Innovation Program

Reacting to the Past: New Approaches to Critical Thinking and Japanese History



Project team:

James McKinley (FLA), Mathew Thompson (FLA), Gramlich-Oka (FLA)

What we do:

Our group has been contributing to educational innovation by bringing the “Reacting to the Past? (RTTP) pedagogy to higher education in Japan. RTTP is an innovative approach to Liberal Arts Education consisting of interactive classroom activities that promote student engagement in big ideas and improve critical thinking skills. In Sophia University’s Liberal Arts program, since 2012 every semester approximately 100 students–every degree student in the faculty–are learning important, lifelong skills by experiencing RTTP in the core program’s required public speaking course.

We have also developed and tested a set of RTTP-style materials that explore important moments in Japanese history (e.g. the arrival of Commodore Perry and the Ak? incident) for use in the FLA core, history, and literature programs.

As a result we plan to publish a series of RTTP textbooks and manuals that will make the RTTP method widely available for use in classes relating to Japanese history or critical thinking not only at Sophia but other Japanese and Western universities as well.

Since 2013, we have shared these materials and helped to bring the RTTP pedagogy to educationists in Japan through regular, annual RTTP workshops, hosted by Sophia University.


Since its initiation in 1999, the “Reacting to the Past? program has been adopted at numerous prestigious liberal arts colleges in the US and Europe and has received a Theodore Hesburgh award for pedagogical innovation. Based at Barnard College, NY,  a series of educational games were developed that encourage students to actively explore culturally or politically significant moments in history.  In a typical classroom environment, students learn by passively receiving information from teachers, or they discuss issues in small groups. “Reacting to the Past? is founded upon a different approach to education. Students learn by participating in elaborate scenarios set in the past, scenarios in which they must play the roles of important historical figures, groups, or institutions. Guided in their roles by classical texts and historical documents, students must negotiate with their peers, write and give speeches, form alliances, etc. in order to achieve the best possible outcome for whatever interests they represent. As a result, students are put into an environment in which they must debate and speak rationally and eloquently, write clearly and coherently, think critically about complex intellectual issues, exhibit leadership and problem solving skills, and work effectively in a team.

See the March 2015 article and accompanying video in USA Today that described the “quiet revolution? in higher education wrought by the Reacting Consortium here.

RTTP Consortium Details:
The “Reacting? (RTTP) consortium is a group of 40 colleges and universities that have developed the RTTP pedagogy since its inception in 2001-2002. Sophia University is a founding member of the consortium.

Initially founded to support the development, implementation, and assessment of the RTTP pedagogy with support of a grant from FIPSE, U.S. Department of Education, the consortium has grown as additional institutions adopted RTTP. The Consortium is managed by the ten-person RTTP Advisory Board (RAB), drawn from senior scholars and administrators from as many institutions. The RAB also serves as an editorial board to approve materials for publication by Pearson Education and provides formative evaluation for authors during game development. Through the main program office at Barnard, the Consortium provides faculty development support through an interactive web site, regional workshops, and an annual conference to introduce the pedagogy to new faculty and to build a network of scholar-teachers.

The consortium was established by six institutions (Barnard College, Loras College, Queens College, Smith College, Trinity College, and Pace University) in 2001-2002. Sophia University is the first institution outside the U.S. to be included. Thus, Sophia University has gained the potential to become a leader and an innovator in a new field of pedagogy in the liberal arts education both in Japan, other parts of Asia, and throughout the world.

Becoming a member also means additional support in the development of our own RTTP projects in the form of peer review, conference participation, and the chance to invite a variety of scholars and experts to Sophia for training and other workshops.


Activities (in chronological order):

2010 (pre-project funding)

Gramlich-Oka participated in the 2010 Workshop (Annual Institute at Barnard College in New York, NY) as part of the FLA’s Faculty Development Program.  Having experienced and received training in RTTP pedagogy, Gramlich-Oka tested the method in her upper level seminar (HST439, Autumn 2010) with a scenario she developed on the Ak? Incident.  This was such a success that the students immediately requested another RTTP scenario, which was implemented into the course with the title “The Economic Crisis of the 1780s?.  Again, the students univocally expressed the opinion that “Reacting to the Past? provided an exceptional and enjoyable learning experience despite the fact that they had to devote many more hours to class preparation than they otherwise would have.

2012 (start of project funding)

McKinley participated in the 2012 Workshop (Annual Institute at Barnard College in New York, NY) as part of the innovation program. The annual RTTP conference held at Barnard College, Columbia University, New York City, is a training program for educators in how to apply the games and the textbooks in the classroom. At this year’s Reacting to the Past (RTTP) Annual Institute at Barnard McKinley participated in two of the event’s debate modules, one of which he and another colleague then trialed in late June/early July in their Public Speaking courses in the Faculty of Liberal Arts, to great success.

McKinley introduced one established RTTP game in an FLA Core Class (ENG115, Public Speaking).

In June/July, Jim McKinley and Hanako Okada ran the debate module for the RTTP game “The Threshold of Democracy: Athens in 403 B.C.? in theirENG115 classes. The module ran as follows:

Phase One: Readings and pre-game discussion. Three class periods concentrated on readings the students were required to do in order to gain the necessary background knowledge for their roles in the game. The in-class discussions focused on history, objectives, characters, and other pertinent details. Students were all assigned characters with objectives related to those characters that they were to try and achieve during the module.

Phase Two: Speeches and debates. Students gave compelling speeches and very active discussions ensued after each speech as each character strived to reach their assigned objectives. Students who had read more and prepared better notes were the strongest in those discussions, but their tone and delivery also affected their ability to reach their goals.

Phase Three: Voting. At the end of each of all the speeches included in the five debates, or “assembly sessions,? students all voted on the topics that were argued. As the student’s objectives were not all known by the whole group (and others’ were not decided), the outcomes were different. After the first day, in one class the Metic group was not given the right to vote and the Oligarchs were in the lead, while in the other class the Metic group was given the right to vote and the Moderate Democrats were in the lead.

Phase Four: Written Assignment. At the end of the module, all students submitted a three-page reflection on the debate module and their ability to reach their character objectives. Some of the feedback included:

“…one of the most stimulating and fascinating academic experience I have ever had in my university life.?

“Overall, it was very fun and educational experience, not only for speech but historically as well. The chance to slip into a “role? and act out a different person’s character was fun and I would like to do it again.?

“Overall, this debate style turned out to be an interesting experience, allowing everyone to utilize their critical-thinking skills to analyze and build up their own character’ personalities and characteristics.?

Gramlich-Oka participated in the 2012 Workshop “Reacting to the Past Game Development Conference? (Central Michigan University, July 19-21)

The Central Michigan University conference was the first of its kind, one in which RTTP educators receive training in developing games. The announcement for this conference came out in April of this year, thus we had not included in our initial plan to participate in the conference. However, since our innovation unit has two games in development, the Ak? and Bakumatsu games, it was decided that Gramlich-Oka should participate in order to gain more instruction and support in writing this new type of textbook.

At the conference, she gave two presentations on our games. Both presentations received much feedback; the audience was excited to see Japan related games in development and encouraged us to proceed. In order to be able to claim that the game is a RTTP game, the material will have to pass an editorial board and testing, and thus, in gaining widespread support and encouragement, we have passed the first hurdle on our way to approval. The board assigned the author of the game design book, Nick Proctor, to work us through the process of developing our games and we hope that we can invite him and one more developer to a workshop next year in May.

Gramlich-Oka also played three games in development, which deepened her understanding of the mechanics of the pedagogy, which will help further the implementation of RTTP at Sophia.

Thompson, over the summer of 2012, developed the Ak? game together with our graduate student Darla Cornett. The result was tested in Gramlich-Oka’s class in the fall semester.


In May 2013, we held the first ever Reacting to the Past (RTTP) conference outside the United States, helping to establish Sophia University as the home of RTTP in East Asia. More than 50 people attended the 2-day weekend workshop. Three leading RTTP experts came from the US to Sophia to give keynote talks and run sessions. A report can be found here (scroll down more than halfway).

RTTP Poster + Schedule_Page_1In the RTTP Conference at Sophia in May 2013, we trialed the Akô Vendetta game, since given the working title “The Legacy of the 47 Samurai: 1701? (henceforth referred to as 47 Samurai). We received expert feedback from Chair of the RTTP Board, Nicolas Proctor, who came from the US to help run the game. The feedback has been worked into the game as it continues to be played.

As of April 18, 2013, we established our official status as “new founding member” of the Reacting Consortium, the only institution outside the US, setting up Sophia University to be the center for RTTP in Japan and East Asia and to host our own RTTP events for the region.

Thompson attended the annual Reacting to the Past (RTTP) workshop in June 2013 where he participated in two of the event’s debate modules, giving him further insight into how the pedagogy works and informing his efforts of the development of the 47 Samurai game.

Using Endnote, we established an extensive bibliography that is part of the 47 Samurai game and will be part of the Bakumatsu game.

One RTTP game was established in all sections of FLA Core Class ENG115, Public Speaking. Students were actively engaged in all of the readings, speeches, and debates and provided extremely positive feedback on the experience. In September 2013, an article by McKinley and research assistant Darla Cornett was published in The Language Teacher.

JALT RTTP article heading

A complete working draft of the 47 Samurai game was produced, the first RTTP module about Japanese history. Currently Gramlich-Oka continues to play the 47 Samurai game in her seminar (HST439, Issues in Japanese Thought).


In March 2014, we held the 2nd annual Reacting to the Past conference at Sophia University. Using feedback from the previous year’s conference, the event was held on one day, with all participants joining a single game, led by Thompson and McKinley.

JALT RTTP Promo Poster 20140123-1Thompson atttended the game-writing Reacting to the Past (RTTP) workshop in July 2014 and  Gramlich-Oka attended the annual RTTP workshop at Barnard, NY, in June 2014. These workshop are a fundamental part of the RTTP community and have played an important role in the development of the Ako Incident and Bakumatsu modules.

A polished draft of the Ak? module came closer to completion, prepared for play-testing by other members of the RTTP Consortium in the US. Play-testing is a critical stage of the development of any RTTP module and is a sign that the game is being considered for future publication by the RTTP Consortium.

The pedagogy was firmly integrated in the core curriculum of FLA: one established game applied as the final assessment in all sections of FLA Core Class ENG115, Public Speaking. All instructors led the games over a period of four weeks with confidence, and students were actively engaged in all of the readings, speeches, and debates and provided extremely positive feedback on the experience, including the following:

“The skills required in the debate module [RTTP game] turned out to be more than just a challenge in class, it ended up being really useful for the third and fourth stages of the interview process in my job hunting. In the later interview stages, the job candidates we all had to sit together and negotiate some problems. The hiring team graded us for our discussing the problem, and taking leadership in the group for finding solutions. I felt so confident because of the debates in Public Speaking, and it wasn’t stressful like I would have been. I wanted you to know, I got the job!?

2015 (looking ahead)

With ongoing support from the FLA, this project will continue to proceed in a direction that contributes to Sophia University’s position as a leading liberal arts institution in Japan and in the global education community.

As part of the university’s requirement of requiring advanced general studies courses for all Sophia undergraduate students, Thompson is currently scheduled to teach an upper-level seminar that will consist entirely of RTTP games, including the 47 Samurai module. This will further integrate the RTTP pedagogy into the FLA curriculum and offer students a chance to further improve their critical thinking and debate skills.

As part of Sophia’s participation in the Global 30 initiative, we hope that Sophia will showcase RTTP as an innovative pedagogy in college education. With the help of the RTTP consortium, we also hope to translate an RTTP module so that it can be tested in a Japanese language classroom environment as well.

For that purpose our new Homepage provides a platform on which the program can be made known widely and emphasizes Sophia’s place as an active and important member of the global RTTP community, as the RTTP regional center for Asia, and as part of the collaborative working group RTTP & Second Language Learning.

In 2015, new games will be introduced into the core curriculum of FLA.

A third RTTP conference to be held at Sophia University is planned for 2015-2016.