Leadership lessons from Confucius: a delicate balancing act

delicate balancing act

子曰:「中人以上,可以語上也;中人以下,不可以語上也。」
Confucius said: “You can discuss advanced topics with people of above-average intelligence; but it’s pointless to discuss them with people of below-average intelligence.”

Teaching a class of thirty students is a delicate balancing act. Pitch a subject too high and you risk leaving most of them behind. Pitch a subject too low and you risk boring a similar number of them out of their minds. It’s next-to-impossible to get your lesson just right.

No wonder so many teachers become demoralized or cynical about being stuck in a job that they had once thought would enable them to make a difference. No wonder so many students fail to live up to their early promise and left by the wayside or worse. What a terrible waste of human potential.

Today’s education system was originally designed to help prepare young people to live in the industrial age. That’s why it relies on standardized curricula and testing. And that’s why it’s proven to be so difficult to reform despite countless initiatives to modernize pedagogical approaches and practices and introduce computers and other technologies into the classroom.

Perhaps the development of AI will finally provide the tipping point for education by enabling a transition from a standardized curriculum to personalized learning that can be tailored according to the abilities, needs, and interests of each student. AI technologies certainly have the potential to make this happen by making it easier to identify the specific challenges that each student faces, providing the appropriate materials to help them improve their knowledge and abilities, and tracking their progress. Teacher’s lives would also be much rewarding too as they would be able to focus their time mentoring the students that really need it rather than fighting to capture the interest of a bored and disruptive class.

Ironically, if this transition is successful it would signify a return to the personalized style of teaching that Confucius himself practiced towards his followers and students: one in which he crafted his comments and suggestions according to their individual needs and encouraged open debate and the lifelong love of knowledge.

It can’t happen soon enough if we are to prepare the youth of today for the rapidly-changing world we’ve brought them into. 

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 21 of Book 6 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 6 here.

I took this image at the Temple of Mencius in Zoucheng, a small town near to Qufu. You can read more about it here.

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