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Sun Tzu and The Art of Teaching

Posted by Barry Strauss under on April 26, 2023

In my last post, I wrote about the art of shih or strategic advantage. We can learn from the great book of Sun Tzu, The Art of War. The best strategy for success is to take the enemy into account and to try to maneuver him into a weak position. Deception is usually a key tool in that regard. Once you have the enemy where you want him, you can then apply maximum pressure with minimum effort. You may even find that your opponent is ready to fold without putting up a fight.

Okay, this is tough talk when it comes to the classroom. It’s not a battle zone. But it is a place where thinking strategically makes a difference. In this piece, I offer ten lessons from Sun Tzu for teachers. Next week, I’ll offer ten lessons for students.

  1. The first and most important quality of a successful teacher is to possess the tao (way). The tao is what brings the thinking of the students in line with the teacher. The tao is the quality of authority and integrity that makes students (and their parents) believe in you. The tao is character.
  2. Good teaching is never just about the teacher. It’s always a two-way street. It’s about the interchange between teacher and student.
  3. Just as military intelligence is crucial in war, so understanding your students is the key to successful teaching. Take into account the Zeitgeist and the culture. Try to understand your students’ passions to make it easier for them to internalize the lesson.
  4. In the interest of minimizing your effort while maximizing your result (shih): Never read a text out loud. Always have a student read it.
  5. All teaching is a series of exercises in which you position the student strategically (hsing) so that s/he will learn from it.
  6. Never ask “Any questions?” and expect to have an answer. You must always be one step ahead of the students and position your questions strategically. Try to think like a student and come up with questions that students might like to answer.
  7. Try to be formless: to glide through the class as if you weren’t there while always guiding it subtly in the direction that you want it to go.
  8. Just as warfare is the art of deceit, so teaching is the art of indirection. Never try to force the students; always get them to come to you.
  9. Never go into the classroom cold; always practice. To quote Sun Tzu: “it is by scoring many points that one wins the war beforehand in the temple rehearsal of the battle.”
  10. Know your students and know yourself. Be frank about your strengths and weaknesses. Make maximal use of your strengths and minimize the things on which you are weak. Likewise, know your students’ strengths and weaknesses. Help them to build on their strengths. Believe in them but don’t ask them to do things that they can’t do.

Next week: What you can learn from Sun Tzu about achieving success as a student.

Barry Strauss © 2024