Leadership lessons from Confucius: an interactive process

interactive process

Confucius said: “Yan Hui is no help to me at all: he delights in everything I say.” (1)

Teaching is an interactive process. How do you know if your students are truly imbibing the great wisdom you are imparting to them if they just sit quietly in front of you without asking any questions? You may think that this shows they’re taking in everything you have to say, but it’s much more likely that they are either so bored that they don’t think it’s worth interrupting you with a question or so overwhelmed that they don’t want to appear dumber than everyone else by asking for clarification of a point that they don’t understand.

One of your key responsibilities as a teacher is to figure out ways of getting your students engaged in the classes you are giving. While asking them if they have any questions about the subject matter may be enough to trigger reactions from ones with more outgoing personalities, a more subtle approach is required for those of a more introverted disposition. Rather than putting them on the spot in the classroom, catching them at the end of the class for a brief friendly chat or arranging a one-on-one talk to get know them better will probably be more effective.

Of course this will take up valuable time, but without making the effort to find out get genuine feedback from all your students it will be next-to-impossible to learn how to improve your teaching.


This article features a translation of Chapter 4 of Book 11 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 11 here.

(1) It’s not clear from the context whether Confucius is ironically expressing his pride at having found such a brilliant student as Yan Hui who instantly understands everything he has to say or his frustration at the lack of feedback his protégé gives him.

I took this image of an ancient Zhou dynasty ritual vessel at the new Confucius Museum in the sage’s home town of Qufu. You can read more about the museum here.

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