Rob Levit | April 2014

Teach Like Leonardo

Who doesn’t love Leonardo da Vinci? The Renaissance master has set the bar high for scientists, naturalists, artists, poets and our Western culture in general. What can we learn from Leonardo on how to be better educators? Here are three ideas to help you Teach Like Leonardo:

100% commit to the power of arts integration and STEAM.

“Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses- especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”  – Leonardo da Vinci

It’s time to get off the fence on how art, music, movement and creative engagement positively and profoundly affect not only the lives of the children we serve but also our own mental, emotional and spiritual development. Writing in the 15th century, 500 years ago, Leonardo recognized the profound link between the arts and sciences. He also recognized that all things are connected. These ideas were not mere mental revelations to Leonardo – he lived them through anatomic exploration, precise sketches of the natural world, journaling, documenting, experimenting with paints, pigments and perspectives and much more.

So, how to deepen your connections and mental development?

  • Choose 1-2 books to read over the summer: one that expand your general understanding (zoom out for perspective) and one that deepens your core knowledge in a particular subject area. Try this list.
  • Take nature/city walks, bring a journal and simply write down what you see, smell, hear, etc. Are you an observer of your world? Leonardo observed his and had a profound appreciation for it – you can too!
  • Create a list of ideas that you wish to try in the classroom but haven’t had the time to do or have been hampered by fear. How can you try out these ideas as mini, controlled experiments? Prototype a creative writing lesson or an art concept as a warm-up, not the whole lesson.
  • Take a STEAM or arts integration class – jump in! Here’s a great place to start.

Redefine failure.

“Art is never finished, only abandoned.” – Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci a failure? It depends on how we define failure. If success is the number of projects completed and check marks on a checklist the perhaps he was. Consider that his famous “Last Supper” took nearly two years to complete and simultaneously needed to be restored by Leonardo because he used an experimental pigment to create the painting. Consider that his famous equine sculpture never made it past the clay model stage and was used for target practice by archers from an invading army. Consider that his flying machines were never tested in his lifetime. Nonetheless, Leonardo persevered and never stopped creating. His definition of success was based on the process of creation and experimentation, not on project completion. As educators, we need to realize our work will never be done and certainly not to the level we want it to be.

Nonetheless, we don’t view ourselves as failures but as restless seekers who take positive risks to develop innovative lessons and learning opportunities for our students. Teaching, just like Leonardo’s creative process, is always in motion, never complete. Viewed any other way almost guarantees that we will fail. Failure isn’t measured by one class, one year or by one school but by the sum total of our output and positive influence on our students. The only way to fail, as Leonardo writes, is to abandon our art – the art of teaching.

Go for simplicity.

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” – Leonardo da Vinci

Take a look at the Mona Lisa or Leonardo’s notebooks. Far from simple, they do exude the order and inspiration of a creative mind focused on essentials.  Analysis of Leonardo’s work shows a strange paradox – created with utter attention to detail yet with a sense of naturalness and flow. That is the essence of simplicity: what is essential is illuminated and what does not contribute is removed.

How can you create simplicity in your teaching practice?

  • First, take a look at what is working for you. Where are you succeeding? Answering this question will provide a strong hint of what is essential. How can these strengths me magnified, illuminated and transferred into other areas?
  • Second, take a look at where you are struggling. What would need to be removed to make you more effective? A negative attitude toward an administrator or student? The fear of being creative in the classroom? Whatever it is, ask yourself honestly, what needs to be removed from your teaching approach to make you more effective.

Explore the sketchbooks, journals and art of Leonardo da Vinci. In this post, I have only put a dab of paint on a canvas to show the power of the master’s art to transform your teaching!

About the Author

Rob Levit, an acclaimed musician and artist and 2013 Innovator of the Year from the Maryland Daily Record, has created award-winning innovative "Life-Skills Through The Arts" programs for adults with mental illness, the homeless, adults in drug and alcohol recovery, youth in domestic/sexual abuse counseling, foster children, hospital patients, veterans and many more. He is currently Executive Director of Creating Communities and was the first Artist-In-Residence at Hospice of the Chesapeake, where he created and infused healing activities for the well-being of staff, families and patients. Email Rob.