best practices

What Leonardo Taught Me About Teaching

May 10, 2019

Techniques in one field can be applied to another. In Michael J. Gelb’s book, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, he finds life advice in the Renaissance master’s notebooks that, with a New Age spin, he repurposes to help everybody maximize the genius within. Taking one from Gelb and adding a couple more that I found in Leonardo’s work, I’ll boil it down to three nuggets.

La bella figura. This translates from Italian as “beautiful figure,” but it means that presentation is introduction. Proper grammar and style are outward appearances that influence reactions. Handing in a sloppy work, physically mangled or carelessly composed, is like cooking a delicious soup and dumping it on the table. Or building a house out of cardboard. Or going to a job interview in your pajamas. It’s not superficial. It’s signaling to others that this meal or this house or this person or this paper is cared about and that it means something to you—and therefore it might mean something to others.

Sfumato. In art, this refers to smokiness. Gelb sees it as a way to embrace uncertainty. I see it as being courageous in the face of not knowing. E.L. Doctorow compared writing a novel to driving a car at night in the fog. “You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Learning new information can be overwhelming. It’s natural to feel lost and confused. But, bit by bit, seeing only what’s in front of you, you will get there.

M’arrangio. Rearranging things to your own liking. Unlike the insecurities of OCD behavior, this is about taking ownership, making the material your own. Differentiation in teaching is really personalization. Contrary to what we’ve been told, we are the center of the universe. Everyone is. Our consciousness requires us to perceive the world through our own eyes. We can be empathetic and walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, but we’re still doing the walking. We all learn in our own way. For history, science, even math, we have to own it to learn it. The best education, like art, is always personal.

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