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How can you teach your students to think like Leonardo da Vinci?

What are the seven teacher habits you must demonstrate on the classroom floor to help your students learn to think like Leonardo da Vinci?

"Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian polymath of the High Renaissance who was active as a painter, draughtsman, engineer, scientist, theorist, sculptor, and architect." That is how Wikipedia Editors try to describe the incomparable genius who used to boast that he did not receive any formal education. How did an 'uneducated' Leonardo da Vinci emerge as a polymath, an individual whose knowledge spanned a wide array of subjects? Michael J. Gelb, the famous American non-fiction writer, published 'Think like Da Vinci' in 1998, trying to decode the method to Da Vinci's madness.

Michael J. Gelb lists and explores seven dispositions that Da Vinci demonstrated throughout his career, in his book. They are noteworthy in that they are learnable thinking habits one can develop through consistent practice. Teachers can help their students acquire these dispositions, with a few tweaks in their teacher behavior. Let us explore them as the seven teacher habits you need to develop if you want your students to imbibe the seven habits of Da Vinci's mind.

Teacher Habit One

I teach my students to ask good questions

Da Vinci had two distinct habits that made him the genius he was: One, he maintained a journal and wrote down everything that he had observed, experienced, experimented with or reflected on during his quests to understand the world around him better. Two, 7000 pages of what remains of his journal shows us that he had more questions than answers, to the extent that he never got around to organizing his discoveries and insights into a readable book. He was driven by asking questions rather than answering them. Every answer he found led him to more questions.

If you want to teach your students to think like Da Vinci, teach them to ask good questions. Here is one thing you can practice throughout the academic year to make this possible. Whenever you want to teach them a new concept, ask your students to brainstorm and write down all the questions they want to ask about that concept. Ask them not to worry about how they structure the questions, as long as they are writing down all the questions popping up in their head, word to word. Once all the questions are on paper, ask your students to refine the questions to make them open-ended and more inclined towards gathering perspectives than facts. After they refine the questions, your students must pick three questions that they think are the most important ones out of the list. Make your lessons all about finding answers to these three questions, and eventually, you will see the magic of higher-order thinking emerging in your classroom.

Teacher Habit Two

I challenge my students to test their beliefs.

“His lack of reverence for authority and his willingness to challenge received wisdom would lead him to craft an empirical approach for understanding nature that foreshadowed the scientific method developed more than a century later by Bacon and Galileo. His method was rooted in experiment, curiosity, and the ability to marvel at phenomena that the rest of us rarely pause to ponder after we’ve outgrown our wonder years,” Walter Isaacson wrote about Leonardo da Vinci. To learn anatomy, he dissected more than 'thirty human bodies and countless animal corpses.' He dissected each part of the body from three different angles to test his beliefs about what made them work.

Your students come into your classroom with already formed beliefs and notions about what you are going to teach them. We call these beliefs 'previous knowledge,' and education researchers call them 'existing schema.' Your job as a teacher is to challenge them to test their existing opinions, assumptions, and beliefs about a concept.

Have you heard of Thinking Routines? Thinking routines are strategies a teacher can use to make the process of learning visible. Harvard Graduate School of Education designed over 100 Thinking Routines to help teachers make students think visibly. 'What makes you say that?' was one of the thinking routines they suggested. Out of the 100 thinking routines detailed on the Project Zero Website, 9 are considered to be Core Thinking Routines. "What makes you say that?' is one of them. There are two questions you can ask your students when you try this thinking routine in your classroom: One, what is going on? Two, what do you see that makes you say that? This thinking routine kills two birds with one stone. First, it challenges your students to base their arguments and opinions on the process they followed to test their beliefs. Then, it surfaces their beliefs and misconceptions so that you can address them in class.

Teacher Habit Three

I plan my lessons as multi-sensory experiences.

Da Vinci believed in the power of experiences to help human beings learn. He famously said, 'Experience is a truer guide than the words of others.' He also once said, 'Avoid the precepts of those thinkers whose reasoning is not confirmed by experience.' Da Vinci believed in seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching something before he came to any conclusions about it. He practised talking about, writing about, and reflecting on these experiences, to make learning long-lasting.

When it comes to learning, what we experience and how we reflect on that experience stick. Provide opportunities for your students to touch, taste, smell, listen to, talk, or think as they learn. One rule of thumb is to ensure that each learning or assessment activity you come up with involves at least one other sense along with talking, writing, or thinking. Harvard Professor Dr. Howard Gardner's theory of Multiple Intelligence lays out a simple framework you can use when you plan lessons to make learning in your classroom a multi-sensory experience.

Teacher Habit Four

I promote an openness to ambiguity and uncertainty in my classroom.

Da Vinci once said, 'That painter who has no doubts will achieve little.'The tension between opposites repeatedly appears in his work. Consider the famously ambiguous smile of the Mona Lisa. The Art historian Ernest Gombrich wrote in Story of Art that 'sometimes she seems to mock us, and then again we seem to catch something like sadness in her smile.' Openness to ambiguity, uncertainty, and paradoxes helped Da Vinci develop a high tolerance to failure. Failures led him to ask better questions.

James Olver, Associate Professor in Marketing at Raymond A Mason School of Business said, ‘'Starting in kindergarten, we teach kids to get good grades because you have to get A’s or you’ll never get into a school like William & Mary,” Olver said. “Then, as they get older, it’s about mastering the SATs and finding a formula that gets you to the right answer… so in essence, we’ve taught them not to take any risks and to know exactly what’s expected of them. And this serves students well until they get to the university, and they find out actually we don’t know if there is a right answer to a lot of these things … let alone what the right answer is when you start talking about serious problems like global warming or sustainability, or a lot of the things we are facing as a society today. And a lot of those things are what businesses are facing.'

The preparation to help students be open to ambiguity, uncertainty, and paradoxes in life must begin at school. Young children may not be ready yet to embrace the complex paradoxes in life. However, research suggests that discovery based active learning approaches to teaching, incorporating games, puzzles and predictions will help a teacher embed an openness to ambiguity in children.

Teacher Habit Five

I integrate art into my lessons.

Was Da Vinci a scientist, or was he an artist? These days we call him a polymath, someone who was good at a wide range of subjects. Art historian Kenneth Clark begins his essay on the relationship between Leonardo’s science and art by emphasizing the interdependence of the disciplines: “It is usual to treat Leonardo as a scientist and Leonardo as a painter in separate studies. And no doubt the difficulties in following his mechanical and scientific investigations make this a prudent course. Nevertheless, it is not completely satisfactory, because in the end the history of art cannot be properly understood without some reference to the history of science. In both, we are studying the symbols by which man affirms his mental scheme, and these symbols, be they pictorial or mathematical, a fable or a formula, will reflect the same changes.”

As teachers, we often worry that integrating art into our subject will dilute the cognitive impact of our lessons. That is not true. `’The arts are not just expressive and affective, they are deeply cognitive. They develop essential thinking tools — pattern recognition and development; mental representations of what is observed or imagined; symbolic, allegorical and metaphorical representations; careful observation of the world; and abstraction from complexity.' writes David A. Sousa, the author of How the Brain Learns. Learning is precisely the point of art integration.

Teacher Habit Six

I incorporate movement into my lessons.

Da Vinci always recognized the effect of attitudes and emotions on physiology. What sets him apart is his understanding that movement enhances one's ability to think. He cultivated the balanced use of both sides of the body. Gleb highlights in his book that, 'Painting, drawing, and writing with both hands, he was psycho-physically ambidextrous.' It seems that he also used to write backward, in that one could read what he wrote using a mirror. More than his ambidexterity, we must notice his efforts to use his body in unique ways to aid his thinking. Since he used his body uniquely, Da Vinci could think and interpret information in unusual ways. His ability to connect to his physiology helped him remain creative.

Unlike what most of us think, movement has a place beyond physical education lessons. Emerging research makes it clear that physical movements accelerate cognitive development. Regardless of the subject or grade you teach, there are opportunities to incorporate movement into your lessons. Brain breaks that involve physical movements are a great way to do this. When you ask your students to discuss something in pairs, won't it help if they walk around the class and talk?

Teacher Habit Seven

I create opportunities for my students to connect seemingly disconnected ideas and concepts.

Da Vinci could see how everything connected to everything else. Gleb writes, ‘One secret of Leonardo’s unparalleled creativity is his lifelong practice of combining and connecting disparate elements to form new patterns. Vasari records an incident from Leonardo’s childhood, when he was asked to paint a peasant’s shield. Eager to devise an image that “would terrify anyone who encountered it,” young Leonardo gathered and collected in his room an assortment of “crawling reptiles, green lizards, crickets, snakes, butterflies, locusts, bats, and other strange species of this kind, and by adapting various parts of this multitude, he created a most horrible and frightening monster with poisonous breath that set the air on fire.”

An interdisciplinary approach to teaching will help your students connect ideas or concepts that they may not otherwise. No single discipline can adequately explain life and the challenges in connection with it. When students integrate multiple perspectives from different subjects, as they answer their questions about a concept, they become better equipped to handle real-world challenges.

About the Author

Sojo Varughese

Sojo Varughese is an educator with more than a decade and a half of rich and varied on-field experience behind him in Teacher Training, Instructional Coaching, Academic Audit, Education Technology Integration, and School Improvement. Over these years, working with international, national & state board schools (government and private), he would have by now trained and coached 75000+ school leaders and teachers across India and the Middle East in contemporary classroom teaching, student assessment, and school management practices. Sojo Varughese is the co-founder of Innerkern and you can read more about his work here.

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