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This issue of CDTL Brief is the last of a two-part installment that features the teaching practices of the NUS Outstanding Educator Award winners and nominees.

October 2004, Vol. 7, No. 9 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
A Grounded Teaching Practice
Assistant Professor Kenneth Paul Tan
Department of Political Science & University Scholars Programme


My teaching practice is driven by an obsessive delight in designing and executing curriculum and pedagogy for every learning encounter with my students. In this, I have been described as meticulous, creative and enthusiastic, aiming to inspire students to embrace for themselves both the struggle and joy of learning. I regard these learning encounters as enjoyably complex puzzles that pose several intellectual challenges, including the challenge of designing learning environments that do not, in a counterproductive way, feel ‘over-designed’. These complex puzzles also provide me with ample opportunities to relate to my students as thinking adults, as individuals with specific needs and as young people with the potential to do very well in life. These reasons motivate continual efforts to innovate my teaching methods and materials in responsible ways that never lose sight of real learning possibilities and outcomes. These efforts are reflected in the design of new modules and constant refinement of older ones.

I am also driven by constructive and encouraging feedback that students give formally and informally, particularly feedback from students who document specific ways in which reading my modules has made a real difference in the way they think about politics, society, and culture (my academic field); about learning; and about their own lives as students, citizens and future leaders. In their feedback, my students have recognised the passion and commitment—evenings and weekends spent with students at public talks, forums, exhibitions, performances and other relevant activities that I encourage them to attend—with which I conduct my teaching. Students have appreciated my efforts to make their (and my own) learning challenging, intellectually focused, provocative, relevant, interactive and fun. They have appreciated the way I have put them ‘first’ in my career as an academic, fully aware of the sacrifices that this entails.

My students too, have time and again exceeded my expectation. For example, a group of four University Scholars Programme students who read an Independent Study Module (ISM) with me in Semester 2 of Academic Year 2003/2004 went much further than the required research paper that they each had to write. Although they had absolutely no prior experience in making video documentaries, they took up the challenge that I threw them and produced a sophisticated full-length documentary that was screened and critically discussed in an open seminar.

In the classroom, I have painstakingly built up a climate of trust and friendship that enables a high level of discussion, uninhibited by ungrounded fears about what can or cannot be said. I have given students the confidence to apply and critically reflect on what they already know intuitively, from everyday experiences, from general knowledge and from knowledge gained across modules. By giving students intellectual resources through an empowering pedagogy, I see myself as nurturing future citizens who will not simply be satisfied with conventional wisdoms, who will be motivated to act intelligently on their convictions and who will excel as leaders in the fields that they choose.

Teaching Goals

In my teaching practice, I am guided by a number of goals. First, I want to inspire and empower students to take active ownership of their own learning and to be comfortable with the notion that they themselves are sources of learning for other students and their teachers. Second, I want to get students into the habit of continually re-examining the familiar in the light of the new and unfamiliar. In other words, I want them to get into the habit of not taking anything for granted. Thirdly, I want to encourage students to embrace, and not fear, the messiness of knowledge and understanding. More specifically, I want them to avoid thinking about the different components of their knowledge and experiences as neat, distinct and self-contained entities. Instead, I want them to learn how to make dialectical connections among theoretical, historical, empirical, practical, experiential and intuitive sources of knowledge. Finally, I want to help students to think, express themselves and communicate with others clearly, critically and creatively.

Teaching Methods

To achieve these goals, my teaching methods have integrated a number of approaches. First, whenever possible, I have employed the Socratic method through seminar-style learning that involves strategically facilitated discussions. Even for traditional lectures, I usually adapt the Socratic method so that my students are expected to start their learning process ‘with prior knowledge and intuitions, and then work through a rigorous process of responding to an indeterminate series of questions that seeks to clarify and critique every stage of their response’ (Tan, 2003a). To make sure that these discussions have direction, shape and content, I employ concept-mapping methods, using a whiteboard to build up frameworks that explain and link complex theories, concepts and issues that, for example, arise from the readings that students are expected to prepare.

Second, I particularly enjoy designing pedagogical innovations such as simulated games and role play for experiential learning, formal debates to foreground specific structures of argumentation and student-facilitated discussions to ensure active engagement from everyone in class (Tan, 2003c). I recognise that such innovations need to be designed with a sense of responsibility, attention to detail and a clear sense of purpose.

Thirdly, I have actively used multimedia and informational technologies in ways that are integral to my teaching, and not for novelty or entertainment. I have designed and written web materials and resources (e.g. Tan, 2001, 2003b, 2003d, 2003e, 2003f). I have also been interested in finding ways of using new software and technologies for teaching and learning (e.g. Tan, July/August 2002). Also, through extensive module websites and carefully structured IVLE forum discussions, I have expanded the classroom learning environment into cyberspace.


I have decided to devote the greater part of my academic life to the noble vocation of teaching. This has involved critically reflecting on the practice of teaching in order to improve it. Writing short articles that reflect on teaching practice has been a useful way of taking stock and realising my own limitations as a teacher. In the same spirit, honest student feedback has provided me with the best way of making sure that my teaching goals are grounded in practice, and not merely engraved on sacred tablets that articulate a distorted version of what actually happens in class.


Tan, K.P. (2001). ‘A Framework for Thinking about Civil Society’. Civil Society Web. (Last accessed: 5 May 2004).

Tan, K.P. (July/August 2002). ‘Storyspace: Using Hypertext in the Classroom’. The Technology Source. (Last accessed: 5 May 2004).

Tan, K.P. (2003a). ‘Building upon the Socratic Method’. CDTLink. Vol. 7, No. 1. (Last accessed: 5 May 2004).

Tan, K.P. (2003b). ‘Constructing the Argumentative Essay’. Successful Learning. No. 29. (Last accessed: 5 May 2004).

Tan, K.P. (2003c). ‘Learning beyond the Classroom: Strategies to Deal with Theory and Practice’. Proceedings of the FASS-CDTL Teaching Symposium: Grounded Experience in University Teaching and Learning. National University of Singapore.

Tan, K.P. (2003d). ‘Reading up for Class’. Successful Learning. No. 28. (Last accessed: 5 May 2004).

Tan, K.P. (2003e). ‘Speaking up in Class’. Successful Learning. No. 39. (Last accessed: 5 May 2004).

Tan, K.P. (2003f). ‘Writing the Argumentative Essay: Language and Style’. Successful Learning. No. 36. (Last accessed: 5 May 2004).

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Inside this issue
My Teaching Philosophy and Practices
The Joy of GEM
A Grounded Teaching Practice
Constantly Learning to Teach
Teaching with Passion
Strategies for Effective Teaching
Reflections on Field-based Teaching and Learning