Can we still learn from one of the great minds in the history of the western world? I am referring to Leonardo da Vinci. While not a great deal is known about da Vinci’s early life, he likely did not have much of a formal education. He was not university-bound, was not well-versed in the classics, Latin, and other subjects, and throughout his life he was largely self-taught. Along with this, he also made sure to put himself in situations where he would meet other intellects of the fifteenth century so he could learn and collaborate with them. One of the most important lessons to learn from da Vinci’s approach to and thoughts on education is his mantra, Learn by Experience. To get a feel for how da Vinci approached life and learning, I recommend Da Vinci’sGhost by Toby Lester.
Da Vinci fumed at inaccuracies and blatant mistakes that existed in some of the textbooks of the day, where scholars simply believed what was written down. Why would these ‘scholars’ never question accepted ideas and principles? A good example of this might be how the Aristotelian, intuitive conclusion that heavy objects should fall faster than lighter objects was truth, simply because it made sense to the mind. For many centuries people simply accepted this, and not long after da Vinci, Galileo finally actually did the experiment to disprove this long-held conclusion. I often wonder if da Vinci ever did this on his own, but never published it.
Leonardo took a different path, one that in modern edu-speak could be called ‘active learning’ or ‘engagement in the learning process.’ He observed Nature, did experiments, built models, sketched scenes, did dissections of animals and humans (to learn about anatomy), studied architectural designs both for artistic features as well as from an engineering perspective, collaborated with other experts in the fields he was studying, kept prolific journals with all his thoughts and ideas and re-read them to keep the ideas fresh, and never stopped asking endless questions about seemingly everything around him. Granted, some might say that the pace he thought about everything, and the fact that he could think about any subject at any time, was superhuman, and obviously this is one of the near unique minds in human history and we can never expect us or our students to have this level of non-stop curiosity and drive to learn, we can and must learn from da Vinci’s approach and attitude to learning. Learn by experience.
This approach was certainly picked up half a millennium later, in the 1930s, by John Dewey. Dewey was perhaps the most influential educator/philosopher of education in the United States during the twentieth century. In his published essay, “Experience andEducation,” Dewey argues that traditional classes and traditional teaching (i.e. lecturing with the intent that students are sponges for information and will simply learn from a babbling teacher) must be replaced by an evolving active learning process. This is the progressive education approach in Dewey’s language of 1938. As we presently debate what is best for the 21st century student, teacher and classroom, could it be that we finally listen to and accept what da Vinci practiced five hundred years ago? I hope so.
Dewey writes that ‘traditional’ education, where all students move together through classes at the same pace and the teacher and textbooks provide the information students must study, produces an attitude in students of “docility, receptivity and obedience.” The subject matter and rules and standards of conduct are simply passed down from generation to generation, as education prepares students for success in life. The curriculum is not challenged from year to year. There is not necessarily any logic behind the order things are studied, and subjects are disconnected from each other, meaning kids are going from math class to science class to English to social studies, and they learn about topics with no relationship between the topics. Math topics are done in their order, with no consideration of how those topics may be related and applied in science, and reading strategies and vocabulary in a reading class are not at all related to vocabulary and the readings being used in social studies, etc.
Does this sound familiar to you as you think back to your own education experience? It certainly does for me!
Dewey’s vision of what he called progressive education paints a different picture. Education should provide a means to cultivate individuality. It should allow for some free activity, which will get students involved with their learning, rather than just sit and absorb information from teachers and textbooks. Students must be able to learn through experience (ah, da Vinci!). Present issues and topics in life should be included in curriculum, and not just the ‘classics’ that have always been studied and may have no relevance any more for students – so the curriculum must be changing as the times change. Education must teach children how to think and solve problems of any kind. To be good at this, part of the process must show how different subjects are related, to provide students with a broad arsenal to attack problems.
This is a very different way of teaching and learning than the traditional way of education.
Activity over boredom. Relevance over tradition. Problem solving and direct experience over memorization. Experimentation over drill and kill. Synthesis and analysis over prescribed solutions. Differentiation over one size fits all. Trial and error over cookbook, fill-in-the-blank activities (such as labs). Current events and issues over same old problems in old textbooks. Application to the real world over classical, ideal problems if there is no relevance for the modern student. Multi- and interdisciplinary lessons over isolated topics. Variety over singularity.
Education is the means to individual growth in Dewey’s progressive model, so students have developed the habits of mind, knowledge base, and skills necessary to handle a dynamic world, rather than study the same old things that assume the world is static.
It is my experience that there is still a good majority of teachers who are teaching the way they were taught, which is much more the traditional way. This is in part a product of the No Child Left Behind law, whose very foundation is the factory line version of cookie-cutter education. All students must learn at the same pace, learn the same material, and pass the same tests. It emphasizes the very one size fits all model that da Vinci would scream at and Dewey is dismissing. And any hope of expanding a progressive model in education has been thoroughly thwarted by national policy. It is the epitome of teach to the test that we presently have, and is completely counterproductive to 21st century skills, with creativity at the top of the list, our young people need to be productive and successful in the fastest changing world we have had in human history.
We simply MUST learn from the master, one Leonardo da Vinci, and allow kids to have guided exploration of the world on their own, and give them a chance to experience topics relevant to their world, and not the past, rather than rely on the spoon-feeding of information, as if our children are intellectual infants for the first 18 years of life.