Beyond Socratic Discussion in the Montessori Classroom


by Randi Owens


Editor's note: Through the years the idea of using Socratic discussion, or seminars, in the Montessori classroom has become very popular. We have ignored many of the shortcomings of the method in exchange for the ability to bring the classroom together, because after all it works better than the lecture model. However, following an in-depth look at a new approach we believe that there is an alternative to the Socratic method, which is really designed to teach students more how to argue a point than to truly bring them together in an open conversation. The method we at MontessoriView have looked at is through the Touchstones Discussion Project.


The following article is written by Howard Zeiderman, the founder of the Touchstones Discussion Project.


Touchstones is distributed through the Montessori community exclusively through ETC Montessori.


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Touchstones democratizes education. All participants in the weekly hour-long classes enter a new landscape. There, the high achievers learn to examine and modify their own most salient assumptions. They become capable of listening and more able to learn from all their peers. The marginalized recognize that they too have essential talents and necessary skills. This revelation can frequently reanimate their engagement with their education.  Each participant achieves the self-respect needed to explore creatively, learn from one another, and develop the mutual respect required to form a community.


Touchstones transfers power and responsibility from the lecturing leader-the teacher, the expert- to the entire group. Thinking ceases being a solitary activity. Rather, it becomes the result of genuine collaboration. This new mode of activity is the prerequisite for flourishing in a 21st century world as leaders, workers, professionals and citizens.


For over a century, educators have been concerned with the deficiencies and failures of the exclusively lecture- and teacher-centered model of classroom instruction. Consequently, during the last hundred years, there have been many attempts to implement a more student-centered complement. It was hoped that a new approach would transform the problematic results of students’ ingrained education. Many educators realized that our old modes and methods were developing in students what was, at best, a facility at producing mere extensions of teacher approved information and, at worst, habits of passivity and disengagement. It was hoped that new student-centered initiatives would develop untapped cognitive skills and also change behaviors that were exclusionary and factionalizing. The most significant of these efforts was the attempt to introduce periodic student-centered ‘seminars’ into the curriculum. These were variously called ‘Socratic seminars,’ junior or senior great books, and a dozen other species. Unfortunately, these all failed to address the central issues of cognitive passivity, attitudinal disengagement, and social fragmentation.


What does failure mean in this context? Certainly there were some accomplishments from these ‘seminars.’ However, even the apparent gains were focused on very specific groups of students, usually those who were already considered ‘high achievers’ in the traditional sense. And in addition, if one examines the rates and modes of student participation in such seminar programs here and abroad even among ‘high achievers’, one typically finds that 20% of participants are very active and dominant, 20% are silent, hesitant, and shy, and about 60% are as frequently disengaged as engaged. And these percentages are also frequently related to gender and race. The roles played by students in these ostensibly student centered seminar settings generally reflect those individuals’ roles in traditional classes. What this distribution indicates is that the format of these so-called ‘seminars’ is still heavily teacher-centered and that the teacher remains the source of legitimacy and correctness. The very profound intellectual and social problems these initiatives were meant to address remained and were frequently reinforced or even exacerbated. However, the perception that these could be addressed and overcome in a genuine seminar was prescient.   In this, Touchstones succeeds where the other programs failed.


What is a Touchstones seminar conducted with a genuine seminar group? It is one in which every participant has a legitimate voice, where every voice is essential to its success, and where there are no subgroups or factions that exclude some speakers. It is one where all members, including the leader/teacher, become more and more aware of the personal, institutional, and cultural presuppositions that often distort their thinking, and close them to the thoughts of their peers or the authors they read. And it is one where, after a finite period of development, leadership is shared among all members of the group.


Touchstones is a once-a-week hour long program that achieves these results for all students. Touchstones develops these new attitudes and skills through a carefully structured program involving strategically selected texts functioning as tools for increasing self-reflection, accompanied by self-assessments and group assessments of discussion dynamics, and a sequence of leadership activities through which power and responsibility are increasingly shared.  The participants gradually move through a well-defined, four-stage process in order to become a genuine seminar group. The result of this program is a group of participants who share in the leadership and undertake collaborative exploration with their peers and their discussion leader.


This program has been implemented in Grades 2 through 12 as well as in college courses. It has touched the lives of more than 5,000,000 participants in 38 countries, and it has been translated into six languages.  The Touchstones environment is a crucible in which many traditional skills emerge. Critical reading, the articulation of ideas, the marshalling of evidence, and increased empathy evolve and are heightened for all students.  Most crucially, however, a new set of skills and attitudes form, ones that we now recognize are fundamental and essential for engagement in the emerging landscape of the 21st century. These are skills and attitudes we all need and have always needed to be more fully human. But now they are also urgently required in our increasingly globalized and technological environment. In short:

  1. It is no longer adequate to create good or even excellent students: All students must become teachers. They must be able to teach themselves and others as new kinds and species of knowledge constantly emerge, knowledge that is required in our lives and work.

  2. The solution to all problems requires collaboration from diverse professions, backgrounds, talents, ideologies, and faiths. We must overcome the Babel that separates us. We must move away from the Cartesian model of thinking exemplified by Rodin’s thinker, who spirals into himself and closes himself off from the surrounding world. We must move to a new mode in which thinking is conceived as a collaborative activity.

  3. All problems are new and unique.  Problems such as climate change, financial crises, pandemics, and terrorism as well as others they presage cannot be solved or even navigated as mere extrapolations from previous models. This situation requires the recognition of the very shape of our presuppositions and assumptions, which we need in order to expand, reject, or modify them to fit these specific and unique circumstances.

  4. Leadership can no longer be hierarchical. Power and responsibility must be shared by all of us as workers, professionals, and citizens. We must all learn to exercise power, to share it with others collaboratively, and to relinquish it to others when appropriate.

Touchstones develops these skills for all students and all participants. This is accomplished in a systematically structured way. Each new skill requires overcoming profound institutional and cultural barriers that are the foundation of our deepest expectations and habits. Touchstones is designed as a new foundation for education. It is not a replacement for the traditional lecture- and teacher centered mode of education, but rather acts to pervade and animate these traditional modes by collaboration.  It is also the essential preparation for the very text- and content-focused seminars and creative explorations attempted by other programs that had previously faltered. It brings new skills and attitudes into all these very endeavors and enlivens them. Through Touchstones, teachers once again can become educators and not mere technicians. Students can finally become inhabitants of a world and not mere products.

Touchstones is now in its thirty-first year. The first decade of the project was spent examining the potentialities and possibilities of this pedagogical mode in many pilots and recognizing the barriers that are obstacles to it in a world-wide context. The second decade was spent designing and creating the more than forty individual titles for use in Grades 2 through college and also in organizations and institutions. It involved developing detailed guides to prepare teachers and leaders systematically to undertake a new mode of engagement and selecting and shaping materials for students and other participants to implement the program.  The third decade has been devoted to refining and perfecting approaches and to preparing staff development resources for teachers. In addition, the structures of governance, management of projects, collection and assessment of data, and the organization of volunteers and other resources have been put in place to make expansion of our work possible.


As we enter our fourth decade, Touchstones seeks to expand and bring to scale its many individual successes. The constantly changing and evolving world, one that is globalized, technological, replete with dangerous disparities and inequalities, and insidiously factionalized, makes such new skills urgently necessary. Education must be truly democratized to take all students to a place that none of them have previously achieved. There are tens of thousands of schools and school systems yet to benefit from the Touchstones Discussion Project. Touchstones uniquely prepares all students for a fully engaged life in the gestating world. And, as we have demonstrated through more than thirty years, the use of Touchstones in other institutions and communities, including corporations, government agencies, prisons, and senior centers, also serves to enlighten, guide, and humanize our approaches to the great challenges we face as a global community.

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