Lessons from Leonardo

One of the Christmas presents that found its way under my tree this year is the recently-published biography, Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson.  Several years ago, I had really enjoyed reading Isaacson's well-crafted biography, Steve Jobs, and I was excited to read this soon-to-be bestseller and learn more about da Vinci and the Italian Renaissance over the holiday break.  I was really looking forward to reading a book that wasn't about "work" or "education," so on a quiet morning after the pandemonium of Christmas Day had passed, I settled into my comfortable reading chair, covered myself in a warm afghan, and plunged in, eager to leave my work behind me.  I wasn't 15 pages into the book when I threw back the afghan and, grumbling to myself, walked over to my desk to retrieve my journal, highlighter and pen.  Already I had recognized some passages in the book that I felt were relevant to our #HollistonInnovates work and knew I just had to share those thoughts with my blog readers.  While returning to my comfy chair and setting back under the warm blanket, I decided that I'd only flag a few passages to come back to after I finished the book, refusing to give up my "homework-free vacation" that I needed to recharge and refocus.  With the holiday break now but a fleeting memory, I have finally put finger-to-keyboard (is that the modern equivalent of pen-to-paper?) and share my lessons from Leonardo...

Was Leonardo da Vinci a genius??  Popular belief is that he was and Isaacson agrees; although it is in Isaacson's explanation that we find our first lesson from Leonardo.  

"Yes, he was a genius: wildly imaginative, passionately curious, and creative across multiple disciplines.  But, we should be wary of that word.  Slapping the "genius" label on Leonardo oddly minimizes him by making it seem as if he were touched by lightning.... In fact, Leonardo's genius was a human one, wrought by his own will and ambition.  It did not come from being the divine recipient, like Newton or Einstein, of a mind with so much processing power that we mere mortals cannot fathom it.  Leonardo had almost no schooling and could barely read Latin or do long division.  His genius was the type we can understand, even take lessons from.  It was based on skills we can aspire to improve in ourselves, such as curiosity, and intense observation.  He had an imagination so excitable that it flirted with the edges of fantasy, which is also something we can try to preserve in ourselves and indulge in our children." (Isaacson, 2017, p. 3-4).
Issacson seems to suggest here that Leonardo's wasn't BORN a genius.  Rather, fueled by his "skills" of "curiosity and intense observation," he BECAME a genius.  Perhaps everyone has the potential to reach Leonardo's level of genius and all that's needed is the right set of circumstances and supports to rouse one's curiosity and build one's observational skills.  Early childhood educators would argue that infants and toddlers are intensely curious and highly skilled observers of the world around them, yet somehow the students we graduate tend to become automatons, learning things to earn a grade or to get into a good college rather than learn about something that interests them and they are curious about.

What is it that we do, as a society, that quells our children's curiosity and dulls those keen observational skills?

Perhaps most relevant to this blog and the work of #HollistonInnovates is Isaacson's own sense of why studying Leonardo is critical:

"The fifteenth century of Leonardo and Columbus and Gutenberg was a time of invention, exploration and the spread of knowledge by new technologies.  In short, it was a time like our own.  That is why we have much to learn from Leonardo.  His ability to combine art, science, technology, the humanities and imagination remains an enduring recipe for creativity.  So, too, was his ease at being a bit of a misfit: illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted, at at times heretical.  Florence flourished in the fifteenth century because it was comfortable with such people.  Above all, Leonardo's relentless curiosity and experimentation should remind us of the importance of instilling, in both ourselves and our children, not just received knowledge but a willingness to question it -- to be imaginative and, like talented misfits and rebels in any era, to think different." (Isaacson, 2017, p. 9).

For me, the second lesson from Leonardo is to recognize and value each student's innate strengths and sense of individuality and teach TO those strengths, focusing more on growing a student's unique abilities by leveraging their personal interests, rather than targeting their deficiencies and minimizing those.  How many brilliant mathematical thinkers have we squandered because we made them feel inadequate because they couldn't conform to the rules of the five-paragraph essay?  How many hopeful poets have we lost because we made them feel stupid because they couldn't solve a quadratic equation?

Imagine, for a moment, that Leonardo da Vinci had been born in Massachusetts in 2002 instead of in Renaissance Italy in 1452.  In 1452, Leonardo's talents and abilities were recognized and carefully cultivated and nurtured by master artists, teachers and craftsmen, leading to the emergence of one of the most celebrated creative geniuses of our time.  Today, Leonardo would be a sophomore in high school, and he would have spent the day today taking day 2 of a 3-day English Language Arts MCAS, a state-mandated requirement to receive a diploma.  Long before today, however, I surmise that the same system that requires a "one-size-fits-all" test to determine competency would have made every effort to curb his individuality and quash his creativity in the hope of producing an "outcome" that "conforms" to our "standards." I'm convinced that, if born today, Leonardo da Vinci would graduate high school as an over-medicated shell, stripped of his creative-spirit, wild imagination and passionate curiosity and destined to a life of mediocrity, only vaguely aware of the untapped potential that he once carried. 

While I'm grateful that Leonardo was spared that outcome, how many other "Leonardos" have we allowed to suffer that fate? 


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