Filling Vessels or Kindling Flames?

Our educational system has focused on just one imperative for far too long.


What’s Our Priority in Education?

Way back in the first century, a Greek philosopher named Plutarch made an observation about how people learn that is still resonating today. In his view, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.”

People haven’t changed all that much in the past two thousand years. If students’ minds aren’t just passive vessels to be pumped full of information, but rather fires that need to be kindled—well, how are we doing? Are we inspiring the kind of voracious appetite for learning that, like a fire, is never sated? Are we fanning the flames of curiosity? Are our classrooms and labs places where creativity thrives?

Unfortunately, I believe we’ve inherited a model of education that is predicated on vessel-filling rather than flame-kindling. Our testing-driven educational culture is one symptom of this underlying view. Cram the kids with data, hone their test-taking skills, push them through to get a decent score, and our job is done—right?

While high test scores are nice to see, they should never displace the value of experiential, passion- driven, hands-on learning where students can actively engage with the content and skills being presented.

Vessel-filling can never replace flame-kindling—and if it does, neither will take place.


Closed Vessels

I don’t mean to imply that the vessel-filling aspect of education is not valuable or needed. Children are not born knowing everything they need to know merely by instinct; we have to impart that knowledge. But there’s a very stark difference in how today’s young people respond to vessel-filling versus how every other generation has done so.

In the past, teachers could fill the vessel without much time dedicated to kindling the flame. Education wasn’t expected to be all that exciting in order for young people to give it their best effort. They understood that they needed what that education was giving them, and they accepted it as it was given. By and large, you could fill their vessel with information.

But all of that is different now. Generation Z is the first generation in history that requires you inspire their interest and passion before they will allow you to teach them the subject. We have to kindle their flame before we attempt to fill their vessel.

To take the analogy one step further, if we fail to kindle the flame of learning, they’ll put the lid on their vessel. On a closed vessel, everything we try to pour in just slides off.


How To Kindle the Flame

Both vessel-filling and flame-kindling are essential, but for Generation Z it’s crucial that they be in the right order. If we kindle the minds of students with curiosity about the topic, they will then be open to the information we want to impart.

So how do we practically kindle that flame? The only way to inspire students to love learning is through the conduit of a human connection. Then, and only then, can we fill the vessel.

A human connection stands or falls on three questions that every young person is silently asking. Whether they even realize it themselves or not, they all want to know:

  • Do you see me?
  • Do you hear me?
  • And do I, in fact, matter?

If young people feel that the answer to any of these questions is no, we’ve lost them. No human connection will be forged, no flame will be kindled, and no vessel will be filled.

On the other hand, if they do feel seen, heard, and valued, they will welcome that interaction and give you a voice to speak into their lives. And they’ll listen.

Taking the time to connect with students, to show them that they’re not just a number, that we care about them as individuals—well, it’s the only way that I know of to kindle their minds with the fire of learning. Generally speaking, they simply won’t take instruction from someone who doesn’t care about them.


Limitless Capacity

I find it ironic that we focus so much on filling the vessel rather than kindling the flame for young people, because once their interest is piqued, teaching becomes easy. They don’t just accept the filling of the vessel with knowledge at that point—they want it.

Once they care about the subject and know the person teaching it has a human concern and connection with them, it seems their vessels develop limitless capacity for learning. Isn’t that what we all want for our students? To love to learn and to learn to their fullest potential?

Once we kindle the flame, filling the vessel will take care of itself.


About the Author

Mark C. Perna is the founder and CEO of TFS Results, a strategic consulting firm leading the national paradigm shift in education and workforce development. A bestselling author, weekly contributor, and acclaimed generational expert, Mark has devoted his career to education and frequently keynotes across North America. Find out more at


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