Kenneth Paul Tan, PhD (Cambridge)
Professor, Hong Kong Baptist University
For Kenneth Paul Tan, teaching is a series of intellectual, moral, and aesthetic puzzles, whose purposes must extend beyond the technical mastery of academic subjects to the development of an expanded mode of reasoning and judgement about their appropriate, beneficial, just, and creative application in the world. As an educator, his primary goal has been to cultivate and enable the next generation of active and leaderly citizens to be critical and interdisciplinary thinkers, articulate and versatile communicators, and creative, empathetic, and responsible problem-solvers. His approach to education is transformative and socially oriented. His signature teaching style combines Socratic dialogue with mind-mapping techniques, multimedia case studies, and out-of-classroom experiences.
Over the years, Kenneth Paul Tan has won numerous teaching awards, including the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) most prestigious Outstanding Educator Award in 2009. Since then, he has – on principle – stopped submitting for awards, focusing instead on mentoring colleagues who want to reflect on and improve their teaching practice. Over the years, he has contributed in various ways to committees and initiatives to improve education at NUS and other universities that have sought his help. For instance, he was elected chair of the NUS Teaching Academy in 2012 to 2014, during which time, this educational "think tank" successfully made university-wide recommendations to reform the student feedback and peer review systems, and the educator track. He has also served on international committees, such as a global thinking group convened by Aga Khan University to establish a new school of governance, civil society, and public policy in a troubled region.
American Political Science Association, Recognition of Award-Winning Political Science Faculty (2009)
Outstanding Educator Award, National University of Singapore (NUS) (2009).
The University Awards represent the National University of Singapore's highest tribute to excellence in educating and nurturing talent, advancing knowledge and fostering innovation, and contributing to country and society. (See videos of the ceremony and my public lecture -->)
NUS Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Teaching Excellence Award (2008)
NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Teaching Excellence Award (2006)
NUS Excellent Teacher Award (Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences winner) (2005)
NUS Excellent Teacher Award (University Scholars Programme winner) (2005)
NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Teaching Excellence Award (2005)
NUS Excellent Teacher Award (Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences winner) (2004)
NUS Excellent Teacher Award (University Scholars Programme winner) (2004)
NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Teaching Excellence Award (2004)
NUS Excellent Teacher Award (University Scholars Programme winner) (2003)
NUS University Scholars Programme Teaching Award (2003)
At Hong Kong Baptist University
Film, History, and Social Change (Academy of Film)
Asian Techno-Cities: Hong Kong and Singapore (Department of Government and International Studies)
At the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore
Politics and Public Policy (Masters-level Core)
Globalization, Nation-Building, and Singapore's Identity (Masters-level Core)
Topics in Public Management (‘Governing Global-City Singapore’) (Masters-level Core)
State-Society Relations in Singapore (Masters-level Elective)
Evolving Practices of Governance in Singapore (Masters-level Elective; team-taught with former Head of Singapore Civil Service)
Singapore: The City (Masters-level Elective; team-taught with visiting Harvard professor)
Pragmatism and Public Morality in Singapore (Masters-level Elective)
At the University Scholars Programme, National University of Singapore
Singapore: The Making of a Nation
Thinking about Politics
Democratic Possibilities in Singapore
Civil Society: Theory and Practice (Advanced)
At the Political Science Department, National University of Singapore
Introduction to Political Science (Level 1000)
Government and Politics of Singapore (Level 2000)
Politics, Art, and Popular Culture (Honours)
Community Service and Social Action (General Education Module)
Kenneth Paul Tan is a highly rated executive education instructor. Since 2000, he has trained thousands of political leaders, policy professionals, uniformed officers, and leaders in the non-profit and private sectors, both in Singapore and abroad.
EDUCATION-RELATED PUBLICATIONS, TALKS
Tan, K.P. (2017) "Mind-mapping and the Socratic method", International Conference on Public Policy (28-30 June, National University of Singapore).
Tan, K.P. (2017) "Towards excellence in higher education management" (Invited keynote) NIDA Faculty Senate Seminar Series (22-23 May, Bangkok).
Tan, K.P. (2017) "Civic education and deliberative democracy in Singapore", in Civil Society and the State in Singapore, ed. Carol Soon and Gillian Koh, Singapore: World Scientific.
Tan, K.P. (2016) "How Singapore is fixing its meritocracy", The Washington Post, 2016. (
Tan, K.P. (2016) "Faculty recruitment strategies", Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs (Invited paper) (7-8 Jan 2015, University of Washington Jackson School of International Studies, Seattle, Washington, United States).
Tan, K.P. (2015) "Engaging students in 21st century global issues", Redesigning Pedagogy (Invited paper) (2-4 Jun 2015, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore).
Tan, K.P. (2015) "Singapore as an international education hub: Strategy and achievements", Enhancing Trade in Education Services: Education Hubs, Student Mobility, and Policy Challenges (Invited paper) (16 September 2015, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong).
Tan, K.P. (2015) "Smart policies and the role of schools of government", Roundtable on Smart Policies for Innovative Public Sectors, UAE Government Summit(Invited paper) (8-11 Feb 2015, Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai, United Arab Emirates).
Tan, K.P. (2015) "Building curricula rooted in global competencies", Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs (Invited paper) (8-9 Jan 2015, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC, United States).
Tan, K.P. (2015) "The professorial life: Seamlessness, synergy, and significance", in Governing Asia: Reflections on a Research Journey, 171-77, Singapore: World Scientific.
Tan, K.P. (2014) "On-line education and E-learning", Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs (APSIA) Meeting (Invited paper) (9-10 Jan 2014, Maison de Paix-The Graduate Institute Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland).
Tan, K.P. (2014) "National University of Singapore Teaching Academy: From 'thinking big' to 'doing big'", a discussion paper for the Teaching Academy Retreat on 16 January 2014.
Tan, K.P. (2013) "The future of civic education for a thriving deliberative democracy", Institute of Policy Studies’ Conference on Civil Society (Invited paper) (11 Nov 2013, Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel Singapore, Singapore).
Tan, K.P. (2013) "A 'Singapore School' of public policy", in Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy: Building a Global Policy School in Asia, 125-147, Singapore: World Scientific.
Tan, K.P. (2011) "Osmosis and balance in the professorial vocation", Academic Journeys, 1, ed. Kenneth Paul Tan, Lakshminarayanan Samavedham, and Chng Huang Hoon, Singapore: National University of Singapore Teaching Academy, 2011. ()
Tan, K.P. (2011) "Running the professorial marathon: taking risks along the way", Academic Journeys, 2, ed. Kenneth Paul Tan, Lakshminarayanan Samavedham, and Chng Huang Hoon, Singapore: National University of Singapore Teaching Academy, 2011. ()
Tan, K.P. (2009) "Against uncritical pragmatism: Education for doers who can think and thinkers who can do", NUS Outstanding Educator Award Public Lecture Series, 28 April 2009.
Tan, K.P. (2009) "Pragmatism today: I think, therefore I do", The Straits Times, 14 May.
Tan, K.P. (2009) "Service learning outside the US: Initial experiences in Singapore’s higher education", PS—Political Science & Politics, 42(3): 549-57.
Tan, K.P. (2007) "Youth: every generation’s moral panic", in Renaissance Singapore? Economy, Culture, and Politics, ed. Tan, K.P., 219-230, Singapore: NUS Press.
Tan, K.P. (2006) "Learning to be active citizens at university", in Voices of Youth: A Critique of Youth Activism, Singapore: Anderson Junior College.
Tan, K.P. (2005) "Creating learning opportunities from multiple sources", Ideas on Teaching, 3: 4-5.
Tan, K.P. (2004) "A grounded teaching practice", CDTL Brief, 7(9): 4-5.
Tan, K.P. (2004) "Designing interdisciplinary modules", CDTLink, 8(1): 14-16. (http://www.cdtl.nus.edu.sg/link/mar2004/idm1.htm).
Tan, K.P. (2003) "Learning beyond the classroom: Strategies to deal with theory and practice", Grounded Experiences in University Teaching and Learning (2003): 16-23, Singapore (Invited paper) (FASS-CDTL Teaching Symposium 2003, 7-8 Nov 2003).
Tan, K.P. (2003) "The university as a classroom for democratic citizenship", Politeia.
Tan, K.P. (2003) ‘Building upon the Socratic method’, CDTLink, 7(1): 7, 16. (http://www.cdtl.nus.edu.sg/link/mar2003/tsm1.htm).
Tan, K.P. (2003) ‘Speaking up in class’, Successful Learning, no. 39. (http://www.cdtl.nus.edu.sg/success/sl39.htm).
Tan, K.P. (2003) ‘Reading up for class’, Successful Learning, no. 28. (http://www.cdtl.nus.edu.sg/success/sl28.htm).
Tan, K.P. (2003) ‘Writing the argumentative essay: Language and style’, Successful Learning, no. 36. (http://www.cdtl.nus.edu.sg/success/sl36.htm).
Tan, K.P. (2003) ‘Constructing the argumentative essay’, Successful Learning, no. 29.(http://www.cdtl.nus.edu.sg/success/sl29.htm).
Tan, K.P. (2002) ‘Storyspace: using hypertext in the classroom, The Technology Source, July/August.
METHODS, EFFECTIVENESS, IMPACT
Kenneth Paul Tan's academic career began in 2000 when he held joint academic appointments in NUS’s Department of Political Science and its University Scholars Programme (USP). He was, in those years, part of a young and energetic group of pioneering academics at USP who were encouraged to experiment with the curriculum and pedagogy of a four-year highly innovative liberal-arts-style programme designed for some of the university’s most talented and adventuresome undergraduates. They designed and taught a wide range of critical and interdisciplinary modules, taking advantage of small class sizes for highly interactive pedagogies that emphasized the use of digital technologies and the transformative role that students could play in the world. Over the years, he has successfully designed and taught a large number of modules, many of which have pushed the boundaries of conventional teaching and learning. He has developed an approach to teaching that is (a) experiential, (b) technologically enhanced, and (c) interactive in style, incorporating Socratic discussion, mind-mapping techniques, and multimedia.
(a) Experiential learning
In 2001, he and a colleague introduced what may well have been the first full-fledged service-learning module in Singapore. In Civil Society: Theory and Practice, they assigned groups of students to various civil society organizations to work on projects, while discussing in the classroom theoretical frameworks and an international selection of case studies through which these practical experiences could be critically reflected upon. Tan published an article on this curricular innovation (see Tan, K.P. (2009) "Service learning outside the US: Initial experiences in Singapore’s higher education", PS—Political Science & Politics, 42(3): 549-57). One student, who went on to work in the arts community, described this as "The module that laid the foundation for my direction in life and in art!" (Facebook private message in 2017). He designed and taught a second, this time university-wide, service-learning module called Community Service and Social Action. Another student wrote an article on his experience of the module. In it, he noted how:
"My group created a digital map of the Faculty of Arts and Social Science with maps and photographs of the Faculty’s compound that would allow students to familiarise themselves with the architecture of the school. This was primarily to facilitate the movement of the community of physically disabled students about the complex passages in the Faculty. To accomplish this … project, we had to locate such students to learn of their difficulties in navigating the school. After interviews and investigations, we gained an awareness of how such students lead their educational lives in campus. Several things can be discerned, chiefly that communities of people that need aid are far closer to us than we imagine. In addition, and more importantly, every student has every capability to effect change and improvement for these communities. ... I learnt a great deal about the people around me and the class made me think critically on issues that impact on social domains. It only goes to show that this pedagogy can be transposed to any field in education. The class was an exegesis of the world, and I was given the opportunity to investigate its vastly different social mechanisms, as well as engage with these aspects of the social spectrum equipped with a critical imagination. This is most valuable, for similarities between social groups quickly became apparent and I gained a profound appreciation of culture across these communities."
During the LKY School’s earlier years, Tan put in place and ran a para-curricular programme called The Singapore Experience, which provided students with a carefully assembled programme of platforms to interact with Singapore leaders in various fields (see Tan, K.P. (2013) "A 'Singapore School' of public policy", in Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy: Building a Global Policy School in Asia, 125-147, Singapore: World Scientific).
In his teaching (and research), Tan often draws upon his networks in academia, civil society, and the government sector. Of particular value in this regard has been his membership of various government committees, as well as his experience as founding Chair of the Asian Film Archive’s board of directors since 2005 and member of the board of directors of socially-challenging theatre company The Necessary Stage since 2003 (and its Chairman since 2018).
The then Director of USP noted:
"Kenneth is a rare scholar who is equally adept in the world of ideas and the world of practice. He has the extraordinary gift of fostering intellectual thinking and, at the same time, motivating social action in his students. He makes an impact not only in his students’ learning, but in their lives. He is an exemplary educator in the true sense of the word. This is strongly corroborated by student and peer evaluation, … Kenneth himself lives the life of a socially-engaged intellectual. He is active and has cultivated an extensive network in the local art and civil society scene. It is his own passion that speaks so convincingly to students." (Letter in 2008)
A co-teacher, with whom he had designed and taught the first NUS-wide service-learning module, noted how:
"Philosophically, Kenneth believed that teaching should not merely involve the imparting of knowledge and conceptual skills to students, but more importantly the teaching of skills that would enable students to constantly remodel their intellectual tools to engage the real world. I owe it to Kenneth that this is now the central tenet in my pedagogical philosophy: neither giving fishes to the people nor equipping people to fish, but teaching them to continuously think of different and better ways to fish." (Letter in 2008)
An alumnus, who went on to work in the Prime Minister’s Office, noted:
"Dr Tan’s pedagogy was unique. He often engaged us to apply theoretical models to our internship experiences and vice versa, through our practical involvement with the local civil society groups, critically examine different theoretical models which sought to explain why civil society groups function in various ways. Through this course, I was able to convince myself that I would commit myself to policy work before fulfilling my ambitions to complete my graduate studies in the future." (Letter in 2008)
An alumnus, who went on to become a Government Engagement Manager at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), wrote:
"I hope you will continue to touch fellow Singaporean minds and hearts through your writing and community works. All these efforts will help us to become active citizens and develop a greater sense of pride, ownership and belonging to Singapore." (Email in 2010)
One former student from Pakistan had this to say:
"it was an experience of a lifetime and one I will cherish with fondness whenever I reflect on my time here at NUS. I can only imagine where Pakistan would be if we had professors like you back home. The class was a unique blend of knowledge, life and critical thinking which I had never seen before let alone experienced. My hope now is that I have your fortitude and courage of conviction to be the change I want to see in society. I shall remain ever grateful for what you taught us through the course of this wonderful journey that was PP5518 and rather envious of the students you get to teach next year. Thank you and my warmest regards for your happy and prosperous future." (Email in 2020)
One alumna even wrote a poem that she recited during a Valedictory Dinner in 2012, when the students voted Tan as the most inspiring professor and most engaging professor.
"He entered the class in the midst of a thought,
Paused a minute, to scratch his pate.
And breathlessly indulged in three hours of relentless probing
And pushing the horizons of his students, of our political consciousness.
He’s invigorated and empowered our critical abilities,
He himself has chosen the mode of political consciousness
Much less dramatic or romantic.
That of academics.
One that commands much more patience, persistence, and precision.
The daunting elegance with which he does justice to his mission is nothing less than inspiration."
(b) Technologically enhanced learning
Tan has innovatively used communications and presentational technology for teaching since he began his career at NUS. In 2002, he published an article on how he had adapted a commercial hypertext-writing tool to promote collaborative learning as well as more interactive teaching in large classes (see Tan, K.P. (2002) ‘Storyspace: using hypertext in the classroom, The Technology Source, July/August). In those years, he also taught himself how to code in html to produce his own course websites as living, hyperlinked, and interactive repositories of course materials, learning frameworks, and the best specimens of student work, to supplement his teaching.
He put a lot of thought and care into the use of video for teaching complex concepts, making them relatable and provocative to generate active thought and discussion. He is known for designing effective presentation slides and infographics meant to stimulate and focus the attention of audiences, including through online engagement. In his use of multimedia, he is always attentive to the question of their specific pedagogical purpose and value, avoiding the temptation to simply "decorate" his teaching with superficiality.
(c) Interactive teaching style: Socratic style, mind-mapping techniques, multimedia stimuli
In the classroom, Tan's signature teaching style is highly interactive, which is achieved using a now-perfected combination of multimedia stimuli, Socratic dialogue, and mind-mapping techniques. He also often designs role-play activities to bring to life abstract concepts, creating an embodied awareness of their complications and implications in real life. He begins with a case or concrete situation, usually presented vividly in multimedia form. Then he poses students a series of questions that gets them to re-examine what they think they know or believe. The question and answer process is indeterminate and contingent, with no guarantees as to what the outcomes might be. In the process, the class thinks together to achieve higher-order knowledge and understanding, and they also develop critical skills and habits that point to the possibility of collective reason. To make sure that these discussions have direction, shape, and content – particularly in very diverse classrooms – Tan maps out the ideas and concepts using a whiteboard or mind-mapping software to build up frameworks that explain and link complex theories, concepts, and issues. Feedback has consistently shown that this has been the most powerful aspect of his teaching. A co-teacher of his had this to say:
"In the classroom itself, I was impressed by a particular methodology that Kenneth used to work through abstract concepts: he would use schematic diagrams that he generated on a whiteboard to spatialize a concept while working it through in discussion with students. Kenneth’s classrooms are truly democratic spaces where active discussion and engagement take place on a regular basis: in teaching, Kenneth married intellectual rigour with a commitment to a teaching philosophy drawn from his own personal beliefs." (Letter in 2008)
Another co-teacher noted:
"Kenneth was one of the most engaging professors I have worked with, but also the fact that he made a special effort (in every session he taught) to probe the assumptions and mental models behind the questions/comments by students. He did this with great skill and a natural empathy, never belittling or diminishing students for asking awkward questions." (Letter in 2019)
Here are some of the ways in which Tan's former students have described this approach:
"We were amazed by his vibrant energy, and how he so coolly illustrated the relations and tensions between ideas, weaving a tapestry from all our points. It was only later that I understood his efforts. It was not just about how the points came together, but how we, with our own, unique ideas, can together be part of something bigger than ourselves in addressing a social issue. We felt that we belonged. ... Teaching is a work of art, and Prof KPT is a humble, skillful master of his craft. I remember many praising him for his constructive and dynamic teaching approach, his remarkable intellect, and how his classes are nurturing environments for people to speak and discuss, robustly and respectfully." (Former student and teaching assistant, Facebook post on 9 December 2020)
"I really appreciate how this course has been able to provide me with insights and perspectives that I have never been exposed to previously. ... it has stretched me beyond what I thought, and it convinces me on the need for trans-disciplinary learning. ... Prof Tan, it has been my privilege to have attended this module and gotten to know you as a lecturer, especially given that it is your final module in NUS. What I take away from you, apart from all the brilliant content, is really your strong belief in what you teach, your commitment to our learning and your affirming stance where you always acknowledge every single viewpoint in class, as well as lastly, your enlightened perspectives on how discussions and debate is all about seeking to understand viewpoints, but ultimately, we choose what viewpoints we want to continue and what viewpoints we want to let go and this process is ever evolving." (Former student, Email in 2020)
"I particularly appreciated that Prof Kenneth is able to challenge our thinking & mindsets, to think about issues more critically & analyse more deeply, which is exactly the kind of value–add students benefit from in a graduate programme. He does this without making students feel inadequate or incompetent, because he affirms every view shared and value–adds to it with his (and others') perspective. He demonstrates an interest in students' progress & well–being, and takes care to pace his lessons according to the class' learning pace, addressing any issues of concern upfront (e.g. providing guidance & practice on academic essay writing)." (Former student, official anonymous online feedback 2020)
"No less important a dimension to his teaching practice was his charismatic presence in the classroom, a space in which Dr Tan facilitated collective learning using the Socratic Method. Dr Tan was a savvy, student-centered facilitator; a helmsman adroit at navigating class discussions along vicissitudes of theory and praxis, of knowledge accumulation and questioning. At every seminar, he usefully acknowledged good contributions to discussions by mapping them onto his clearly represented mind-maps, whenever necessary acted as negative intellectual conscience to poorly formed ideas by first challenging them, then urging others to build on it. By the force of his caring personality Dr Tan willed students toward intellectual participation, generously placing every student contribution as rungs building up to a collective epiphany. Therefore, while providing, as called for by the Socratic Method, the necessarily painful correlate to his student’s more rigorous construction of knowledge via a process of re-examining faulty prior assumptions, Dr Tan’s infectious congenial nature eclipsed over any note of negativism. His constant readiness to assume the best in his students never failed to suffuse his classroom with a spirit of trust congenial to open questioning and sharing of ideas, inviting students to bravely shed any inhibition even if ideas were embedded on bad assumptions … In his insistence on and reward of students who imbibe knowledge as their own by applying it to text, and who are not afraid to re-examine prior assumptions, one concludes that, more than just proffering knowledge, Dr Tan was setting out to change lives and perspectives. Indeed, I find in my mind today a sprightly Socratic conscience constantly acting to probe at prior beliefs, urging always for ever elusive truth, regardless of discipline." (Alumnus, theatre practitioner and educator, Letter in 2008)
"I have heard so much about you and watched you deliver your speech on webcast when you accepted the excellent teaching award. It is a privilege to finally be able to take a module with you. What I enjoyed most from this class is the range of thought provoking debates which were facilitated very well. One of the most memorable ones was on meritocracy where the mind map kept enlarging but it was so systematic and incorporated the various arguments for and against. I saw how you drew out the discussions without imposing boundaries but slowly guiding us without ‘controlling’ and yet the end result was so elegant. I learnt a tremendous amount from this class." (Alumna, a Singapore academic, Email in 2012)
"What stands out in Dr Tan’s classes is his open attitude towards teaching and learning. He readily adopts the Socratic method of instruction, which seeks to equip students with the necessary skills to become independent critical learners, rather than to spoon-feed them with theoretical content that is regarded as infallible truths." (Alumnus, leading a directorate in the Singapore Ministry of Finance, Letter in 2008)
"Dr Tan could explain difficult concepts and theories in a clear and concise way (oftentimes connecting ideas and theories using 'mind-maps' on a whiteboard), allowing students to grasp ideas with ease and also appreciate the complexity of various issues." (Alumna, a senior official in the Ministry of Home Affairs, Letter in 2008)
"Dr Tan also judiciously employs the visual mind-map method to ensure ideas and theories are not learnt in isolation, always urging his students that to better understand abstract concepts, it is important to create mental linkages to ensure a coherent thread of understanding and analysis." (Alumna, a PhD student at University of Wisconsin-Madison, Letter in 2008)
"My expatriate background has exposed me to Dutch, Indian, American, and Singaporean educational systems; nonetheless, Dr Tan’s classroom was one of the most vibrant classroom environments I have experienced … Dr Tan creates an environment where students feel comfortable sharing viewpoints. He encourages students to be independent learners – rather than giving easy answers, he asks pointed questions, coaxing students into deeper, more critical analysis. He forces students to think. This is not to say that Dr Tan does not explain concepts – in fact, he has a remarkable ability to break down abstract ideas for easy comprehension while still ensuring that students understand how they fit into a larger framework and historical context. He helps students relate the subject material to everyday life. In class, he presents concepts to students as mind-maps, thus displaying the linkages, similarities, and divergences between diverse strands of thought and helping students see the bigger picture." (Alumna, PhD, University of Arizona, Letter in 2008)
"You may not know this but you left an indelible impression on me when I was still a wide-eyed FASS undergraduate in NUS about 16 years ago (gasp!). ... I remembered being so impressed with your wit, originality, and your courage to speak out against the system. And the tongue-in-cheek tone in your essay on Sexing Up Singapore (which was also the reading for this module) shattered my impression of academia writing as dull and formulaic. ... Fast forward to 2020, happy to say that your teaching style remains inspirational and the module you had carefully curated extremely thought-provoking. It surely has opened up my conservative mind to fresh perspectives. I may not agree with everything, but it has certainly changed my views on several issues. And yes, this would definitely be a module that I will remember fondly, akin to how I still remember PS1101 in 2004." (Former student, first in 2004 and then in 2020, Email in 2020)
The following alumni have remarked on Tan's pedagogical versatility, range, and creativity, including the ability to adapt to hybrid (mix of in-person and online teaching) formats:
"Imagine learning music theory in class on the spot... Beethoven's 5th Symphony ... about the Sonata form, the avant-garde movement in art and aestheticism, nudity, censorship, etc. It really stretches the mind and i feel like i really learn things, unlike 90% of the modules I'm taking. And the people debating in class are really smart, the smart few ones are really amazing. Able to quote ideas from Hegel, about phenomenology, blah blah, wow man they are really grounded in theory. And the most impressive person has to be the lecturer Kenneth Paul Tan himself … It totally stuns me the way he's able to engage everyone with their ideas about whatever philosophy and talk about ideas from an amazingly wide range of theories. One can't help but feel impressed when he teaches u about music theory, how to appreciate abstract art and discuss about Kant. I almost feel intimidated now." (Unnamed student writing in their blog, Dr X’s Prescriptions, 2 February 2006)
"I still find it remarkable how he manages to use a different teaching method for each class that would match the content being taught that week. One week we would have a classroom debate when we were studying the liberal arguments for freedom of expression and the conservative argument for censorship of the arts. And what better way to bring postmodernism to life – a critique of meta-narratives – than to lecture in a self-ironic style and read to us a postmodern adaptation of a classic fairy tale. It sometimes even seemed that Kenneth was engaging in some kind of artistic performance while he was teaching, so masterfully was it executed. He always tried his best to present a well-balanced view of each school of thought despite his own ideological preferences." (Alumnus, went on to study philosophy at Princeton University, letter in 2008)
"Prof KPT is a wonderful teacher. His ability to appropriately engage with his students on sensitive issues that could cause offence is masterful. He is a great orator and speaks with such elegance in conveying his arguments. His use of powerpoints is both funny and useful. His use of mindmaps helps us all see the connections between the often–complicated players or ideas. His wit and charm helped make classes so enjoyable for those in class. KPT’s commitment to his students was evident in his immediate desire to switch to hybrid classes when the opportunity presented itself. He did a good job of managing the hybrid class format. The innovative ways that he handled the different classes (through debates, discussions, guest presentations, etc) was also useful and helped change things up." (Former student, official anonymous online feedback 2020)
Tan is a versatile teacher, who is equally effective giving straightforward lectures to large groups using well-designed presentation slides. One student, who attended his large-cohort lecture, posted on Facebook:
"Provoked by Prof. KPT's ‘Are Singapore’s finest years coming to an end?’ lecture (sadly, last one before his leave) touching on the political and social issues pressing the nation. But I must say I really enjoyed the #TimCook -style presentation on public policy #BestLecture #LifeofLKYSPP #LKYSchoolCourse." (Facebook post on 16 August 2017)
The overall impact that Tan has made through his teaching is evidenced by the feedback that (d) colleagues, (e) alumni in public service, and (f) alumni in academia have sent him. Here are a few good examples (representative of numerous others):
(d) From University colleagues:
"Being an outstanding educator and researcher, Kenneth saw his role as Vice-Dean not (just) as an administrative one, but rather as one of providing academic leadership and mentorship. He was a great mentor to the faculty who struggled with the challenges of teaching one of the most diverse and demanding public policy schools in the world. He pioneered the practice of inter-disciplinary (as opposed to multi-disciplinary) team-teaching at the LKY School and ran seminars for colleagues to share best practices in this regard. He also promoted the use of case studies in our classrooms. As the head of the case study unit at the LKY School, I was grateful to Kenneth not just for his advice on case-writing and case teaching, but for his leadership by example and his skill in using our cases in his classes." (Former LKY School colleague, Letter in 2019)
"The University Scholars Programme is fortunate to have many dedicated and outstanding teachers. However, Kenneth stands out in the mind of many students. For example, when the Permanent Secretary (Education) visited a few years ago, students compellingly related their experience in Kenneth’s classes to demonstrate how USP enriched their mind and their lives. Repeatedly, they referred to his modules Democratic Possibilities in Singapore and Civil Society: Theory and Practice, both highly innovative modules motivated by experiential learning. The Civil Society module, for example, incorporates an attachment in a local civil society organization. Comments that students have provided for his teaching are simply some of the most powerful that I have seen." (Then Director, USP, Letter in 2008)
"We were very impressed by the work you’re doing … and we thought you an exceptional teacher, …. It’s clear from the record that you’re having a deep and beneficial impact on the minds and lives of the students you teach." (Then Vice Dean, NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Email in 2005)
"I can safely say that Kenneth is the best of many good teachers I have had the privilege of working with closely … Looking back from mid-career at fifteen years of teaching at university level, I can safely say that working with Kenneth was one of the highlights of my teaching career … Kenneth has been one of the most effective – indeed the most effective – teacher I have had the privilege of working with." (Then Vice Dean, USP, and 2002 winner of the NUS Outstanding Educator Award, Letter in 2008)
"I also learnt a lot from his actual conduct of the seminar, which was engaging and yet created a safe environment where students felt comfortable to raise questions, challenge arguments and make mistakes. I have imbibed his attitude of treating students as young but mature adults who have as much to contribute to their own and the class’s learning as the lecturer. Since then, I have been reaping great success in my teaching of undergraduates and graduate students, who have risen to the challenge to be adult learners. … Without knowing it, Kenneth was my mentor who taught me all these abilities, commitments and skills. If I had not worked with him and observed him at his best, I would not have become an excellent teacher myself." (Deputy Head of NUS Sociology, former Member of Parliament, then Assistant Professor and co-teacher, Letter in 2008)
"I had the privilege of reading your dossier that went up for the [Outstanding Educator Award 2009] award. Until that time, I had quite mistakenly prided myself as a great teacher. It is only after learning how you delivered your classes did I realize that I had (still have) a lot to learn. As an administrator, you made us want to belong. As a teacher - you had and you will enhance the capability of critical thought - the ultimate pedagogic goal." (LKY School colleague, Facebook post in 2017)
(e) From alumni who have gone on to successful (mostly public service) careers:
"Looking back, my stay in the NUS would have been significantly less enriching if not for the academic stimulation I gained during Dr Tan’s modules. Dr Tan was the one professor who made academic inquiry and research an enjoyable challenge. I have no doubt that Dr Tan has left a lasting impression and contribution on all of his students. He has been an inspiring educator and a passionate academic … It is in part because of my gratitude to him and to the university at-large (for the education it has given me) that I continue to contribute as an alumnus." (Alumnus, a senior official in the Ministry of Communications and Information’s Media and Research Division, Research Department, Letter in 2008)
"Dr Tan’s seemingly effortless ability to engage his students and his flair for drawing out some of the most vigorous academic discussions and debates in his classes, are hallmarks of his teaching legacy at NUS." (Alumnus, currently senior official in the Ministry of Finance, Letter in 2008)
"The analytical thinking and political theories I have learnt from Professor Tan [have] influenced my varsity education path and still [continue] to put me in good stead in my career as an executive handling corporate governance matters, policy research/development and project management for the National Trades Union Congress … In my years of education, I have yet to meet a Professor who has managed to teach me so much without appearing to do so." (Alumna, senior official, Contact Singapore, Letter in 2008)
"Prof, I wanted to say that what you have taught me in class has benefited me greatly at work, both personally and professionally, and so all is well indeed." (Alumna, senior official in the Ministry of Education, Email in 2011)
"I just wanted to say thank you for being such an important part of our [Master in Public Policy] experience. I've already told you of the integral role of LKYSPP's The Singapore Experience in my own Singapore experience, but I would also like to pay tribute to PP5103, which the majority of our batch considers the best core class "all round". A few of us have speculated that you will be poached by the NUS-Yale liberal arts college (or in the mean time, Harvard) but for selfish reasons and LKYSPP solidarity I hope that isn't true." (Alumna, senior official in the Australian Trade Commission in Singapore, Email in 2011)
"... she told me that you're one of the Vice Deans at the school now. Although I have no doubt you will be great at your job, but deep down I feel like a wonderful teacher like you should be given more time to teach and inspire students through your classes and research, instead of being in the administration. / Anyways, I just wanted to let you know that in my office, one of my assignment was to work on a position paper regarding gender equality in Indonesia. I've sent the document to one of my deputies and she was pleased to see my work. I can't help to think that I should really thank you for that paper, because you have been a great influence to me and you have truly shaped my views of the world. Too bad I can't show you the paper since it's confidential...would've been nice if I can get some feedback :)" (Alumna, senior official in the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, Email in 2012)
"[The USP module] Democratic Possibilities in Singapore was one of the best classes I've ever taken. One part of why and how I got an education and not just a degree at NUS." (Alumnus, ex-journalist at Reuters and Bloomberg China, Facebook post in 2017)
(f) From alumni who have gone on to PhDs and/or teaching/academic careers:
"These proved to be some of the most challenging and thought-provoking modules I had ever read in my entire undergraduate career … Dr Kenneth Tan’s gift is his ability to constantly push students to think critically while at the same time, guiding the process of intellectual inquiry … Students who simply approached him for answers to academic and theoretical conundrums often felt exasperated due to his policy of forcing the students to think critically and work out the theoretical framework of any research topic on their own. Yet at the same time, he constantly asked questions and prompted us to think critically about any issue by drawing various mind-maps on the board to guide us along the thought-process. The end result would often be beneficial to the student him/herself, as I have personally learnt." (Alumna, PhD student, Northwestern University, Letter in 2008)
"A friend once said that as a student of Dr Tan one must be prepared to exercise immense intellectual rigor, for Dr Tan is one of those rare professors who holds his students to very high-standards and tries his best to ensure that students are capable of achieving them." (Alumna, PhD student, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Letter in 2008)
"Writing essays for Dr Tan was never just a pen-pushing exercise either – every page would be carefully marked and critiqued for its logical consistency. Indeed, it was Dr Tan’s severe comment on one of my sloppiest papers … that made me understand that I was short-changing myself by not writing to the best of my abilities. From then on, I began to enjoy writing well and rigorously for its own sake …. Dr Tan’s energy, kindness and intellectual abilities make him one of the best professors I have ever encountered. Indeed, he has helped [strengthen] my own desire to become an academic and university teacher. I hope future students will have similar opportunities to study under him and be similarly inspired, not necessarily restricted to the field of academia, but to pursue excellence in whatever they undertake." (Alumna, PhD from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Letter in 2008)
"Among my many acquaintances with lecturers at NUS and beyond, particularly at LSE, I have the utmost and highest respect for Dr Tan because I consider him to be one of the most talented, dedicated, articulate, passionate and globally-minded individuals with an undoubted commitment to excellence in teaching, mentorship and research … Dr Tan is a role model for his past and present students. As I venture into the world of academia with my pursuit of a PhD, I will always remember the principles, values and life choices that Dr Tan had shared with me as my supervisor, lecturer, tutor, mentor and friend. I intend to follow in Dr Tan’s footsteps and similarly strive for excellence in teaching and research so that my own students will benefit from my dedication, commitment, knowledge-sharing, and mentorship." (Alumnus, PhD, London School of Economics and Politics, Letter in 2008)
"Your lessons are like a slow acting vitamin. It becomes apparent how relevant it is over time. It was theoretical at the time of delivery but the practical effects emerge when i embark on my professional career. thank you. I am a teacher now and keep your educational methods in mind always." (Alumnus, a teacher in Singapore, Facebook private message in 2017)
Tan continues to offer guidance to former students who have gone on to teaching and academic careers or are facing roadblocks in their lives. Here are a few examples:
"I'm doing relief teaching at a neighbourhood secondary school now, and I teach Sec 1 Literature. Seeing that the students found the subject completely boring, I thought I’d liven things up by teaching them how to write simple song lyrics. There were some wonderful ones done, thank God. But imagine my disappointment when I discovered that there were many of them who plagiarised, blatantly copying existing songs verbatim. I just thought, what kind of attitude towards learning is this? / It then struck me how many of my teachers, including you, must have felt about my own attitude towards work. I remember those times spent in your office, and how my papers were always late by weeks. I also remember your patience and compassion, and also an email once when you said you were disappointed. Well, through this brief teaching stint, I have the opportunity to see the classroom through the teacher's eyes, and I understand and appreciate a lot better the heartbeat of a teacher. / Thank you, Dr Tan, for having been an excellent teacher. I believe you have touched many lives, including mine." (Alumnus, Email in 2005)
"I really appreciate the advice and guidance you have given me (definitely not over-rated!). You have quite an incredible ability to help others sort their heads out and make decisions that they end up being rather pleased with, with just a quick chat. I was amazed at how you helped me to narrow down the focus of my ISM topic many years ago in just a matter of minutes, and you've once again helped me with the Master’s too. I can assure you that this isn’t something everyone can do." (Alumna, Email in 2012)
Over the years, Tan has received bountiful feedback and messages from students, colleagues, and alumni, who consistently point – in vivid, concrete, and detailed ways – to the intense, innovative, and transformative power of his teaching. Many students have kept in touch with him years after their graduation, sometimes returning for career and life advice. He is constantly humbled by what they say about the impact that he has had on them and the profound difference he seems to have made to their experience.
OEA Ceremony (above) and Public Lecture (below)