Thinking Like Da Vinci

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Classroom Application, Professional Learning
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Although it has been five hundred and seventy years since his birth, Leonardo da Vinci’s impact on the world continues. He is probably best known for his painting, the Mona Lisa; however, his genius carried across many different disciplines, making him known as a true “Renaissance Man.” In addition to art, Da Vinci is also known for his accomplishments in engineering, science, mathematics, sculpture, architecture, and even as an inventor, musician, and writer!

Since his death in 1519, many have tried to understand the secret behind his many accomplishments. Author Michael J. Gelb’s book, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, is one such attempt. In his book, Gelb introduces his theory of Da Vinci’s success based upon seven essential principles of genius. This video provides an overview of the definitions of the seven principles and explanations of how Da Vinci implemented those ideas in his approach to life and innovation.

You may already be aware of the theory and implementation of growth mindset strategies; in fact, several blog posts on TeachersFirst share ideas on incorporating a growth mindset into classrooms. Da Vinci’s principles are similar theory but with much more advanced concepts. The seven principles provide more of a road map to living a life based upon deliberately pursuing means for discovering hidden abilities, finding each individual’s unique intelligence, and cultivating our inner genius. 

Understanding the seven principles is the first step to take before introducing these ideas into a classroom:

  1. Curiosita is the concept of always wanting to know more and continually asking questions. Find ideas on modeling and deliberately encouraging curiosity in your classroom in this recent blog post. It is also essential to provide students with opportunities to share their questions and give time to research answers. Consider creating a bulletin board for students to post their questions or create a digital space using Google Jamboard or Flipgrid. The See-Think-Wonder Jamboard template found on Rachel Mainero’s blog is an excellent starting point for you and your students to create an atmosphere that promotes curiosity.
  2. Dimostrazione – this is the willingness to make mistakes, test knowledge based upon experience, and with persistence. One way to bring this principle into the classroom is by implementing makerspaces. Makerspaces offer a safe zone for students to explore through collaboration, sharing, and learning from mistakes. This TeachersFirst collection of free makerspace resources will help educators learn about and incorporate makerspaces into the classroom. Allow students to celebrate their accomplishments and share their learning from failures by offering time to share their work with their peers. IdeaBoardz (reviewed here) has several formats that help students create a retrospective look at their work by recognizing what went well, what needs improvement, and action items.
  3. Sensazione – continually refining and using your senses (mainly sight) to enhance experiences. Most educators already understand the importance of using a multi-sensory approach in their lessons. This approach includes providing learning opportunities in several ways, including hands-on learning, visuals as often as possible, and listening activities. Although taste and smell are more challenging to include at times, they also provide the opportunity to enhance learning through providing conscious and unconscious reactions that engage whole-brain thinking. Da Vinci deliberately created an environment that recognized the use of each of the senses and took the time to nourish each of them through different means. Admittedly, not all lessons fit nicely into a multi-sensory approach; however, keeping the concept in mind throughout the year allows us to keep track of our use of sensory tools on an ongoing basis. Take a look at this checklist shared by Sarah Lynn to track the use of different modalities when teaching language lessons as a resource for inspiration to use in your classroom.
  4. Sfumato – embrace uncertainty; this term means “going up in smoke.” Think of this as a productive struggle. How many times do we see students have difficulty and want to step in and help? Sfumato is the concept that we embrace those difficulties because they lead to deeper learning and accomplishments. It is a deliberate effort to know and understand that struggle leads to success. This interesting article from Edutopia explains the science behind the strategy of productive thinking and four strategies for using productive struggle to enhance learning. 
  5. Arte/Scienza – you know the concept of left and right brain thinking; this is embracing using both sides of the brain. For example, this incorporates logical reasoning and imagination to understand concepts and information. Ask students to predict if they are right or left-brained, then share this simple test with students to see if they chose correctly. Learn more about teaching techniques that work for different learners in this short course provided at
  6. Corporalita – is defined as the importance of good health and fitness. In addition to his contributions to the arts and academics, Da Vinci was also an excellent athlete. In fact, during his time in Florence, he was known as “the strongest man in Florence.” Encourage students to find physical activities they enjoy by sharing individual and group sports suggestions to consider trying. For example, ask a classmate participating in a lesser-known sport that would interest others in sharing their involvement. Provide fitness tips throughout the year or include nutrition and calorie charts as part of math and science activities. 
  7. Connessione – recognize and appreciate that everything is connected. Connessione is the ability to make connections and understand new ideas by looking at the system and the world as a whole. Think of this as you might think of a cross-curricular unit. The overall concept is the same, but you and your students approach the concept through different subject lenses to obtain a broad understanding of the information. Introduce this concept to students using targeted questions to encourage thinking throughout the year. Include questions such as “How is this similar to when we studied…” or “How do you think a scientist might approach this question?” Use comparisons whenever possible to broaden the scope of thinking. Digital concepts and mind maps are excellent ways to visualize and contrast/compare information. 

As you and your students learn about Da Vinci and his way of thinking, check out a couple more sites to engage your students in understanding his mind.

  • Museum of Science (reviewed here) – this fabulous site shares information about Da Vinci and several learning activities to learn more about his inventions, drawings, and understanding of math. The interactives and explorations are perfect for introducing and applying the seven principles to students.
  • Da Vinci Face – this site is more for fun than learning; however, it is an engaging introduction to Da Vinci, the artist, and his famous painting, the Mona Lisa. Upload a portrait photograph onto the site, then using artificial intelligence, the site creates a Da Vinci-style portrait. Use this tool to understand and explore art techniques used by Da Vinci.

We still look to Da Vinci as a model for fully embracing the world and living life to its fullest potential. So as you plan and deliver lessons to your students, think about how Da Vinci might approach each idea. Using his principles provides a robust framework to guide students through all parts of their mind, body, and soul.

Have your tried incorporating the Da Vinci principles into your classroom? Perhaps you have suggestions for learning more about the principles. Let us know in the comments below; we enjoy hearing from our readers and learning together. 

About the author: Sharon Hall

Sharon Hall was a recipient of the Presidential Award of Excellence in Math teaching. With over 15 years of classroom experience as a National Board Certified teacher, Sharon shares her content knowledge and reflections on ideas for basic classroom technology integration with us.

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