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Student-Centered Discussion in the Far East

In December I traveled to Japan, Singapore, and China, exploring possibilities for IF-styled discussions on Asian settings.  In Japan, I spoke with one faculty member who teaches at a very large and esteemed private university in Tokyo and another that teaches at a small, international university in Tokyo.

Most of the classes at the large, private school enroll 400-700 students.  The exception is the freshmen seminar, which is capped at 23 due to the size of seminar classrooms.  Senior faculty actually have the hardest time and complain the most about teaching the small seminars, where students seem to be displaying the anti-authoritarian, inquisitive, and even sometimes bullying and cliquish tendencies that we see in many American 21st C., or Generation Y, students (usually ages 16-28).  Nonetheless, since the earthquake and tsunami, all faculty are genuinely wanting to explore ways of incorporating more discussion into their classrooms– even the larger ones.  My colleague and I would like to explore East/Southeast Asian students’ willingness to engage in various sorts of classroom discussions.

The other Japanese faculty member is much better placed to engage in small-group, student-led discussion, as his classes are small and incorporate students from around the world.  This is likely great cultural variation, however, in students’ receptiveness to a student-led discussion model such as IF promotes.  Sometimes, though, students are willing to take more risks when they are engaged with students and teachers outside of their primary cultural context.

Asian students, on average, are perceived as not being so willing to engage in discussion.  It is not so clear, however, if that is true of the current generation, and teachers really want to know how far they can go with using discussion in their classrooms.  Teachers in Singapore really want to find new ways to engage students in controversial topics.  Student-centered discussion does a great job to make space for this sort of discussion.  Few teachers will chance trying it, however, before they have a better sense of how receptive their students will be to it. This is why further research with students in East/Southeast Asia is important.

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