Da Vinci’s Seven Principles in ELT

May 2011

Leonardo da Vinci, probably the cleverest man in human history, was a painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, poet, musician, inventor, physiologist, naturalist, scientist, and all-round visionary. In his book Think Like Da Vinci, Michael Gelb identified seven principles that guided Leonardo in his life and work and I feel his ethos can be equally applied to our industry as well.

1. Curiosity — In ESL, learners with curiosity talk more, they are less shy and less reluctant to raise questions. In life it is the people who continually ask questions who get ahead. Curious people are not satisfied with the answers that everyone else blindly accepts. They dare to step out from the crowd. They dare to probe further. Curiosity is the hunger to understand and it is the driving force of human progress. Without it we would still be living in the trees, yet as Einstein said, the amazing thing about curiosity is that it survives formal education at all.

Will O The Wisp
The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.

2. Demonstration — It is often said that a good teacher demonstrates rather than explains. Demonstration is the willingness to take risks and learn from the outcome of those actions so that you develop through a process of trial and error, towards the truth. There is no better example of truth than the understanding that experience gives you. Leonardo never stopped taking risks professionally and the lesson teachers and learners can heed is that to move forward we must experiment and create.

Setting an example is not the main means of influencing another, it is the only means.

3. Sensitivity — Being sensitive means being aware of the dynamics of the group including your role in relation to the students, the students’ abilities, and their relations with each other. The more sensitive a teacher is, the more he or she can pick up on what’s happening and adapt to changing circumstances to meet students’ needs accurately. The closer the connection to your environment, the more influence you have within it.

Forest Light
Few are those who see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts.

4. Sfumato — Sfumato is a painting technique demonstrated most notably in the Mona Lisa with its layers upon layers of shading. Sfumato creates a smoky, less-focused effect which is a lot more appealing than obvious clear lines. In general terms, sfumato means blending ideas with subtlety and elegance. In life it means seeing the world in shades of grey rather than black and white. Our students tend to talk in generalisations because they lack the language skills to articulate finer points. So the teacher’s job is to encourage more precise language by demonstrating it ourselves in emphasising nuances.

The human mind is not capable of grasping the Universe. We are like a little child entering a huge library. The walls are covered to the ceilings with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written these books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. But the child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books---a mysterious order which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects.

5. Art & Science — In da Vinci’s time there was a blurring of the boundaries between art and science. Regardless of the end, learning was learning and creating was creating. Leonardo, like his contemporaries, received his formal learning chiefly from the classical texts. There was at this time an explosion of knowledge and da Vinci led the race to use this to create new concepts, including machines and robots.

The internet has brought us full circle. Our society is gradually leaving the industrial age of specialisation and homogenous urbanisation to return to the fusion of art and science. This means educators have more resources at their disposal and unprecedented opportunities to create and learn.

All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man’s life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom.

6. The Corporeal — Leonardo tired to capture the freshness of life and as such he had an intricate knowledge of physical forms. Many of his drawings deconstruct and illuminate the muscular forms of animals, faces, and organs. He studied life at every detail and believed that nothing was as perfectly designed as nature.

Kinasthetic learning is one of the most overlooked facets of language education. We must remind ourselves that physical movement from students and from the teacher is one of the best ways to dispel lethargy, add energy, switch the focus, zap boredom, and make a point worth remembering.

String Theory
Since our inner experiences consist of reproductions, and combinations of sensory impressions, the concept of a soul without a body seem to me to be empty and devoid of meaning.

7. Connections — Good communicators have the knack of finding common ground with people. They think on their feet to search for connections and build bonds. In class that means learning something about the students’ lives, teaching with authenticity, and employing synchronicity to the full as inspiration and opportunity dictates. By connecting ideas and recycling language we make content relevant and interesting.

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

You’ll notice I have punctuated each principle with a quote from the other great genius of history, Albert Einstein. One thing that becomes clear from reading Einstein’s quotes is that he implicitly knew da Vinci’s mentality all too well. If they were alive today, I think we would probably be going to the stars. There’s no reason why we can’t apply their thinking in order to go beyond expectations and be brilliant educators ourselves.

Images are in the public domain