SGRA Kawaraban (Essay) in English

Sim Choon Kiat “An Active Singaporean Struggles for Active Learning in Japanese Universities”

No one would object to me declaring that “I am very active”.

In my childhood, I used to play the cornet as a member of the marching band / chamber concert band in primary school. In middle and high school, I switched to theatrical club and was an actor and concurrently scriptwriter cum director until I came to Japan to study. The reason why I switched was because of the warm climate in Singapore. It was just too tough to play an instrument in the marching band under the blazing sun.

After coming to Japan to study, I returned to the theatrical field again while working as a government official. I appeared twice a year on the stage of the Singapore National Theater as a semiprofessional actor up until I went to graduate school in Japan. Due to this hidden career, once I appear on the stage or in front of people, I am still in the habit of straightening my posture and raising my voice in order to attract attention and treat leading actors and the guest of honor with due respect.


When I talk about teaching in universities in Japan as my new “stage”, there was a world of difference from Singapore. Whatever you may say, the reaction from students in Japan is very subdued. Sometimes, everyone keeps silent, like putting on a “Noh” face.

Since I have been studying in Japanese universities for more than ten years as an undergraduate, a Masters student and a PhD student, I can say I know well the “inactiveness” of Japanese students.

There is scarcely any passionate discussion even in a class at the graduate school of the University of Tokyo, which is said to be the top educational institution in Japan.


I am not sure whether these students are just trying to express Japanese “refinedness(奥ゆかしさ)”, or if they do not want what they say to be considered foolish, or if they are just not thinking anything.  Anyway, it is very, very quiet in the Japanese university classroom, so much so that the saying “silence is golden” feels sacred here. This situation is the reason why the Ministry of Education in Japan is now urging schools and universities to practice “active learning”. They strongly encourage schools to develop group discussion, debate and group-work in classes to solve problems actively.


I, as an active teacher, do not let such students continue keeping on a “Noh” face, even if the Ministry of Education would not urge this. In other words, I, being so active on the stage, am too proud to leave such students alone. But, since such students have been getting a passive education sitting on hard chairs for a long time, it is not easy to get them to open their silent mouths. I asked them to write comments on reaction papers after class, which many university teachers also do. I forbid them from writing simple reactions which a lot of students in primary schools are apt to use, such as “I was surprised when I know XXX”, “I learned a lot from XXX”, “I am interested in XXX”, and “I enjoyed a lot from XXX “.  I told them I would subtract points for using such simple phrases, and asked them to write their doubts, questions or counterarguments. 


I presented several good comments on Power-point as the basis for further discussion in the following class. I can say now that it proved to be effective because many students  tried after that to write meaningful comments that would be taken up in the next class.

I also decided to pass students the microphone because I realized that students have a lot to say and thought I would let them discuss further. I did this because writing reaction papers is a form of “reactive learning”, not active learning.


As a matter of course, when many students are given a microphone, they turn their faces away, or could not say anything, or opined irrelevantly.

It was like an improvised play for me in that I could not try to lead any response or opinion and , had to create an environment in which any response or utterance would be acceptable.. This is why active learning is far more difficult than one-way teaching in which teachers just keep speaking. What I like to emphasize here is that it is not OK to just keep discussing nor for students to just speak any opinion. If fruitful discussions, which are based on academic theories or knowledge, cannot be developed, then it is just a brainstorming session in which they just exchange their opinions.

Then, what should we do?  It is not easy to explain fully in this paper.  I will just say that I want to make use of my experience on the stage on this new stage that is the university classroom. 


I have had many questions in my mind over the past several years: even if there is fruitful discussion, is it alright that only teachers provide topics or subject of discussion?  Is it necessary for teachers to prepare their teaching materials by themselves? We are now in a time when students can find out any information they want if they check Google.  So, in several of my classes, I, as a teacher, decided to ask students to decide on a concrete theme by themselves although I suggest a rough idea in the syllabus.

For example, in an “Introduction to Social Problems” course, I asked students to decide the subjects and questions by themselves. In a lecture of “Theories of Modern Society”, they decided by themselves how to present their opinions or which country and subject to take up. When students present their opinions, I asked them to stop reading in the same monotone manner that Japanese politicians or public officials use when they are afraid of reading mistakenly. If they do so, points would be subtracted. Do not think that it got easier for me by leaving students to be independent or to direct themselves. On the contrary, it became more important for me to prepare myself further to face a situation in which students may choose any subject. As such, I became an “ultra-active” teacher.


I have never specified textbooks and have decided to stop distributing lecture materials when I have classes in a computer room. In other words, I have stopped lecturing itself. The reason for this is that I have determined that it is alright once students gather reliable information from searching on the internet and make the most suitable textbook by themselves after I instruct them on the main subject. I allowed students to do this alone or put their thoughts together with group members. Walking around the class, I sometimes spoke highly of a student who put her ideas together using her own words and good materials. Or, I gave questions to the students who just “copy and pasted” wrong or false information. Needless to say, you may be able to imagine that such teachers become busier in class.


I cannot write much about my “battle” because of the space limitations of this essay.

Fortunately, the classroom environment mentioned above is being evaluated highly and students themselves are also gradually changing.  I do not think that the “inactiveness” of Japanese students comes from the national character of Japan. Rather, it is because students have become too accustomed to the Japanese educational system. It is quite natural that students are more interested in education achieved through cooperation or interactive and two-way education. School lessons are established by teachers and students together.


The Japanese campus of Temple University, an American college based in Pennsylvania USA, will move to the campus where I am working now in September this year. It is the first time in Japan that a Japanese and American colleges will share a campus. There will not only be an increase in the number of foreign students but also the presence of male students in classes.

I am already excited thinking about how my “battle” will be become more challenging!


SGRA Kawaraban 592 in Japanese (Original)


(Sim ChoonKiat / Associate Professor, Showa Women’s University ) 


Translated by Kazuo Kawamura

English checked by Sonja Dale