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Touchstones® discussions—Reflect to express, express to reflect

Florence Girouard
Bureau de l’éducation française Division
Manitoba Department of Education


The Touchstones texts are interesting. I had never seen anything like them before. They present ideas that I'd never thought about. It was a new experience for me. Some were very difficult to wrap your head around, especially in a second language. At that point, our discussions focused on the complexity of the texts.

Grade 11 student testimonial

The Touchstones discussions helped me a lot. It's hard to explain. Before Touchstones, my oral French was terrible. Now, I am much more comfortable in French; I talk more in class and I speak French at home with my brother.

Grade 11 student testimonial

One of the most important skills that students need to develop is the ability to recognize their own points of view. When students are aware of their own opinions and attitudes, they are better able to put them aside, at least temporarily, to study a new idea or situation with an open mind and to better understand a previously unknown point of view. These abilities are acquired through active listening, which involves hearing what is different from and sometimes at odds with one's own view of the world and of oneself.

The Touchstones® Discussion Project is a pedagogical resource that fosters the development of active-listening skills. The developers of this project maintain that differences of opinion with an author's thinking during critical reading or with other participants' ideas during structured discussions can bring about an awareness of one's own opinions and beliefs, sometimes for the first time. Moreover, during discussions of carefully selected and adapted Touchstones texts, participants are encouraged to consider the extent to which the opinions they espouse are truly their own. In the process, participants discover their most deep-seated beliefs, because they are encouraged to base their discussion on facts rather than prejudices. Such activities foster the development of high-level thinking skills and help students articulate their personal understanding of any given idea.

The Bureau de l'éducation française (BEF) Division of Manitoba Education looked into whether or not schools in which the language of instruction is French could benefit from these discussions in order to

  • systematically build students' critical thinking, and thus enhance their ability to communicate effectively
  • boost students' confidence in speaking French in public

Field testing of the Touchstones educational material is very telling. The material includes a teacher's guide with thirty 45-minute lesson plans for each of the grades from 4 through 10; material can also be used in Grades 11 and 12. While teachers and students had to overcome certain difficulties, the most significant being the lack of French vocabulary and French expressions, these discussions allowed students to reflect and express their thinking in French with increased ease and confidence. The following testimonials are those of Grade 11 students and teachers.

Touchstones® Discussion Project

It's really very useful, because we aren't taught how to develop our critical thinking at school; it's just something that is supposed to happen to everyone in their own way. Putting someone in an environment like Touchstones gives them the chance to develop new ways of thinking and to change.

Everyone has their own opinions. I used to think that everyone was sort of passive at school and that no one thought about this sort of thing. I learned that everyone is just as thoughtful as I am. I used to interrupt people and impose my ideas. Now I am more respectful.

We can think more creatively about our own opinions and those of others. I didn't know we could think like that. Now I challenge myself about what I think. Is it really MY opinion? Touchstones gets you to give more thought to where your opinions come from.

I knew just about everyone in the class. It's the group I am with the most at school. I got to know the students better through discussion. Now we are really close. I feel more comfortable with this class than any other class.

Beginning Grade 4 students quickly realized that they all, like adults, share the same experiences and have similar beliefs. They no longer feel alone, and they talk with their parents and friends. They wonder how the Touchstones authors could know which readings to pick to get them to reflect and talk about it.

The discussions help students get to know each other better and learn from others. It is not a "my opinion, your opinion" type of sharing. It is a time for exploring others' perspectives and for opening ourselves up to new ideas and to others. Too many young people, and too many adults, suffer from the limits of their OWN experience.

Ability to Speak French

I wasn't very good at French. I have great ideas and it forced me to express them, using all the means at my disposal to get my message across.

In class, we are supposed to speak in French. Not all of my friends did and it was really hard to speak in French to my peers. These discussions really help us to improve our French. We gain confidence over time because we are learning that we can speak French, and speak well, in a large group discussion.

Most of the time, the discussions continued after class. All of the classroom discussion was in French, so it was easier to continue in French.

At first, the students used a lot of English words, especially with less familiar topics, but now we only occasionally hear English.

I used to think that giving class time was all that was required for students to develop their oral communication skills.