning, and “hands off” because I have become lazy and stale.

I’m not sure where I am, exactly, on this spectrum, but I suspect Aidan’s project will assist me in finding out, and helping me to improve as I continue to lead Touchstones discussions in school and elsewhere.  And I’m sure that Aidan’s project will help all my students learn more, do more, and be more.