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Top>Education>Recommendation of Active Learning


Takuo Tanaka

Takuo Tanaka

Recommendation of Active Learning

Takuo Tanaka
Professor Emeritus, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: International Economics, Development Economics, and International Management Theory


In recent years, active learning (hereinafter referred to as “AL”) is attracting great attention within the Japanese educational reform as the most innovative and outstanding experimental method. AL refers to an active and subjective learning method for the learner. For 30 some years, my seminar has conducted student-led practical team learning related to international issues. Every year, students divide into five or six teams and conduct onsite surveys throughout the world. Students then present their creative research results to external parties, winning a variety of awards and receiving high acclaim. The practical AL implemented in the FLP International Cooperation which belongs to my seminar was selected as a Good Practice (GP) Project of Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Recently, as a summary of extensive know-how and experience in relation to AL in my seminar, I published a book entitled Active Learning: Fostering Creativity — A Recommendation for Practical Team Learning (Platinum Zone Ltd., sold by Amazon, 2015). During the systematic learning activities for theme-based AL, one will often face a variety of difficult problems within long-term team learning activities. Indeed, attempting to implement AL brings about the risk of encountering setbacks in the original learning plan or being unable to achieve the forecasted results. My book gives an extremely specific and detailed introduction of how to implement AL in each phase of practical team learning and how to resolve issues which arise during the implementation process. Moving forward, many seminars (particularly FLP seminars) will actively implement AL. I would be most pleased if my rich instruction experience and learning know-how will serve as a convenient guide for AL.

About AL

Traditionally, university classes have been conducted mainly by one-way lectures from teachers to students. In contrast, AL refers to active and subjective learning activities conducted by students. Meanwhile, similar to how a midwife assists with childbirth, the teacher always stays close to students and engages in constant dialog, while at the same time providing specific advice and instructions in regards to student team activities as a professional. AL exerts significant fundamental changes on the role of teachers. In that respect, teachers and students who are not familiar with AL may feel strong resistance to its implementation.

My seminar uses a method called deep AL. It is often mistakenly thought that any learning activity in which students behave subjectively and actively is AL. However, my seminar uses a method known as theme-based deep AL. In this method, students are expected to set research targets and formulate a work process for the theme to be addressed by the team and ultimately to present research results for something new, as based on onsite surveys conducted in various locations such as overseas.

By conducting AL in my seminar, in addition to the acquisition of expert knowledge in related fields, I seek to cultivate in students the universal fundamental ability as professionals. This fundamental ability as professionals is a universal ability which will be strongly required for young people working at corporations in the future. Specifically, this ability consists of headwork, heartwork, footwork and network (for information on these terms, refer to the book introduced above). In order to cultivate these universal abilities during their university education, it is essential that students themselves conduct practical activities in a small well-managed organization. Simply conducting one-way lectures in a classroom will produce extremely unsatisfactory educational result. When students deepen their practical educational experience of forming a strong awareness of problems, embracing the challenge of various actual issues and searching for solutions through extensive consideration, the networking nerves in the brain are sufficiently trained during the learning process, undergoing further expansion and strengthening. Thanks to the function of this expanded and strengthened nerve network, students will be able to dramatically increase their ability to think and formulate new and effective solutions, ultimately at the time they begin working in the future. The refining and strengthening of brain networks for creative thinking is the fundamental goal of cultivating professionals at universities.

Development of the AL system and environment

In order to effectively implement AL in a seminar, it is extremely important to develop an environment and system which supports such learning activities and to foster a careful mind and attitude in participants.

[Securing a place for learning] In order for AL to be successful, there must be a shared place where students in the team can gather together freely at any time on a daily basis in order to have discussions and thorough debate issues. At the Faculty of Economics, each seminar has its own seminar room. This makes it possible for students to gather freely in the seminar room and conduct AL activities every day when coming to university. Furthermore, libraries must have the literature and materials required for AL, and must provide a learning commons room which can be used freely at any time by student teams.

[Forming small scale teams and managing the teams] In AL, significant team results can be expected as long as an appropriate learning team is formed. First, when starting the seminar, we spend sufficient time to select and group teams of four to six members, as well as to set research themes. At that time, when trying to create something new as the result of team activities, it is not effective to simply group friends who have the same way of thinking. Rather, as in FLP, extremely good results can be produced by assembling teams which contain a variety of different elements, such as different fields of expertise, academic majors and academic background. When forming multiple teams, it is of the utmost importance for all participants to find the appropriate balance between the egotism of strongly advancing their own course of action and the spirit of harmony which values cooperation within the group.

[Coaching and support organization of teachers] Another element of great importance is the role of teachers and external facilitators/supporters in supporting the autonomous activities of students. Through daily discussion and consultation with students, the teachers in charge and facilitators must stimulate and maintain the motivation of teams. These supporters must also implement an active coaching style of a midwife instructor. This means that instructors and facilitators entrust students to produce results while also taking final responsibility for the project. An effective method of maintaining the motivation of students is to have senior seminar students who have already experienced AL provide consultation and instruction to the team (half-student/half-teacher). Furthermore, advice and instructions from external experts and officials who are closely related to the research theme are of particular importance for AL. Although such officials are all very busy, it is possible to effectively apply the valuable tacit knowledge, which is gathered after making an appointment and having direct discussion, to research results.

[Building the core of students supporting team activities] Fundamentally speaking, AL is an autonomous and subjective learning method. This places extremely heavy demands on participating students in terms of mindfulness and professional attitude. Instead of aimlessly participating in AL activities with their classmates, students must train their own emotions through the heartwork which is part of activities.

Fortunately, my seminar was blessed with students who are extremely motivated in relation to practical learning for international economics. Even so, while conducting AL activities over a long period of time, it was quite common for teams to struggle, suffer a significant loss of motivation and face the danger of complete breakdown. In order to overcome such severe tribulations and conduct successful AL activities over a one-year period, it is essential for all participants to exert autonomous self-control, have firm resolve and maintain strong awareness. Furthermore, having a leader in the center, the entire team must maintain a high level of motivation towards learning. Achieving such a state of mind requires a combination of special measures and wisdom. An effective strategy for theme-based AL is the milestone strategy. This refers to the process of confirming the status of the research results during activities, and advancing into the next step of the work process while experiencing confidence and happiness by achieving the milestone.

In order to maintain intimate teamwork in AL, it is important to develop an information infrastructure, to share information within the team and to always deepen close communication. At that time, by instilling in all participants the feeling of consideration for other team members and the desire to contribute to the team, it is possible to realize the positive condition of unqualified responsibility in teamwork. In this state, team members will take the initiative and accept any challenges for the benefit of the team. This process will support the team through the long and arduous AL activities, and also strengthens the heartwork of students.

Learning process of AL

In AL, learning activities are conducted in the stages discussed below.

[Creating a research plan and work schedule] Initially, the most important element in team activities is the creation of a research plan and work schedule which provide an overview of AL and will serve as a guide for team activities during long-term research. Over a sufficient period of time, students should formulate their own plan through repeated discussion with the teacher in charge (through overnight workshop, for example). Once specific items have been defined for general aspirations and hypotheses in relation to problem consciousness of the team, the final research goal and problem-solving methods, it is then possible to use the items as a basis for constructing a detailed schedule for survey work. In particular, when conducting overseas surveys, it may be necessary to flexibly reconfigure the work schedule midway due to the circumstances of parties to be interviewed onsite.

[Gathering of knowledge and information] In AL activities, the breadth and amount of knowledge and information accumulated within the team have a large impact on the content of various learning activities, as well as on the creative ability of the team to produce something new. Therefore, a wide range of fundamental knowledge and information is required. In my seminar, students have the goal of referring to at least 100 instances of related literature. Students examine even the smallest details of information (insect’s-eye view) and gather a broad range of information which includes a variety of related fields (bird’s-eye view). In regards to core information which is of particular importance, each team creates an original textbook (about 30 pages) based upon the results of preceding study and then presents their textbook during regular seminar classes. Through a Q&A session with other teams, students deepen their understanding of important problems related to research issues. Through this process, students are able to incorporate and memorize fundamental knowledge and information, and strengthen the logical editorial ability which is essential for writing a thesis.

The most important method for gathering information within creative research activities is to actually make onsite visits and interact with the research target. The most outstanding feature of my FLP seminar is how each team acts upon their own plans to visit research sites throughout the world each year. During these visits, students conduct onsite surveys. The valuable onsite experiences obtained through these visits are utilized extremely effectively during subsequent writing of theses and presenting of results.

[Analysis of knowledge/information and creative activities] These activities are the core of theme-based AL. The entire team engages in seemingly endless and repeated deep logical thinking in preparation for analysis and creation. There are two types of discussion held within teams: vibrant debate which utilizes free-thinking covering a wide variety of topics and discussion which reaches a certain conclusion. The core of the team’s work in this stage is to define a logical cause-and-effect relationship for problems and to propose related solutions. By combining the logical organizational analysis of existing knowledge systems and the unique new information/knowledge obtained during onsite surveys, students seek to independently reform and reconstruct their knowledge. Particular emphasis is placed on the ideas and revelations of each member to deepen understanding through repeated discussion. This results in bold new ways of thinking and creative inspiration which will lead to the creation of new knowledge. Based on this, teams compose and write their theses.

[Conveying information and knowledge] As a goal of AL, after conducting activities over a one-year period, each team is required to present their research results in a public place. Presentation methods include writing a thesis by team, giving a presentation of results or engaging in a discussion/debate regarding research results with external teams. Regardless of the method selected, students must develop high-level communication skills in order to convey the something new aspect of research results. In my seminar, when a team writes a thesis, sufficient time is spent for detailed repeated correction and revision. Furthermore, in order to prepare for presenting their theses, students repeatedly undergo strict training comparable to actual presentation conditions under the guidance of the teacher.


Giving presentations which focus on the something new aspects of research results, teams from my seminar often receive extremely high acclaim from external parties. Almost every year, seminar teams win the top prize at a variety of thesis competitions. Upon completing AL activities, all students produce a written summary by reflecting upon their personal AL activities during the past year, as well as how they contributed to their team. In this way, students can obtain a detailed assessment on self-recognition of their own personal abilities, aptitudes, characteristics and strengths, as well as on their social awareness as developed through activities in a team organization. This element is one of the factors highly recognized by corporate human resource departments during hiring interviews. After graduation, many ex-seminar students continue to engage in learning in highly-specialized fields. By utilizing the universal fundamental ability of professionals as acquired through AL, students become ambitious and outstanding leaders in corporations. In this respect, the implementation of AL fulfills a central role in the reconstruction and vitalization of university education for cultivating capable professionals who will fulfill a leading role at corporations in the future.

Takuo Tanaka
Professor Emeritus, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: International Economics, Development Economics, and International Management Theory
Takuo Tanaka was born in Wakayama Prefecture in 1937. After graduating from Keio University’s Faculty of Economics in 1961, he completed the Master’s Program at the Keio University Graduate School of Economics in 1963.
Tanaka completed the Doctoral Program at the Keio University Graduate School of Economics in 1967. After serving as an assistant, full-time instructor, assistant professor and professor in the Chuo University Faculty of Economics, he was appointed as Dean of the Chuo University Graduate School of Economics from 2002 to 2006.
He was appointed as Professor Emeritus at Chuo University in 2008 upon reaching mandatory retirement age.
He has published numerous books and theses. His major publications include Development Theory: Wisdom of the Heart — Social Development and Human Development (Chuo University Press, 2006) and more.