Socratic vs. Confucian Pedagogy

Teaching like the Sages in the Classroom and Online

A friend of mine teaching English in China once shared the insight, no doubt unoriginal, that Socrates serves as the paradigmatic educator in the West, whereas Confucius serves that role in the East. Having long studied and taught Socrates, I have finally studied and taught Confucius. I spent all of my upbringing and most of my young adulthood in the classroom as a student. I have spent the better part of my professional life in the classroom as an educator. I am ready to weigh the relative strengths and weaknesses of both models, as well as the counterfeits of each.


Contrasting Methods and Implications

Socrates asks questions. In particular, he asks questions of those around him, including his students. He trouble-shoots their answers, explaining what is wrong with them, often in a roundabout way by asking further questions. (I’m thinking especially of Socrates in Plato’s “Apology” and the early dialogues, not Socrates-as-mouthpiece-for-Plato, as he apparently is in The Republic and other works.)

Confucius, by contrast, teaches by providing answers. His students ask questions. He typically answers them directly. Based on the evidence provided in the Analects, his method is no less interactive.

Socrates’ approach is radically egalitarian, in the sense that his persistent questions serve to reveal how little either he or his students actually know with any certainty.

Confucius’ approach establishes a clear hierarchy, in which the teacher possesses both knowledge and power.


A Common Purpose

Despite these differences, both men’s teaching shares a common purpose: the pursuit of wisdom. More specifically, both philosophers desire to reveal knowledge that will guide those around them to live lives increasingly defined by the pursuit of truth and justice.

There are false forms of Socratic method and Confucian method alike, in which educators ask questions and/or give answers that in no way represent steps toward wisdom. The mere exposing of students to information in no way represents teaching analogous to what either of these ideal philosopher-educators offers. Too often I have seen instructors mistake sharing information about philosophy for the teaching of philosophy itself.

In all fields, educators must look beyond the sharing of information to guiding students to better analyze ideas, interpret texts, conceptualize and theorize, compare, and apply their insights in the real world. Bloom’s Taxonomy provides but one model for moving beyond surface knowledge, which may be superficial, trivial, or of dubious relevance – especially for students who have not yet honed the ability to distinguish what matters.


The Ideal Audiences

It would be naïve (and passé) to assert that either the approach of Socrates or that of Confucius is preferable. Rather, I contend that which is best depends largely on the kind of student is present in a given classroom.

The Socratic method works best with students who think that they have answers, who are confident enough in their own ideas that they will speak up, make assertions, and openly dialogue with the instructor. The Socratic method works well in New Jersey.

The Confucian method works best with students who assume that the instructor is right and that they, as students, have little to contribute in the way of answers. This is the classroom dynamic to which many students from East Asia are accustomed. Understandably, many of those who come to the U.S. for further study initially struggle to adapt to the more egalitarian Socratic method.

In both cases, by “works best” I simply mean that both teacher and student know what their role is, and can thus proceed with the task of pursuing wisdom. However, I should also note the significant potential gain for those, like the aforementioned international students, who are immersed in a classroom with pedagogy other than what they previously considered the norm. As I have argued elsewhere, struggling and potentially failing in one respect or another is an important part of every successful student’s learning journey. I dream of a day when large numbers of U.S. students might travel to China for a significant portion of their university studies. Our cultures have much to learn from each other.


The Message is in the Method

I would be amiss if I did not emphasize how distinct Socrates and Confucius were in their respective messages. Style and substance are inseparable. Through what he asked and how he asked, Socrates was a “gadfly” to the Athenians. Agnostic in most (plausibly all?) things, questions were central for Socrates. Through what he taught and how he taught, Confucius guided the people of pre-Imperial China to submit to authority. Promoting order and harmony in all things, the right answers mattered most for Confucius.

Those of us who are self-aware in our pedagogies must consider the ways in which our own teaching styles and the substance of our teaching are related. I have no doubt that I, guiding American students through ancient Chinese history and Confucian texts primarily by using the Socratic method, betray my own inclinations.


The Sages Online

True teaching must be interactive. Its goal must be to instill wisdom in the student. Socrates and Confucius agree on both of these general principles, although they might apply them differently. Neither interactivity nor the pursuit of wisdom come easily online – at least at first blush.

Online education lends itself to first-level, informational learning, but not higher-level learning involving analysis, interpretation, etc. Informational learning is easy online. Students participate in automated quizzes which have clear wrong and clear right answers. Higher-level learning requires a level of interactivity that is not easy to come by under most classroom management systems, like Blackboard. Indeed, unless Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) can promote kinds of teaching beyond the informational, the fruit of mass online education will be limited.

Fortunately, some creative educators have revealed that online education can be just as interactive and oriented toward the pursuit of wisdom as anything in the classroom. For example, Chris Calvert-Minor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater uses the virtual community Second Life as a platform for hosting interaction sessions of his “Introduction to Philosophy” course for two hours every week. In that immersive, virtual environment, students can interact with each other and with the professor in real time. In that particular case, the virtual world really is an alternative for a real classroom, with hardware and software bridging the gap between people, providing convenience for students who need it most, with little apparent pedagogical downside.

Such immersive, interactive, wisdom-loving (literally philo-sophical) education promises to be fruitful for Socratic and Confucian educators alike.



To teach is to learn and to teach undergraduates is to learn (and then teach) a great many things beyond the bounds of one’s formal training. Western and Eastern educators have much to gain from emulating both Confucius and Socrates, attentive to which lessons and which students might best benefit from one method or the other. We live in interesting times – a blessing, as the proverb goes. Cultural flexibility is part of the Zeitgeist. We serve ourselves and our students well by learning to alternate between different methods, attentive to what situations best lend themselves to which.

2 Responses to “Socratic vs. Confucian Pedagogy”

  1. David Edwards on

    A quick question. What are we specifically talking about when we speak of Confucian pedagogy? I did a google search of the term and found articles referring to the Ming Dynasty preparations for the civil service exams and another referring to Confucius’s original writings. Which is in current effect for this discussion?

  2. georgefaithful on

    I’m thinking here of the style of conversation in which Confucius engages in his “Analects,” contrasted with that of Socrates in the Platonic dialogues. I am not concerned here with the civil service exams based on Confucius’ teachings A.) because I do not know much about them and B.) because it does not appear that Confucius himself was concerned with teaching to a test. Confucius and Socrates both embraced conversation as a primary means of education. They agreed on that. What they disagreed on pedagogically was what style of conversation the teacher and pupil should have and, more specifically, what role the teacher should have. Does that help?


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