How can we think more like da Vinci?

Jon Lawson

Leonardo da Vinci’s rare ability to excel at both art and science has inspired teams from the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh to envision a new kind of educational model. 

The researchers suggest that there is a case for a shake-up of the school curriculum, so that subjects are no longer taught independently of each other. Instead, they believe that the arts and sciences should ‘teach together’ around real-world problems, and in a manner rooted in pupils’ real life experiences.

Pam Burnard, Professor of Arts, Creativities and Education at the University of Cambridge, observed: “If we look at the amazing designs that da Vinci produced, it’s clear he was combining different disciplines to advance knowledge and solve problems. We need to encourage children to think in a similar way because tomorrow’s adults will have to problem-solve differently due to the existential crises they will face: especially those of climate, sustainability, and the precarity of life on Earth… For education to reflect that requires a major shift away from linear conceptions where subjects are taught separately, and towards a situation where they are inseparable.”

Dr Laura Colucci-Gray, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Education and Sport, observed: “The nature of these problems calls for a radically different approach to knowledge. We are proposing a move from the idea of a curriculum as something children are just ‘given’ to a curriculum ‘in-the-making’ in response to transformations that will define their lives.”

In this new model, the researchers suggest giving schools greater freedom to determine how to meet study targets set by the curriculum. Teachers could make collective decisions and share practices about how to engage pupils with unifying, cross-curricular themes, such as environmental sustainability. They add that this might also involve closer links between schools and their communities to connect learning to pupils’ experiences beyond the classroom.

The researchers claim that evidence is also emerging that a trans-disciplinary approach enhances pupils’ acquisition of key skills. In the maths/artwork project cited in the project, students in South Africa were asked to create art which showed the links between maths and the world around them. Subsequent analysis of the 113 submissions showed that pupils had applied principles such as measurement, ratio and proportion, and geometry in their creations.

The researchers also found, however, that participants had engaged deeply with the meaning of maths at a level rarely seen in conventional lessons. One especially powerful example, by a 16-year old boy, was entitled The Stressed Vitruvian Man, inspired by da Vinci’s The Vitruvian Man. Like da Vinci, the young artist’s work was partly a study of the proportions of the human body, but at the same time the student used it to comment on both the potential, and dangers, of creating a society built on mathematical principles alone.

Primary school pupils in Aberdeen showed a deepened understanding of issues like food production and natural resource management when they were given the opportunity to take responsibility for a small piece of land in their school. Researchers found that the survival of plants became personal to the pupils, rather than just an abstract concept that they had learned about in science lessons. It also introduced them to other, related ethical challenges which those lessons rarely address, such as how to produce food when space is limited.

Any attempted reimagining of education along trans-disciplinary lines would require the kid's attainment to be measured differently, the researchers add. “It would require a system of testing which measures how children are internalising ideas and what they are expressing – not just what they know,” Burnard concluded. “That may be an uncomfortable idea for some, but it is the sort of radical thinking we need if education is going to prepare young people for the future.”

Similar approaches are already looking promising in some existing education systems, like in Finland.