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Innovation Program

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


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


Our groups aim is to contribute to educational innovation by introducing the “Reacting to the Past? (RTTP) program to Sophia University and to Liberal Arts Education in Japan as a whole.  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.

We will test the use of RTTP materials that are currently available in a classroom environment at Sophia, with the goal of making RTTP an integral part of the core program in the FLA.

The short term aim is to develop and test 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 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 Guided in their roles by classical texts and historical documents, students must negotiate with their peers, write and give speeches, form alliances, etc.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.

Activities (in chronological order):

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.

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.

RTTP Consortium Details

The “Reacting to the Past? (RTTP) consortium is a group of 40 colleges and universities that have developed the RTTP pedagogy since its inception in 2001-2002.

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.

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 1. 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 has over the summer developed the Ak? game together with our graduate student Darla Cornett. The result will be tested in Gramlich-Oka’s class this fall.

We will keep posting our activities.