Searching for da Vinci

True learners are multidimensional, they are passionately curious about the world around them. The Gateway to 21st Century Skills blog wrote a few posts about Leonardo da Vinci, the quintessential example of a Renaissance Man, that got my wheels turning today.  da Vinci was a scientist, inventor, painter, sculptor, architect, cartographer, mathematician, and the list goes on. He had an insatiable curiosity and was deeply creative and innovative.  da Vinci is still highly regarded as a brilliant creative genius, his thirst for learning is just as relevant today as it was 500 years ago.  Here is my question, is the current education system set up to foster the da Vinci’s of the world?

I think education likes to imagine itself as creating a population of individuals who excel in a range of subject areas. After all, we include a variety of subjects and topics that we push students through so that they can learn a little bit of everything.  The problem: our students don’t really excel at any of them because they aren’t given the opportunity to become passionately curious about any of them.  The curriculum that we offer students is one dimensional, it’s purpose has become to prepare students for testing.  Did you get that? We have created a system that prepares students to take a test. Created by the system.  What do the tests tell us? That we have students who can pass tests.  Does that sound like educational incest to anyone else?

Let me give you an example from my student teaching experience 9 years ago.  When I was an elementary student, I didn’t have to take the state test for Colorado (CSAP) because it hadn’t been invented yet.  I took the ITBS test about every 3 years and thought nothing of it.  When I started student teaching, I was curious about this state test that I would be preparing students to take (and we were encouraged to teach students how to take it).  When we got the practice tests in, I flipped through to see what sort of content the test covered.  I wanted to make sure that I had equipped my students with the necessary knowledge so that they wouldn’t have those freeze moments that can throw a students into  standardized test tail spin.  As I was flipping through the 3rd grade test I read the following question:

If you wanted to learn more about Whales, which letter would you search under in an encyclopedia?

Now, don’t cheat and look below at the answer….you said “W” didn’t you?

That would be wrong.

The choices given to students: B, M, T, or F


The correct answer: M for mammal

The answer my 3rd grade students would guess: B for Beluga Whale

Number one: IF any of my students were searching for whale, you know where they would look first: Google. It wouldn’t occur to most of them to go to the encyclopedia as a first reference.

Number two: If my students were searching for whale in the encyclopedia they would look under the “W” first. You know what? They would find whale. They might eventually also explore mammal under “M” when they looked at the bottom of the article and read “see also mammal”.

Number three: This is the most ridiculous line of questioning that I have seen, what information exactly is that question trying to glean? That my students can think critically to solve a problem without an obvious answer?  I would say they did pretty well by choosing “B” for Beluga Whale.

Are we creating a culture that nurtures the da Vinci’s of the world?  No, we are creating a culture that has lost all sense of curiosity, passion, and exploration. We create a culture where there is one correct answer, that we will give you, so that you can pass a test.

If the current culture doesn’t foster a da Vinci outlook on the world, what kind of culture could?  One where students were allowed to explore passions. One where students were allowed to view learning as life. One where students could see that subjects of learning are not really separate entities, but rather that learning is multidimensional, overlapping, and interwoven.  When I look at what da Vinci accomplished, it is apparent to me that this is someone who understood that all learning is life, it is connected.  I suspect that da Vinci didn’t set out to be a jack of all trades; I suspect that he set out to learn and as he learned it led to other disciplines, interests, and knowledge.  What results: a man who was able to use his unique talents and giftings to change the world.

If we send all students through the exact same subjects, the exact same way, to meet the requirements on the same test, do we have any hope of fostering students who are able to use their unique talents and gifts to change the world?  Or, will they graduate from high school with a degree that sends them into the next system where they are now expected to undo all the learning that has made them look the same and decide what makes the unique?

I’m sending out a call to create the da Vinci culture.



  1. Heh those are some good points! Our school system would put da Vinci on meds to calm him down I think. As far as I know da Vinci never worked in a factory, which is what the school system is designed to train people to do.

    Instead, da Vinci was taught as an apprentice and became a master by the age of 20. His interests seem to have change over his life so I would catagorize him as a life long learner. Most importantly he was an observer and a very good critical thinker. If you want to see a more recent example, check out this quote about Thomas Edison from wikipedia.

    “In school, the young Edison’s mind often wandered, and his teacher, the Reverend Engle, was overheard calling him “addled”. This ended Edison’s three months of official schooling.”

    Edison was homeschooled.

  2. Nice alignment with da Vinci. I’ve thought deeply about many of these same issues and feel like we will have a generational gap that will be comprised of unprepared individuals who will have to figure out how to change their whole skill set and mindset just to be competitive in the work world of the 21st Century. I hope I’m wrong and that somewhere along the way people have an educator who changes their mindset from the old school model and into one where people use liquid networks and personal learning networks across academic fields to create the da Vinci culture of which you and I both want to be a part. Thanks for the insights!

    1. Thank you Sam, that generational gap makes me really nervous. I’m not sure where students will have the opportunity to pick that curiosity back up but I hope it happens for all of our sakes!

  3. Hey Kelly,

    Thanks for the post.) Leonardo Da Vinci I would say is my all time hero. I often feel that education should be Da Vincified. His greatest secret possibly was a hungry and healthy curiosity. I often wonder what it would be like to let students follow their own paths of interest and see where it leads. How exciting it would be as a teacher. Imagine where you would travel with your students individually on this interesting journey. I am going to ponder your questions and if I have any ideas I will get in touch.

    Do you know RSA Animate-I have written a post on this which might interest you. There is a great video about current education systems, why they exist and what the future could look like:

    Thanks for a great post.)

  4. I completely agree. Your conclusion also makes me think of the Common Core Standards Initiative. This seems to be feeding the same fire. Makes me nervous!

  5. Have we not learned anything throughout the years? As an educator on my final years in the field I fear for the future of our educational system. I see so much good and yet we cannot turn loose of the yesteryear way of doing things.

  6. Two years ago, my district opened the Career and Technology Education (CATE) Center. It is a campus where high school students can take courses such as Culinary Arts, Digital Animation, Veterinary Science, Health Science, and Engineering (just to name a few). The same year that it opened, the Texas Legislature enacted the 4x4x2, requiring students to take 4 years of the “core” subject areas and 2 years of a foreign language. This significantly cut back on the available scheduling blocks for students to sign up for electives, such as those offered at the CATE Center or on their home campuses. So it was a great idea (and an expensive one) that is now having trouble keeping students due to new laws. I agree that students should be allowed to explore their passions more. We need to get away from the idea that everyone needs the “core”, and explore ways to supplement alternative courses in place of the traditional classes. It is important that our students be able to develop their skills and passions from an earlier age instead of being spoon fed mass-produced education. All that to say, I enjoyed your post!

    I also really enjoyed the phrase “educational incest”. Very funny, and very true! 🙂

    1. Luke, thanks for the comment. It is outstanding that schools are opening widening the view of what education looks like. I only wish it was happening on a larger scale!

  7. Thanks for linking to our blog! It is so important for teachers and administrators to remember that our ultimate goal is to create lifelong learners. Your thoughts on teaching students the “right”answers really made me think, and hopefully it will make lots of other people think, too. Thanks for sharing!

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