Institute for Liberal Arts News

Creating Places for Mutual Learning Instead of One-Sided Teaching

Professor Tamio Nakano, Communication Theory

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April 30, 2021

Professor Tamio Nakano

Turning Tokyo Tech into a place of authentic learning based on unanimous efforts

My courses at Tokyo Tech provide learning on communication principles, which helps us master the skills for creative dialogs with people.
Specifically, my undergraduate course focuses on facilitation techniques, crucial to creating an atmosphere that encourages everyone to speak, in addition to communicative listening and speaking abilities. In my classes for graduate students, the sessions “Toward Our True Nature,” “Ecology and Spirituality for Global Citizens,” and “Mindfulness Exercise” (to know your as-you-are nature) are available, to name a few.

The concept common to all my classes is communication, which is indispensable for the survival of humans. It’s also the source of joy that we can tap into by sharing our thoughts, learning mutually, and co-creating. But on the other hand, communication can be more challenging than anything else. What is then the key to positive and creative communication? Those answers are sought, through trial and error, in my courses.

My classes aim for effective communication in every way. For example, my “Communication Theory” course has as many as a hundred participants, but I still won’t make the class one-way teaching session. Using a large room without desks and chairs, where students can take off their shoes and sit on directly on the floor, I will start workshop-style group activities after splitting the entire class, by lot, into four-member units.

The term “workshop” here refers particularly to the style of engaging participants actively in experiences of mutual learning and co-creation with other members rather than in a one-directional knowledge transfer, as in lectures. To sum it up, it’s all about mutual learning among students instead of one-way teacher-to-student communication.

Successful workshops require excellent facilitators. The facilitator here is the role devoted to activating communication among participants by involving each of them, eventually turning the session into a fruitful place of learning and creation. In that sense, unlike an ordinary moderator or MC, the facilitator may decide the quality of the group work.

Since excellent facilitation is the key to successful communication, my courses include sessions for learning facilitation. The facilitation skills are comprised of five factors: 1) Atmosphere, 2) Group size, 3) Questions, 4) Visualization, and 5) Program design. Regarding 1), there is an innovative, talk-promotion tool, which many groupwork classes at Tokyo Tech have already started to use.

Called “Entakun,” the tool is a round cardboard sheet measuring almost 1m in diameter, initially invented by Tadashi Kawashima, a pioneer of environmental education. Each four-member group uses a single unit by placing it on the laps of the members, who form a circle. Serving as a “round table” with all members facing one another, the board can shrink their physical and psychological distance, facilitating informal communication. Entakun also played an active role in one day’s discussion: “Think Tokyo in Future,” where individual members show their diverse ideas on “what they love about Tokyo” and “what they want Tokyo to be like as a town to live.”

Another merit of using Entakun is that members can write down (in different colors) all ideas coming to their minds on a round sheet of paper placed on the unit. Thoughts and views such as in the above discussion, “A limited number of waste containers in Tokyo,” “Surprisingly more greenery than expected,” “Sidewalks are narrow,” “So many electric poles” can be shared in an easy-to-see form. Indeed, a round table talk using the tool can smooth mutual communication and stimulate the emergence of new hints and insights.

Active-engagement learning styles are not entirely new to students who have experienced the Tokyo Tech Visionary Project, but seemingly they haven’t been impressed enough yet. Class evaluation surveys have received very positive feedback from many students. Some of them say: “My problem was being a poor speaker. But it has gone through sessions using Entakun,” or “Tokyo Tech has become a more cheerful place, with many having chats while standing throughout the campus.”
By the way, I myself have become even more “engaged” in promoting Entakun, using my song-making hobby, which I started after my 57th birthday. I’ve created a song of Entakun that goes something like “Let’s sit in a circle, Let’s talk in a circle …,” and am singing to my own guitar performance.

Diverse types of teachers co-working
for students’ better learning

Professor Tamio Nakano

My first career was not related to teaching at all. I temporarily left university only one month after the entrance, fed up with dull, one-sided lectures. I earned some money by working at a car factory, then departed for traveling alone from Southeast Asia, India, Nepal, America and Latin America using that money. Meeting and experiencing various people, cultures, and customs, I felt how I was connected to the universe and nature. Back at the university, I joined a sociology seminar hosted by Professor Munesuke Mita. Professor Noriyuki Ueda, the current dean of the Institute for Liberal Arts, happened to be my learning mate there. He and I were good company whenever we would pay an unexpected visit to our teacher’s home to start academic discussions or would play the roles of seminar camp engagers.

After graduation, I joined Hakuhodo, a big ad agency in Japan. It was an unfitting choice, considering that I had turned my back on the Japanese commercial industry, dubbed the “economic animal syndrome” then, particularly after I had experienced an alternative world. But I did choose to be a part of a capitalist ogre. However, my little bit of determination to change the industry from the inside motivated me to overcome challenges that started on my first day in the sales section in Osaka. But soon, I was so deeply engrossed in my job that I had become a “wool hunter shorn” case and didn’t even know it.

Fortunately, it was not too late when I recovered my common sense. With a little help from courage, I took a leave of absence and enrolled in a graduate school in California at my own expense. That was when the bubble economy peaked in Japan and the United States entered the Gulf War. This event during my life there changed my later path completely. Education approaches, such as “workshop” and “facilitation,” focusing on active participation, experience, and interaction, had a massive impact on me.

The greatest source of inspiration was a series of workshops hosted by Joanna Macy, a social activist. As I said, it was the middle of the Gulf War, and her sessions addressed the topic. With the question “How do you feel (about the war)?” the workshop started by attentively listening and sharing ideas and feelings, and it ended by asking everyone what they could do. Through these sessions, I felt that I was becoming reconnected deeply with global events. I even started my own workshop comprising Japanese living there, to discuss “What can we do as a Japanese?” or “What do we have to say to our country?” Various findings and actions took shape through those activities.

We tend to avoid problems if they are so challenging that we cannot solve them alone. However, there are many cases where workshops can empower you to stand up and face them, supported by other members, to find an answer eventually.
Joanna Macy says that power lies when we stop being alone, get together, and exchange questions. Those words deeply moved me. That’s why we should start a talk where we can invite people, exchange our problems, and share our uncontrived feelings. Starting there may be small but will certainly lead to something big.

My career took a turn in the latter half of 2005, when my project, Expo Aichi “NGO Global Village,” was almost finished. Universities started to invite me as a part-time lecturer, and in 2012, I finally left Hakuhodo, where I spent 30 years of my life, to join Doshisha University. As a professor of the Social Innovation Course at the Graduate School of Policy and Management (and also served at the Faculty of Policy Studies), I began teaching NGO theories, workshops, and facilitation practices.

In the autumn of 2015, I joined the Institute for Liberal Arts at Tokyo Tech amid its preparation for liberal arts education reform. One of those efforts was the Tokyo Tech Visionary Project, a required course for 1st-year undergraduate students and the banner of the Institute for Liberal Arts. I became a member of the team, devoted to the completion of the project, which was planned to start in April 2016.

When I joined, the project was at its final stage, carefully prepared through long-term discussions with Professor Ueda as the leader and under the supervision of Professor Mishima, the then president of the university. Their focus was on what kind of education was necessary to develop excellent science students at the university into specialists with a high level of humanity, sociality, and creativity, capable of upholding grand visions. They had been searching for the last piece of the puzzle when I took part in the operation.

The basic scheme of the Tokyo Tech Visionary Project was something like this: “Front-runners in society provide lectures to a large number of students. Then the audience is divided into 40 small groups, who individually deepen the lecture contents.” The operating idea of alternating lecture hall sessions and small-class activities was also fixed. What they lacked was the specific method of how to operate small-class sessions. In addition to that, teachers with diverse specialties had not been well-acquainted with one another yet. That was where my experience spoke. By accumulating talks among key members of the preparatory team, we created a small-group activity plan. We tested it by hosting two-day workshop training sessions for all liberal arts teachers in March 2016.

In the session to discuss our small-group activity plan, we used the tool named “Program Design Mandala,” which I devised. It’s a basic format to plan a program with a specific flow, and a useful item for participant-engagement activities, combined with Entakun.

Let me show you how to structure the Program Design Mandala. First, draw three concentric circles. Then, use vertical and horizontal lines to divide the outer two rings into four sectors. (However, don’t divide the innermost circle; leave it untouched.) Beginning in the upper right quadrant and moving clockwise, the four zones represent the “Start,” “Develop,” “Turn,” and “Conclude” phases. Now, you can write down your goal, aim at the core circle, and fill individual quadrants with as many activities as possible in a sequential manner.

In our small group session, for example, we filled the innermost circle with the following: “Review the lecture, discuss its content in a small group, and stimulate each other to learn.” The small group activity on that day used the following flow: “Form a four-member group and introduce yourself --> Review and summarize the lecture --> Discuss what you felt and learned.” The flow developed then is now used in activities for students in small classes.

One of the best results that came from this series of Tokyo Tech Visionary Project workshops was that the teaching team could experience the thrill of exchanges throughout the activity. I believe that the outstanding success of the project since its start is attributable to the effort, collaboration, and passion of diverse teachers trying to make first year learning a fruitful experience.

Your vision sprouting at university will flourish into leadership in society

Professor Tamio Nakano

“Mutual learning instead of teaching” has been my principal pursuit for more than thirty years, since my career at the ad agency, and I have continued related effort through various activities such as workshops. My quest for mutual learning through active engagement aims for the following four kinds of relationship connections: 1) among people; 2) between one and oneself; 3) between one and nature; and 4) between one and society. The first refers to the connection among one another through facilitated positive communication, and the second to the connection with your inner nature through the integration of physical and mental selves. The third stands for the feeling that you are part of nature through interaction with it, while the fourth means social engagement to pursue your concerns in society.

As the means to establish those connections optimally, there are effective and proven techniques, including workshops, facilitation and even mindfulness. These help us to cherish ourselves and become free from our attached false thinking. By exploring these four relationships, students and teachers can mutually learn to build a peaceful, sustainable society.

The seeds planted through our effort now begin to sprout on the Tokyo Tech campus. Students who have learned the excitement of mutual learning (instead of being taught one-sidedly) start their facilitation circles.

On the other hand, my current commitment is designing programs for the Tokyo Tech Academy for Leadership (ToTAL), a cross-institutional project to foster leadership. Targeting selected students in master’s and doctoral degree courses, it’s a platform to develop leaders who can play an active role in the world stage.

Unfortunately, as far as Japanese students are concerned, they are less active in playing a leader. They may be shy, thinking that it’s not yet their time. However, leadership is not optional; it’s a critical quality to make decisions.
The same applies to liberal arts. It comprises essential learning, which brings you the sensation of wonder that you are living in this universe, or even that something allows you to stay here as a miraculous dot of existence after 13.7 billion years since the cosmic beginning and 4.6 billion years of Earth’s history. Amidst such an infinite flow of time, human life is nothing but a duration of decades. Learning liberal arts is to find the answer to how we can celebrate and flourish this only life— the true purpose of leaning as a human.

In the future, students who have completed the courses at the Institute for Liberal Arts will be enrolled at the Academy for Leadership. I hope that they will fully exploit the various learning communities available at Tokyo Tech and discover their potential as leaders who can enjoy and feel a deep appreciation for their lives.


Professor Tamio Nakano

Research Fields: Communication Theory, Workshop, Facilitation, Mindfulness

Professor Tamio Nakano

Born in Tokyo in 1957. Graduated from the Department of Religious Studies of the University of Tokyo and joined Hakuhodo Inc. in 1982. Temporarily left the company to study and acquire a master’s degree in Organizational Development and Transformation at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in 1991. Took early retirement from Hakuhodo in 2012 and joined Doshisha University as a professor. The current position since 2015. Authored books include Workshop, Facilitation Revolution, How to Create a Place of Learning (all from Iwanami Shoten), and Exciting Training for Everyone (Shunjusha).
Note: Book titles are translated.

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