Fire (education as ‘lighting a fire’)

The famous quotation, ‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire,’ is attributed to a few people, most often W. B. Yeats, sometimes Socrates. According Quote Investigator, the quote comes from the Greek biographer and essayist, Plutarch.

Plutarch’s version varies slightly compared to the quote attributed to Yeats. It appeared in Plutarch’s essay, “On Listening,” which is worth quoting at length:

“We must encourage those lazy ones, however—once they have grasped the basic points—to interconnect everything else on their own, to use memory to guide original thinking, and to accept what someone else says as a starting point, a seed to be nourished and grown.

For the correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting—no more—and then it motivates one towards originality and instils the desire for truth.

Suppose someone were to go an ask his neighbours for fire and find a substantial blaze there, and just stay there continually warming himself: that is no different from someone who goes to someone else to get some of his rationality, and fails to realize that he ought to ignite his innate flame, his own intellect, but is happy to sit entranced by the lecture, and the words trigger only associative thinking and bring, as it were, only a flush to his cheeks and a glow to his limbs’ but he has not dispelled or dispersed, in the warm light of philosophy, the internal dank gloom if his mind.”

According to  that sense of 'lighting a fire' should be the

"Too few of our teacher training programs demonstrate what it is like to teach well, to assess well, or to serve as an effective role model. Most teachers of college or graduate students see their job as transmitting the inert knowledge of their discipline.

While experts need to have some of this inert knowledge, class room teachers need to know how to coach and encourage their students, so that students can gain various literacies, come to love knowledge, know how to learn, and know how to assess their own growth.

Unless candidate teachers have had such experiences in their own education, it is unreasonable to expect them to display these virtues to their students."



Flagging involves making the rationale behind key teaching choices explicit. This can include making students aware why particular content has been included or excluded, the nature and timing of assessments, why particular activities have been chosen and even particular strategies of delivery.

As Haynes et al. (2012) explain:

“Flagging is explaining what you are doing, and why.

Teachers often introduce an activity or the next stage of a session without flagging it, assuming either that students already know what it is they are supposed to do and what they are supposed to get out of it, or that students don’t need to know: all they have to do is follow instructions. But people’s ability to undertake tasks depends crucially on their understanding of the task – and not  just their understanding of what the task is, but of why it is a sensible or useful thing to do.” (p. 7)

Further Reading

Haynes, Anthony. & Habeshaw, Sue., 2012. 53 Interesting things to do in your lectures: Tips and strategies for really effective lectures and presentations, United Kingdom: Professional and Higher Partnership.