Lesson planning, da Vinci style

I only read educational theory books these days, which seems blinkered, I know, but I enjoy them. That’s not strictly true – I read other books too, but like a boomerang, the inferences and interpretations I throw at them always bounce back to education somehow.

Of all the titles shoehorned into my shelf, there is one that contains more post-it notes and scribbles than any other; it’s tatty now and well-thumbed. That’s because it stands head and shoulders above the rest, in my opinion. It’s not a book on education, per se. It does not refer specifically to teaching and learning, assessment or classroom layout. Neither does it call for an educational revolution or paradigm shift in the way we teach, like so many do.

The book is Michael Gelb’s How to think like Leonardo da Vinci. I know it sounds like another personal growth guidebook, of which there are many these days, and it is, but it’s a good one and its relevance to my daily work as a teacher is significant.

I’ve always been obsessed with Leonardo and I’m sure I am not alone. Filled with an unquenchable curiosity and, in his own words, ‘impressed with the urgency of doing’, he is the archetypal polymath, the best example I know of someone who busts the myth that we have left-brain or right-brain tendencies. He is beyond categorisation, a genius in each of the fields he worked in. His legendary sketch books are both works of artistic genius and ground-breaking landmarks in science and engineering.

Gelb has studied Leonardo’s life more closely than most of us and he found seven critical principles by which he lived his life. These seven Da Vincian Principles offer the very best structure I know for how to teach children and unlock their creativity. Gelb’s book is not a manual for how to plan and teach, it is a guide for anyone wanting to experience a personal and professional renaissance, but I continue to recommend it to fellow teachers.

Whenever I share these principles during INSETs and keynotes, I embarrass myself by asking the audience to close their eyes and listen intently. Gradually they will hear the voice of Leonardo himself, whispering to them through the centuries, urging us all to pause and consider each principle and its relevance and purpose to our teaching today. (My great-great grandmother was Italian so I feel that qualifies me to do a dodgy impression of a whispering Leonardo).

So, imagine if you will, each of the following principles is being whispered to you too from the Master himself. These principles will not only change the way you teach, they will motivate you to continue to do this amazing, important and inspirational job: unlocking creative potential in your students and instilling in them the same insatiable curiosity and urge ‘to do’ that consumed Leonardo.

Principle 1: CURIOSITA (stay curious)

Our curriculum doesn’t have to be built on pre-packaged, ready-made knowledge to be read, remembered and regurgitated (the 3Rs).

If we place curiosita at the heart of our planning, we will seek more opportunities for dialogic teaching, open questions, slow reveals, problem-solving and shared journeys of discovery.

Curiosity is the driving force of good learning, the best intrinsic motivator of all. Children are factory-fitted with it from birth and a good teacher harnesses it whether her students are 6 or 16. Teaching knowledge while preserving curiosity may seem mutually exclusive, but through Socratic dialogue, we can allow each gobbet of knowledge learned to lead children towards another unanswered question.

Principle 2: DIMOSTRAZIONE (learn through experience)

Abstract, de-contextualised knowledge gained from a text book or digital resource will barely scratch the surface of understanding and deep learning for most students. Sedentary learning experiences that exercise only our eyes often fail to be memorable.
Immersing children in experiences that awaken their senses and invite them to get up and be pro-active always lead to better understanding. One of my favourite contemporary philosophers, A C Grayling, tells us ‘learning is not only the acquisition of knowledge, it is the acquisition of understanding’, and that’s different. Practical experiences, often al fresco, help to bring meaning and relevance to core knowledge, thus more deeply embedding understanding.  Empirical knowledge sits deeper within us than propositional knowledge to be remembered for an exam. Mastery requires application and experiential learning.

By planning for dimostrazione, we are not only considering what is to be learned today; we are curating a learning experience around it.

Principle 3: SENSAZIONE (sharpen your senses)

There are myriad ways in which children’s senses are being numbed today, through the barrage of banal information and inappropriate and gratuitous content that comes to them from all angles. In our rush to measure ability by IQ and computational capacity, we render sensitivity as superfluous, perhaps even a hindrance. To describe someone as ‘very sensitive’ is not to pay them a compliment, and yet it is our ability to use and interpret information through our senses which has allowed us to be part of that exclusive club of surviving species still on the planet. Our longevity is not, surely, due to our comparatively recent need to read, infer and deduce, to master verbal reasoning or apply deductive logic!

Children need to be reminded how to touch a petal, taste an apple, smell the sea or watch a kestrel in flight. Real experiences that tingle the senses cannot be simulated, no matter how advanced AR and VR digital technologies are.

Placing sensazione at the heart of our lesson planning will ensure that our learning experiences are engaging meaningful and memorable.

Principle 4: SFUMATO (embrace uncertainty)

This is my favourite principle, as it happens to be the thing that motivates me the most. Where some children and adults are unsettled by the unknown (in increasing numbers, I find these days), I am unsettled by the known routines that weigh me down. I may be an extreme case, happy as I am in chaos and disorder, but embracing uncertainty is a necessary life skill and one that we could, and should, promote more in schools today.

The school timetable is pinned down, lesson objectives are pinned up and learning is orchestrated for the children – where is the uncertainty in that?

We need more problem-solving, unpredictable teaching, changes to the routine now and again, and unexpected experiences that turn out to be enjoyable. The only way to teach the children how to manage risk is to introduce some jeopardy; the only way to build courage is to create experiences that test courage.

As Maria Montessori said, ‘The more we do for our students, the more we take away from them.’

If learning is carefully structured around a lesson plan, the opportunities to develop the children’s sfumato is diminished; and yet it is this single quality that Leonardo – and many great thinkers and leaders ever since – have in abundance. It is their sfumato that makes them stand out, and succeed in the end, because they are happy to endure the dark chaos that always precedes the light bulb ‘eureka’ moments.

Principle 5: ARTE/SCIENZA (whole brain thinking)

Leonardo, as I have said, was the ultimate polymath – the embodiment of whole-brain thinking.

Timetables in school necessarily compartmentalise learning into subject silos. This often leads to students (and their parents) ranking which subjects they are best and worst at. Can you imagine Leonardo’s response to the common sentiment often heard at parents’ evenings: ‘Oh, James is just like his mother, into maths; I’m no good at maths, I’m the creative one.’ Or ‘Lucy certainly takes after her mother, she’s the artistic one; I’m an accountant.’

Fortunately the practice of labelling an eight-year-old in school a left-brainer or right-brainer has been rightly trounced these days and we recognise that we all have extraordinary capacities, whether latent or manifest. Thinking creatively or thinking analytically are both facets of being human.

 Principle 6: CORPORALITA (stay fit)

‘Healthy body, healthy mind’ is a mantra these days, and yet if you were to measure the amount of sedentary learning in school I’m sure it would eclipse the time spent up and about. We teach from the neck upwards and give the impression that our bodies are vehicles for getting our heads from one meeting, or one classroom, to the next.

I favour somatic learning – the dances and rugby hackers I use to teach otherwise abstract concepts, which I have written about in previous blogs. Getting the children up and active will always have ultimate benefits on their learning. Though obvious, this is not always evident in the way school days are filled for the majority of learning time. ‘If you work hard on your maths, we may go outside this afternoon.’

Incorporating some corporalita into our planning will lead to more active learning experiences and a fresher, keener disposition for learning when we return to the classroom again.

Principle 7: CONNESSIONE (recognise connections)

As I said earlier, school days are timetabled in a tightly structured and compartmentalised way, often. Long periods of uninterrupted learning are plentiful in Early Years but are often pruned back hard when children enter KS1 and KS2. By the time students reach KS3, cross-curricular topic-teaching is a distant memory of toga-wearing or re-enacting civil wars outside. It’s all about the textbook now and designing revision timetables with different coloured highlighters.

Making connections is a fundamental part of getting cleverer. If we incorporate connessione into our lesson planning, we will be giving the children opportunities to literally build synapses and forge more links between disciplines and skills. This is how intelligence is made.

There is nothing finer than a child in my English class interrupting and saying, ‘Essay writing? Oh, we did that in History yesterday!’


Whether Michael Gelb intended to write a manual for how to plan and teach, I don’t know; his book is not written for teachers specifically. But it has become my most trusted guide when planning schemes of work and ensuring that, rather than teaching creativity out of my students (as I’m often told by commentators that we teachers apparently do), I actively plan for it.

More than this, keeping Da Vinci in mind when planning lessons allows me to be aspirational for my students – reminding me of the many facets of the human brain, the sheer scope of our potential as humans and the myriad ways in which talent can manifest. Gelb’s Da Vincian Principles are an antidote to the narrow and specific way we define ‘intelligence’ in schools.

Education should be an aesthetic experience but so often it is an anaesthetic one. Perhaps that’s why Leonardo left school so early and from then on described himself as an ‘omo sanza lettere’ – a man without letters.

There will be a young Leonardo in my classroom today, I’m certain. There may be several. I want to ensure that they succeed because of their education rather than despite it, and this begins with how aspirational my plans are for them and the richness of the learning experience I build for them. Many of the learning outcomes we’ll see are unknown right now, and that’s the exciting part.


1 thought on “Lesson planning, da Vinci style”

  1. Dear Andrew,
    Great article, I loved reading it.
    I made connections especially with 4. Piaget’s’Every time you reach a child something you take away their chance to discover it for I themselves.’
    Also his whole bit on disequilibrium fits into this nicely too. Perhaps he was a Da vinci fan too…


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