Schooling vs Learning

I was at the always-amazing ULearn conference in Christchurch last year and got asked to do a EdTalk.  These short video clips are done by the good folk at Core Education, where they essentially just sit you in front of a video camera and let you rabbit on about education and your own educational perspectives for a few minutes.  My buddy Jane Nicholls was working the camera and she kept telling me to just talk about whatever I wanted to talk about. When she sat me down and said “go” I still had absolutely no idea what to say. I just did a brain dump and quite literally blurted out some of the stuff I was thinking about at the time.

DaVinci in your Classroom

At the 2010 ULearn conference I was asked to participate in a Pecha Kucha event.  A Pecha Kucha is a way of giving a presentation with 20 supporting slides, where each slide is automatically timed to show for only 20 seconds.  This leads to a presentation of exactly 6 minutes and 40 seconds.  Despite being one of the shortest presentations I’ve given, this was certainly one of the hardest to put together, just in terms of working out the timing and figuring out what to say in those 20 blocks of 20 seconds.  It sounds easy, but it certainly took a while to get it together.

Here is the summary of what the talk was about…

“As a gifted polymath, Leonardo da Vinci stands out as the prototypical lifelong learner. Curious, inventive, creative… All the things we would love our students to be. But how well would da Vinci have survived in today’s typical classroom?  If Leonardo was a student in a school today would he have achieved to the same degree?”

And here are the words that went with each slide…  as you can see, there are 20 paragraphs, each one goes with the 20 slides…

Leonardo Da Vinci.  Artist. Inventor. Scientist. Architect. Sculptor. Engineer. Astronomer.  One of the great geniuses of history.  My question to you is this…  if Da Vinci were alive today, would he have survived in your classroom? And more importantly, would he have thrived in your classroom?

Leonardo grew up in the 1400s, a time of great change, where society was being dramatically reshaped by disruptive new technologies like the printing press. Today, we also live in a time of great change, where society is being dramatically reshaped by disruptive new technologies like the web.

I don’t know what sort of student Leonardo would have been. If he was like most people of his day, he probably never actually went to school, but HAD he been a student, based on everything we know about him, he would probably have been clever, eager to learn and extremely curious.

I suspect that Leonardo would have been one of those students that constantly asked “why?”, who constantly wanted to know more, who constantly thought outside the box.  I suspect he would have been smarter than most of his peers, and probably smarter than most of his teachers.

Of course, if Leonardo was in school today there’s little doubt it would be a school that proudly proclaimed on its website that they were about catering to individual needs, developing “life long learners” and giving each students a genuine “love of learning”.  After all, isn’t that what ALL schools say they are about?

The reality is that most schools are bound by the straightjacket of a timetable, and still constricted by disjointed curriculums imposed upon them by “the powers that be”. We still put up with curriculums where subjects are isolated from each other and delivered in small chunks of mandated hours.

In Leonardo’s case, I imagine that his teachers would not quite have known what to do with him.  He would have been the weird kid that wrote back-to-front just for fun, daydreamed about building impossible flying machines or worked on mathematical problems that weren’t in the textbook.

He would have doodled endlessly, all over his school books, no doubt being told that if he didn’t stop defacing them with that ridiculous scribbling he would have to pay the cost of replacing them.  Those sketches of the human body made directly from his own observations?  They’d be of little use because those things would not be on the test.

And yet, despite the fact that Leonardo might have been a bit of a misfit in school, he serves as an incredible example of what it means to be truly educated.  On one hand a gifted artist, on the other an extraordinary scientist, he demonstrated an unusual capacity to perceive the world with both sides of his brain.

For some reason, we tend to think in terms of “the arts” and “the sciences” with an implied belief that, if you’re good at one, you’re probably not good at the other.  And we tend to have a unspoken hierarchy where the “real” subjects like maths, science and english are more important than the “soft” subjects like art, dance and drama.

I don’t think Leonardo would have seen it this way. The same mind and hands that created “The Last Supper”, with all it’s emotional depth and religious symbolism, were equally engaged with creating detailed scientific observations of birds in flights in order to invent machines to help man do the same.

The term polymath is used to describe a person who possesses expertise across a significant number of subject areas. History is full of famous polymaths from Aristotle to Benjamin Franklin to Isaac Asimov, although Leonardo may have been the most exemplary polymath of all.

When you look at the achievements of such bold thinkers, and what they bring to humanity, you’d think we’d be trying to figure out how to nurture this kind of outlook. Yet, you have to wonder whether our current system of schooling does anything to actually encourage this kind of thinking.

We compartmentalize learning into discrete blocks called subjects, prescribe them a minimum number of required hours, divide the days into chunks of time called periods, and focus on passing the test at the end. It would appear we’re doing all we can to suppress polymath-like thinking rather than encourage it.

Even as adults, we seem surprised when we discover that our tax accountant plays saxophone in a jazz band; that the captain of the football team enjoys opera, or a woman who illustrates children’s books has a law degree. We’ve created a culture where having diversity in our interests and abilities is seen as the exception rather than the rule.

I wonder if, as Leonardo observed the physics of how light reflected across his subject’s face, he was giving much thought to whether he was “doing science” versus “doing art”?  I wonder if dividing our understanding of the world into discrete chunks help us understand it, or whether it actually limits the way we understand it?

Perhaps Leonardo’s greatest asset was his unquenchable curiosity and his desire to know more about the world, regardless of how it was categorised.  And perhaps our biggest problem in schools today is the difficulty we seem to have in maintaining a broad perspective, because as much as we say we want to develop independent free thinkers, we continue to reward compliant rule followers.

I can’t help but wonder if Leonardo had the “advantage” of attending school as we know it, whether he would have grown into this brilliant Renaissance Man he was? Would the experience of school have nurtured his curious spirit, or would it have squashed him into a polite conformist that simply did well on standardised tests

Not every child will be a brilliant polymath like Leonardo da Vinci, but every child deserves a chance to aspire to it. Despite the fact that most educational systems say they aim to develop a love of learning in every student, the fact is that “school”, as a generalized concept, may not actually be the best environment to nurture individual brilliance.

So I ask you again… how would Leonardo da Vinci have survived in your classroom?  And although we may never know for certain, I hope you think about what you can do, with the students you teach right now in 2010, to help them discover their inner da Vinci.

PS: I’ve scheduled this post to go live during the actual PK event.  I’ll add a video to it afterwards that contains the audio/visuals of the talk