The Pedagogy of Confucius

From the Lecture Series: Books That Matter: The Analects of Confucius

By Robert Andre´Lafleur, Ph.D., Beloit College

For Confucius, learning was a powerful joint effort between teacher and student, and he only wanted students who wanted to be there. He was known as China’s greatest teacher and his messages are still a topic of discussion.

Confucius Statue in China
(Image: Gautier Willaume/Shutterstock)

Confucius’ teaching career, although shaped by a lifetime of travel, frustration, despair, and hope, lasted for only five years—an exceptionally brief period in which to make a name that would shine as China’s greatest teacher for 2,500 years. Here, we consider his method.

This is a transcript from the video series Books That Matter: The Analects of Confucius. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Confucius as a Teacher

The structure and organization of his school can only be gleaned from scattered items in the Analects.

One fascinating glimpse into the give-and-take between the teacher and his students can be found in a dynamic exchange with several students (Analects 11.22):

  • Zilu asked, “When learning something, should I put it right into practice?”
    The Master replied, “Your father and elder brothers are still alive; how would you dare to act immediately after learning something?”
    Ran Qiu then asked the same question.
    The Master replied, “Yes. Upon learning something, put it right into action.”

Here Confucius is in his full teacherly mode. Two different students with different characters and personalities ask the sage the same question. What they get is not one, but two different answers. How can we make sense of this? Let’s examine Confucius’s answer when a third student asked for clarification (Analects 11.22, continued).

  • Gongxi Hua inquired, “When Zilu asked, you told him to hesitate—to defer to his family’s elders. Yet when Ran Qiu asked the very same question, you told him to proceed with alacrity. This befuddles me; dare I ask what you meant?”
    The Master replied, “Ran Qiu is timid and reserved, so I exhorted him to go forward; Zilu possesses the intensity of two people, so I wanted to restrain him.

Here, we see the full force of the teaching dynamic in the Analects. Confucius is in his element as he tailors his message to the specific needs of each of his students. There are few cookie-cutter templates in Confucius’s teachings. He seems to understand that the world is made up of many different kinds of people and circumstances. While there are common principles that go back to the Duke of Zhou, whom Confucius idolized, and even beyond, action must be crafted.

Confucius tailors his message to the specific needs of each of his students. Click To Tweet

A brief passage a few chapters earlier shows another dimension of Confucius as a teacher (Analects 7.7):

  • The Master said, “Never have I failed to teach anyone who, drawing upon his own initiative, offered even the modest greeting gift of a small bundle of dried meat.
This set of hanging scrolls illustrates scholars engaged in elegant activities associated with the zither (琴), go (棋), calligraphy (書), and painting (畫), which are the known as the Four Arts of the Scholar.
‘’The Eighteen Scholars’’ by an anonymous Ming Dynasty artist. The painting depicts the 18 erudite Confucian scholars gathered by Emperor Taizong of Tang, when he established the Institute of Literary Studies. (Image: Anonymous Ming Artist/Public Domain)

Confucius is referring to the gift that students were expected to present to their teachers as partial compensation for the instruction they were to receive. The passage indicates that everyone who wished to learn from Confucius was welcome. Such a willingness to take on learners was unusual in his era. His willingness to teach can speak even to life and school all over the world today: Confucius taught all comers.

Learn more about Confucius and his style of teaching

The very next passage qualifies the foregoing one, however. It conveys Confucius’s willingness to educate everyone who made an effort to study with him. No matter their backgrounds, his standards were high, and he expected his students to work with diligence and enthusiasm toward any problem that Confucius set before them (Analects 7.8):

  • The Master said, “If students are not driven to learn, I will not open the way to further knowledge. If learners are not continually seeking the language to express new, complex ideas, I will not supply them with ready-made concepts. And if, when I show one corner of a problem, the students do not come back to me with the other three corners, I will not teach it a second time.

For Confucius, learning was a powerful joint effort between teacher and student, and he wanted students who, in today’s terms, wanted to be there. He had no interest at all in passive learning and set a high bar for interaction and reflection for each of his students.

There we have at least a glimpse of a school, in a village, in a feudal court, that was in the middle of profound social and political change. If Confucius himself could not hit the mark and make a difference at the highest levels, he wanted his students to be ready when opportunities came for them.

For Confucius, learning was a powerful joint effort between teacher and student. Click To Tweet

The Analects reflects both Confucius’s despair and hope that his work would achieve positive change in his world. It was perhaps those warring emotions that produced his insistence on rituals, music, and rules. In his view, attention to these matters would strengthen the social order, but he always tailored his teachings to meet the specific needs of his students.

Learn more about the Analects

Confucius as a Person

Late in the text, there appears a phrase that many people today would recognize and admire. A visitor inquired about Confucius’s travels and teaching—moving from ruler to ruler and subject to subject—in rather negative terms. Confucius’s response is intriguing (Analects 14.32):

  • In Weisheng Mou asked Confucius, “Why do you seemingly dart from perch to perch? Is it that you wish to become a glib rhetorician?
    Confucius replied, “It is not that I aspire to great rhetorical skills. It is just that I despise stubborn inflexibility.”

The statement is problematic on several levels. Put ungenerously, some have characterized him as finicky and more than occasionally an annoying know-it-all who tells others precisely what they should be doing. We have all been in the presence of that kind of person, too. To get a better sense of Confucius, let’s examine several passages from chapter 10, where he may be seen as flexible and inflexible.

  • Analects 10.10: “While in the process of eating, Confucius would not engage in conversation. Once he retired for the evening, he did not speak.
  • Analects 10.11: “Even with simple fare consisting of coarse grains and vegetable broth, Confucius always made a solemn offering.”
  • Analects 10.12: “If the mats were not positioned correctly, according to custom, Confucius would not sit.
  • Analects 10.13: “When drinking at a local village gathering, Confucius stayed seated until the elderly people with walking sticks departed. Only then did he take his leave.
  • Analects 10.14: “When other villagers engaged in the nuo ritual to exorcise spirits of disease and pestilence, Confucius mounted the eastern stairs and, wearing court regalia, stood in the position of host.
  • Analects 10.15: “When asking about someone living in another state, Confucius would bow low twice before seeing him off.”
  • Analects 10.16: “Ji Kangzi sent a gift of medicinal herbs. Confucius bowed deeply as he accepted it from the messenger, noting, ‘Since I know nothing of this medicine, I do not dare taste it.’
  • Analects 10.17: “The stables caught fire. The Master, upon returning from court, inquired ‘Was anyone hurt?’ He did not ask about the horses.
Confucius, gouache on paper, c. 1770
In some passages from Confucius, he may be seen as flexible and inflexible. (Image: Encyclopedia Britannica/Public domain)

What sense do you have of Confucius as a person? He is someone who wants to hit the bulls-eye, to be sure, but he wants to hit it just so—both accurately and with the right amount of force. He speaks amiably about hating inflexibility, but we can see at least a few places here where Confucius seems set in his ways. But which is it? Read the text carefully and make up your own mind.

Readers throughout the ages have disagreed about what these passages mean concerning flexibility or inflexibility. Many thinkers of his era mocked him relentlessly. Even his admirers more than occasionally winced at what seemed to be Confucius’s rulemaking for its own sake.

When discussing these passages, some of my students mention the horses first, not only because they appear at the end of the sequence. The horse passage sticks in the craw of 21st-century readers. While acknowledging that we should not assume automatically that there is only one correct reading, I ask them how they would feel if the passage read, “He did not inquire further after the agricultural equipment.” Some see the possible point that Confucius—as was not uncommon in his age—saw horses as agricultural technology and that our feelings about such matters have changed markedly over the ages. Others do not.

The Classic of Filial Piety Ink on paper and silk (Chinese, ca. 1041–1106)
This drawing by Li Gonglin includes transcriptions of  chapters from the Classic of Filial Piety, which is a Confucian classic treatise giving advice on filial piety. (Image: Li Gonglin/Public Domain)

But what of the other passages? Do they show a person who is flexible or not? Accepting medicine, but admitting that he wouldn’t be taking any of it? Is that flexible? If you’re not planning to take it, why accept it at all? What about sitting only on a straight mat or making an offering at every meal? How about solemnly observing a somewhat superstitious village ritual of which he did not entirely approve? By mounting the eastern stairs—the place of the person serving as host—Confucius seems to support his fellow villagers, even if his feelings about ghosts and exorcisms did not match those of his neighbors.

Learn more about the man called Confucius

Imagine someone who is ever so punctual and extremely orderly in everything she does, someone who is occasionally a killjoy, but also someone who might just surprise, and even delight, occasionally. Think of someone who loves rules, and operating within and even occasionally beyond their structures. Perhaps the word we really should be seeking for Confucius is not flexibility, but rather complexity.

When Confucius died in 479 B.C.E. he was not a person of great influence. Yet the man who would reign above all teachers in Chinese history answered, at least after a fashion, the very questions about personal character, flexibility, and complexity that we have been asking. As a final note, consider this glimpse at Confucius’s own account of his teaching philosophy (Analects 15.3):

  •  The Master said, “Zigong, do you see me as someone who has studied a great deal and has internalized it?
    Zigong replied, “Yes, indeed I do think that. Is it not correct?
    The Master replied, “No, it is not correct. Rather, I possess it as a single strand.”

Over time, that continuous strand, and the threads contained in that strand, grew in stature and influence.

Common Questions About Confucius as a Teacher

Q: What were the main teachings of Confucius?

Confucius taught the principles of ethically-guided behavior, showing respect to one’s superiors, self-discipline, and understanding one’s place in society.

Q: Why did Confucius become a teacher?

Confucius had a strong desire to serve and empower others and believed that teaching was the best way that he could positively impact others.

Q: What did Confucius believe about education?

Confucius believed that the world would become a better place if more people were educated because uneducated people only attended to their base instincts, while educated people were more attuned to higher pursuits such as ethics and morality. Therefore, he reformed the education system so that the ability to obtain an education was based more on merit than on wealth.

Q: What is Confucius best known for?

Confucius is best known for his teachings which promote dignity, compassion, and mastery. He believed that leaders should not use force and intimidation to inspire fear in their subjects but rather should govern with kindness and act as positive role models.

This article was updated on April 30, 2020

Keep Reading
An Introduction to The Analects of Confucius
The Three Kingdoms Period: China’s Golden Age of Adventure
Yin and Yang of Classical Chinese Cuisine

Metropolitan Museum of Art Ex coll.: C. C. Wang Family, From the P. Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Family Collection, Gift of Oscar L. Tang Family, 1996
The Eighteen Scholars by an anonymous Ming artist