Although Kongzi (Confucius) held a few government positions, he spent most of his life as a teacher. We can never know what a day in Kongzi’s “classroom” was like, but we can gain an appreciation for his basic principles by reading how his students described him in the Analects.
First, it’s clear that Kongzi taught without regard for his students’ social status or ability to pay. He said, “From those who could only bring me some dried meat and upwards, I’ve never turned away anyone who came to me for instruction.” (Analects, 7.7). His most advanced student, Yan Hui, “survived on a small bowl of rice and ladleful of water in a dingy back alley” (Analects, 6.11).
Second, he was quite selective about his students in terms of their motivation and capacity to learn. He said, “I won’t give anyone a boost if they’re not at least struggling to make sense of an idea and get it into words. If I give someone one corner of a lesson and they can’t come back with the other three, I’m done teaching them.” (Analects, 7.8). He claimed he couldn’t help anyone who wasn’t constantly asking, “What should I do? What should I do?” (Analects, 15.16). He also characterized trying to teach someone who is incapable of learning as “a waste of teaching” (Analects, 15.8) and didn’t waste his time trying to cajole lazy students, because, as he said, “Rotten wood can’t be carved and mud walls can’t be plastered” (Analects, 5.10).
Third, he was willing to persevere with struggling students if they were making an effort. Kongzi reprimanded his students for disrespecting Zilu, a longtime, struggling pupil. Although Zilu hadn’t “entered the chamber” of deep learning, he had “ascended the stairs” and deserved credit for his effort (Analects, 11.15).
Fourth, Kongzi adapted his teaching style based on the needs of his students. An example of Kongzi’s flexible style is worth quoting here in its entirety.
Zilu asked if it was a good idea to put a teaching into practice immediately after he first heard it.
Kongzi replied, “While your father and older brother are still alive, how can you put teaching into practice immediately?”
When Ran You asked the same question, however, Kongzi replied, “Oh yes, put it into practice right away.”
Gongxi Hua asked, “When Zilu asked you, you told him he shouldn’t be in such a hurry because his father and older brother are still alive. But when Ran You asked you the same thing, you told him to practice immediately. Can I ask why?”
Kongzi said, “Ran You tends to hold back, so I push him forward. Zilu has the energy of two people, so I hold him back” (Analects, 11.22).
Fifth, Kongzi limited his subject matter. According to his students, Kongzi “taught four things: culture, correct conduct, doing one’s best, and trustworthiness” (Analects, 7.25). These were the topics he knew best and the topics he thought most worthy of study.
Sixth, Kongzi taught mainly by modeling correct behavior and answering questions. Although there are examples of Kongzi teaching his students as a group (Analects, 11.26), there is no evidence that he engaged in formal lectures or lessons. Most of the Analects are records of his personal example and one-on-one conversations in which he answers his students’ questions.
Seventh, Kongzi expected his students to think for themselves. Reverence and respect for teachers was hugely important in Kongzi’s time, but he warned his students, “when it comes to humaneness, yield to no one, not even your teacher” (Analects, 15.36). He did not want his students to accept his teaching unquestioningly, but to become independent thinkers capable of coming to their own conclusions.
In one instance, Kongzi even admitted that he was not as good as one of his students, Yan Hui, mentioned above (Analects, 5.9).
Perhaps the closest parallel to Kongzi’s teaching in recent memory is a beloved Oxford or Cambridge Don of the mid-twentieth century who spends most of his time in office hours, conversing with students individually or in small groups, and who teaches a good deal by example.