Feature,  For Students,  For Teachers,  Philosophy & Science of Learning

Some Educational Insights from Confucius

While travelling in Vietnam I visited the Temple of Literature in Hanoi. Built in 1070, it is dedicated to Confucius sages and scholars. There are many beautiful and interesting features to the site. It is one of the oldest establishments dedicated to learning and scholarship. It is a place of worship as well as a place of learning. The design and layout reflect the ideals of Confucian education, introduced by the Chinese into Vietnam more than a thousand years ago.

Temple of Literature Hanoi

One of the biggest misconceptions of the Confucian approach to education is that it promoted rote learning and didactic teaching to the neglect of deep understanding, critical thinking and individual autonomy.

Examination of the writings from Confucius and his followers reveals a much richer conception of teaching and learning. Many of the ideas espoused in the texts are remarkably relevant in today’s complex digital world.

Confucius (Kong Fuzi) lived from 551 to 479BC and his influences continue to this day in his home country of China and in many other countries across Asia including Vietnam.

Difficulties with translations, changing political climates and the arrogant primacy of ‘western’ ideologies have meant the full depth of Confucian thinking on education has not been appreciated. Recently however, new translations and revised scholarship have opened our thinking on the Confucian approach to education and its relevance to the modern world.

Confucius Shrine in Temple of Literature Hanoi

There are two main works in the Confucian canon that address education and learning. The Analects (Lunyu) comprises a collection of sayings and teachings from Confucius’ life and Xueji (Record of Learning).

It is the Xueji that perhaps is only now beginning to be fully appreciated. It is a short chapter in the Book of Rites (Liji) one of the Five Classics of Confucianism. It is from this source that one of the most insightful passages deals with the strategies for skillful teaching:

XIII. [When] a junzi (noble or exemplary person) knows the reasons for teaching to flourish and fail, [such a person] can then become a teacher. Therefore a junzi teaches by leading (yu): [lead] the way [of learning] but does not drag [the learners];

strengthen but does not suppress [them]; open [their minds] but does not arrive [at the conclusion on their behalf].

[To lead] the way [of learning] without dragging [the learners] will result in harmony [between the teacher and learners];

to strengthen [the learners] without suppressing [them] will result in ease [of learning for them];

and opening [the learners’ minds] without arriving [at the conclusion on their behalf] will result in [reflective] thinking.

[A teacher who produces] harmony, ease and [reflective] thinking may be called skillful in leading.

This translation as well as the clarification in square brackets is from Tan, C. (2015). Teacher-directed and learner-engaged: Exploring a Confucian conception
of education. Ethics and Education, 10(3), 302-312 (the line spacings are inserted by me to facilitate comprehension)

There’s a lot more useful insight in the Xueji on the subject of teaching and learning. One of my favourites is on the subject of ‘bad teaching’. The lament here on what is wrong with some teachers is still very relevant today. Consider for yourself:

X. The teachers nowadays [only] chant the [texts on the] bamboos, with much talking and asking of questions. [They aim to] advance rapidly but disregard [the learners’ ability to] accomplish [the learning].

[The teachers] are not sincere in making others [learn], and do not give [their] utmost to [consider the learners’ individual] talents when teaching them.

[The teachers] carry out measures that are contrary [to what is right], and make requests that are not realistic [for their learners]. In such a case, [the learners] detest [their] study and resent [their] teachers; [they] are embittered by the difficulty [of learning], and are unaware of [its] benefits.

Even if [they] were to complete their study, [they would] certainly lose [what they have learnt] quickly. These are the reasons why teaching does not produce [its desired] results!

Also from Tan, C. (2015). Teacher-directed and learner-engaged: Exploring a Confucian conception of education. Ethics and Education, 10(3), 302-312

Great insight from two thousand four hundred years ago still very applicable today!

Gardens around the Temple of Literature Hanoi

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