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    Confucius (551-479 BC)

    “He who learns but does not think, is lost! He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger.”

    Confucius recognized the strong bond between thinking and learning. He believed that virtue only comes from combining education-learning and reflection-thought.

    Confucius is one of the most renowned Chinese philosophers, teachers, and politicians and a founder of Confucianism (the Confucian school of thinking). He devoted his entire life to education, and as he often said, he was never tired of learning and teaching others. Confucius believed that the purpose of education is improving one’s self and character. What’s even more important, he was convinced that even though learning starts with oneself it should be expanded and applied to others and the world as a whole. Confucianism as one of the most significant religious philosophies in the history of China, was dedicated to students’ inner virtue, morality, and admiration for the community and its principles. At the core of Confucianism was the search for personal power and the dedication to social responsibility.

    Confucius’ idea was that every individual could benefit from education. Therefore, he advocated lifelong learning for the sake of individual true self-knowledge and self-improvement. Through his teaching, he fascinated people and created many followers, who knew him as Kongfuzi, or Master Kong. Confucius’s wise ideas and beliefs were recorded by his students and followers in “The Analects” (a collection of his ethical thoughts).


    Confucius was born in 551 BC and died in 479 BC in the state of Lu. Even though information about the life of Confucius is insufficient, it is within a specific time frame and historical context. He was born in Lu, a small town in northeastern China in the 22nd year of the rule of Duke Xiang of Lu, and September 28 is widely considered as the date of his birth. Confucius lived in the “Spring and Autumn Period” (770-481 BC) when there was no political unity and life was difficult, especially for the class to which he belonged, the shi (“retainer” or “knight”) class.

    He was interested in education from an early age and in time he mastered ritual, music, archery, riding a chariot, history, calligraphy, poetry, and arithmetic which enabled him to start his exceptional career as a teacher. For Confucius, education was a path toward continuous self-improvement. Because he perceived public service as the natural result of education, he tried to revive Chinese social institutions (school, community, state, kingdom) and family. Confucius even had a short political career as a minister of justice in Lu, but his policies were not accepted and attracted little interest. He returned to his hometown at the age of 67 to teach and write, and by that time the number of his followers and students increased. So, at the time of his death, he left behind around 3,000 students who were determined to continue their teacher’s work by propagating his teaching. As a result, Confucius’s teachings were adopted by the Han dynasty as a Chinese state ideology in the second century BC, and “The Analects” kept on guiding governments, educators, and individuals to this day.


    “If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of ten years, plant trees; if in terms of 100 years, teach the people.”

    Confucius had foreseen the long-term effect of education, and at the base of his educational philosophy were knowledge, curriculum, teaching, and learning. His main concern, deeply rooted in Confucianism, was the illumination of the values and practice of education. According to his belief, these are the following aims of education:

    • Teach humanity through normative behaviors (help students find their path in life);
    • Use a holistic, broad-based curriculum;
    • Encourage students to practice what they have learned through self-cultivation and social contact;
    • Support learner-focused education;
    • Understand students’ individual needs;
    • Inspire and guide students by using the questioning technique and classmate’s learning;
    • Value critical and creative thinking;
    • Respect social harmony and family as the essential building blocks of society;
    • Cultivate students’ qualities (compassion, devotion to family) as necessary elements in the creation of well-educated, hard-working students;
    • Create a powerful bond between teacher and student that helps students enjoy learning and studying;
    • Reading, writing, literature, mathematics, music, and physical ability should have the highest priority;
    • Students should be taught about morality, proper speech, government, and the six arts (ritual, music, archery, chariot-riding, calligraphy, and calculation);
    • Morality should be the most important subject.

    Confucian Education meant that students are good by nature and only by being exposed to external influence can they become evil. Therefore, he founded education and self-cultivation as means for students to overcome individual conflict and gain self-discipline. Confucius revolutionized education in many ways, one being education for all. He lived and taught by the following principles:

    • Education has no class distinction;
    • All students can be taught and can improve;
    • Students who want to be educated should be educated;
    • All students are born equal;
    • Education is a process of change, the discovery of human nature, and the development of character;
    • Education develops and integrates virtues (Jen-humanity, Yi-righteousness);
    • Jen (humanity, love for others, empathy, compassion) is the most significant quality of a moral student;
    • Yi (righteousness, justice) is the essence of real gentlemen.

    Confucius’s primary concern was the formation of students’ character in ethical terms. He believed that learning and practice are ways for students to distinguish themselves. One of his many wise thoughts in “The Analects” states that men are the same by nature but different by practice. Confucius always emphasized the importance of nurturing moral virtues within students’ hearts and minds, and claimed that students’ sophistication of character must include spreading virtues to others. Self-cultivation by Confucius’ standards is not just an internal search for students’ morality, but a wide concern for other people. Confucianism means to enrich oneself and cultivate one’s wisdom to be respectful of others. So, unlike Western cultural traditions, Confucianism always regards students inserted into a system of relationships. Although a student’s life begins in a family, it continues in complex social relationships, helping them define themselves and build their ethical character. He believed that students’ growth and ethical bonds bring them closer to their peers and strengthen their character and social responsibility. The vital goal of learning according to Confucianism had two purposes: to learn how to become a moral person, and to learn to serve the people and society.


    Confucianism had a tremendous impact on education and is still relevant and useful in today’s modern education. Confucius strongly believed that education is an essential tool for transforming students by refining their conservative ways of thinking and doing. His teaching goes beyond skills training and intellectual advancement to changing concepts and the development of character. Confucius thought that students who do not learn will not find dao (their way in life) and will not fulfill their purpose in life. According to him the only way to fulfill dao is by understanding and experiencing the vision of human perfection, transformation, and cultural excellence. Confucius’s wisdom knows no boundaries and can be implemented in a modern educational setting. Confucianism is perfect for any school setting where teachers create:  

    • A holistic curriculum, because the attention should not be based solely on the student’s intellectual progress but also on their emotional and behavioral development;
    • Curriculum created to enrich student’s intellect, broaden their learning and help them master different subjects;
    • A curriculum with an emotional and social dimension enabling students to have a high regard for their studies, respect their peers, value their teachers, firmly set for educational progress and learn by engaging in discussions with their peers and teachers;
    • A learning environment where students have the opportunity to commit to learning, self-discipline, enjoyment, and meticulous studying;
    • A rounded education gives students a chance to surpass theoretical knowledge;
    • Noble and exemplary students equivalent to the educational ideal;
    • Learners who go beyond rote memorization to carefully applying ethical lessons concerning life’s circumstances and challenges;
    • Students who put their knowledge into practice through self-cultivation and social communication;
    • Students who are determined to reach their goals and assist their peers in reaching theirs too;
    • An integrated curriculum where disciplines intertwine, are practice-oriented, and have a real-life application;
    • A quality school program that methodically presents students with a values-centered, well-rounded, and comprehensive curriculum.

    Being a teacher himself, he had a huge influence on teaching methodology. Here are some of the teaching approaches suggested by Confucius:

    • Teachers should favor learner-centered education placing students at the heart of the process of teaching and learning;
    • Teachers should be well acquainted with students’ characters, customs, lifestyles, ambitions, strengths, and weaknesses;
    • Teachers should not evaluate students too soon in their learning and studying;
    • Instead of formal evaluation teachers should just observe students’ growth in the cognitive (capability to analyze content), emotional (desire to be serious about studying), and behavioral areas (social skill, making new acquaintances).

    According to Confucius, teachers lead without interfering and coming to a conclusion on students’ behalf. Confucius perceived teachers as moral and knowledgeable guides that inspire and enlighten students’ minds and hearts.

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