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Touchstone School: “Magical Moments”

By Shlomo Maital


My wife and I are visiting Touchstone Community School, here in Grafton, MA, about an hour from Boston.   In this and several following blogs, I would like to recount briefly some ‘magical moments’ I experienced there, in a pre-K to Grade 8 school where children do not take formal tests and where their imaginations and social skills are fostered.

   Background:   Thanks to the hospitality of Touchstone, I’ve brought a Chinese family from Shantou, Guangdong (where Technion has a joint venture program), to visit the school – Jin, my former Shantou U. student,   his wife Yuen, and 3-year-old daughter Yue, or Sophia.   Together we’re making a documentary film, hoping to bring the message of Touchstone’s “transformative schooling” back to China and to Israel.

  sophia and friend Sophia and her new friend…language is no barrier!


   Values: We joined a group of Grade 7-8 children discussing Touchstone core values. The class itself had earlier chosen core values:   all began with “C” — Confidence, curiosity, connection, creativity.   These values appeared on a ‘flag’ created by the children which included one square per child, where the square reflected the child’s own personality. This emphasis at Touchstone on being an individual is pervasive.

   I asked the students about rules.   If you have core values, and act on them, do you really need rules?   Rules are external, externally enforced; values are internal, internally enforced.   The discussion was interesting, the consensus was – values can replace rules.

   There followed a discussion about table arrangements.   Pairs? Fours?   One big square table?   The consensus was: One big table, more inclusive.   Inclusiveness is a school-wide core value. I suggested, maybe a oval or round table? But there is no such table at Touchstone. However, there is an oval carpet. Let’s sit around the carpet, the students suggested.   I came up with a round table that splits into four segments, so work in pairs and small teams can take place.   We need to have it built.

   One conversation at a time? This is an IDEO principle.   It is implemented in this class with Jupiter, a soft toy, tossed from one child (the speaker) to another (who raises their hands and wishes to speak).   One child was applauded, for actually catching Jupiter with one hand (apparently, a first! The students joked about it…not in a mocking manner).  

   I could not help but notice the huge developmental gap between the girls and the boys…the girls are way way ahead of the boys, which is common at this age.  

   There is a core issue here. Teachers who graduate from teachers’ colleges learn about the rules of pedagogy and the rules of schooling. They then implement those rules in the schools where they teach, and children learn about following an external set of rules, with punishments (and rewards, at times).   Children who follow rules well, do well in school. Rebellious kids don’t. But creativity demands rebellion. Are we eradicating it with our rule-based system?   Touchstone begins with values. Values are internal. Why not replace external rules with internal values? And make ‘confidence’, and ‘creativity’ core values?  

Should We Teach Kids to Break the Rules?

By Shlomo  Maital     

Library Lion

    In Michelle Knudsen’s book for children, “Library Lion”, 2006, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes,  the head librarian Miss Merriweather and Mr. McBee  kick Library Lion out of the library, because he roared.   And in the library, the rule is, you have to keep silent.  They come to realize that by sticking to the formal rules, McBee and Merriweather have made a mistake.  

  Sometimes, to do a good thing, you have to break the rules.  An Israeli theater group has now made a musical out of this story. 

    Here is a short passage:  One day a lion came to the library. He walked right past the circulation desk and up into the stacks.  Mr. McBee ran down the hall to the head librarian’s office.  “Miss Merriweather!” he called.  “No running”, said Miss Merriweather, without looking up.  “But there’s a lion!” said Mr. McBee. “In the library!”    “Is he breaking any rules?” asked Miss Merriweather. She was very particular about rule breaking.  “Well, no,” said Mr. McBee. “Not really”.   “Then leave him be.”

      As parents and teachers, we teach our kids to become ‘socialized’, which means, to learn the rules of civilized behavior in society.  Every society socializes its kids.  Without that, we would have a crumbling society of sociopaths. 

    The question is,   if creativity and innovation are about breaking the rules, can we teach kids to follow some rules and break others?  And can they learn to know the difference?    Can we raise good kids, well behaved, who at the same time rebel against rules, unwritten ones, and create wonderful new inventions?   Can you be totally socialized, and extremely creative? 

     Perhaps “Library Lion” is a wonderful start at grappling with these tough questions.  It is clear that doing so is long overdue.   A lot of parenting, and a great deal of schooling, are one-sidedly focused on teaching the rules, and not on when they might be, and should be, broken.   

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital