What it means to be human and what that means for schools

Leonardo da Vinci, the greatest polymath of them all, and surely the best champion for human potential, described himself as an omo sanza lettere – a man without letters, without an education.

There may be young Leonardos in my class today. He was, after all, and quite reassuringly for all of us, ‘only human’. But it would be hard to spot a Leonardo or Leonora from the attainment or progress data available to me, for the way in which we measure intelligence is so narrow that it would hide the voracious and prolific creative talents of another da Vinci. How would we know? Neither the models of assessment adopted, nor the methods of teaching and managing behaviour employed in schools are receptive or conducive to creative impulses and disruptive, rebellious thinking. A young Kant or Descartes would be equally hidden too; metaphysical or existential musings are rarely given airtime when you’ve got SATs to prepare for.

The multiple intelligences so eloquently described by Howard Gardner, and so deftly demonstrated by Leonardo centuries before, seem absent in all but the most enlightened examination systems upon which most school curricula are built. The 3Rs of reading, remembering and regurgitating marginalise more creative geniuses than they empower.

Computational capacity reigns king. Rationality is what counts, because it can be counted. That is to say, intelligence in school today is universally measured via logic and reasoning tests. Even English papers have been reduced to multiple-choice format these days, prejudicing the creative thinkers in my class who would otherwise have used some creative thought to extrapolate, hypothesise, empathise and infer authorial intent. ‘Don’t think about it, go for the obvious, logical choice’ is the favoured strategy, so I’m told. There’s always a formula you can learn, a rational method to be applied; you can score highly if you practise often enough, even increase your IQ by a few percentage points. Another blow for the young Byrons or Brontes in my class.

Perhaps it was with some irony that Alfred Binet, father of the IQ test, concluded that ‘Intelligence, like love or beauty, is immeasurable.’ Why then are we intent on measuring it, and in such narrow ways? As we stand on the brink of artificial intelligence dominating our lives, isn’t it time to re-discover the full extent of human intelligence, beyond our capacity to process information and apply deductive logic?

Children enter school blissfully unaware of how clever they really are; but they leave school with a rigid and fixed notion of their ‘intelligence’ or lack of it. Using a narrow set of criteria, school asks us ‘How smart are you?’, when ‘How are you smart?’ might be a better question. Can you experiment, adapt and improvise? Can you embrace ambiguity and make sense of it? Can you assimilate, innovate and invent? As Piaget said, intelligence is what you use when you don’t know what to do.

Reducing the ability of students to their capacity to apply logic and rational thought in response to binary questions, puzzles and patterns, and against the clock too, is to deny what it means to be human, and to set us up perfectly for being usurped by AI. And it’s pointless, because no child can compete with the computational capacity of the smartphone permanently attached to their hand.

If we define intelligence as the ability to process information rapidly and apply inductive or deductive logic, students will calibrate their own intelligence accordingly, and forever do so. What’s more, they will compare themselves unfavourably with the barrage of artificial intelligences that come at them.

Leonardo teaches us we are missing the point if we calibrate our capacities and potential in this limited way. I don’t know what his measured intelligent quotient would have read. It depends on how he was feeling that day, whether he was distracted or not, or feeling dreamy, or fidgety, or inventive.

If a revolution in education is indeed coming, let it not only be based on what AI can do for us; let it be driven by what we can do that AI can’t. May it force us to re-discover what it means to be human, just what and where our potential is and how best we can unlock it in the formative years of school.

Michael Gelb (1998) suggests seven Da Vincian Principles for us to emulate if we want to ‘think like Leonardo Da Vinci’. Of the seven, Sfumatomay be the most significant if we are to unlock our creative potential. Gelb describes this as a willingness to embrace ambiguity, uncertainty and paradox. Sfumatomay well be our most highly-prized capacity and one which cannot be emulated by a machine.  But where is the uncertainty in a formally taught, rigidly timetabled curriculum?

Schools are places in which calculations and rational decisions dominate, and for this there will always be a more efficient and more advanced learning partner in technology. Robotics will soon outperform us in many areas of our lives, including school. But the skills in which technology far exceeds us – reading, processing and applying information – are themselves recent phenomena and not, in any way, attributable to the fact that we find ourselves in that elite club of species still in existence on the planet. We did not survive this long because of our ability to read or solve mathematical problems. Our longevity is due to the deep-down-things that make us human – those ‘harder to teach/harder to measure’ qualities factory-fitted in all of us, like creativity, instinct, intuition, curiosity and so on.

Einstein tells us, ‘The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.’ Intuition allows us to ‘know’ something before we have analysed it rationally. It bridges the gap between our conscious and non-conscious mind. To intuit something is to subconsciously draw on one’s myriad sensory perceptions to reach a notion of what is going on around us, how we should respond and what we should do next. Intuition is a compass. The problem is, our rational mind often overrides any instinctive impulses and we reach a different conclusion based on reasoned analysis. Though rationality is precious, it can mislead us; it gives us a false notion of what human behaviour is. Take listening for example: if you were asked to listen carefully to something, you would probably lean in, lower your eyebrows and frown. None of these actions help you to hear better. No more than sitting still behind a desk helps you to learn better. These are false constructs and we believe them.

Leonardo might tell us that an education should be an aesthetic experience, but right now it’s an anaesthetic one, where sensory perception has a lower value than rational thought. Students in school are told to focus and remain ‘on task’. An ability to concentrate is highly prized in classrooms – and this means shutting off most of our sensory receptors in order to attend to what the teacher is saying to us, or to read carefully the text in front of us. ‘Stay in your learning bubble.’ ‘Manage your distractions.’

Try as I might, I may never aspire to the concentration levels of the computer sat in front of me. It doesn’t fidget and it doesn’t procrastinate. It gets on with the job. If it has senses at all, they are primed and ready to do a specific task and are not open to distraction. The student who can work like a computer – receiving, processing, retaining and recalling information efficiently and without distraction – will sail through school examinations. But for most us, data does not enter our central processing unit in 1s and 0s only.

There is more to being human than data-processing.  Our senses equip us to deal with the unexpected hazards, challenges and beneficial opportunities that float past us daily. To anesthetise students from such experiential learning is to reduce their human potential before they’ve even found it.

We have Aristotle to thank for the notion that we humans have just five senses. Pleasingly, we have many more: chronoception (our sense of time), thermoception (our sense of heat), equilibrioception (balance), nociception (pain) or proprioception (touching your nose or ear without looking at them), to name but a few. But even if we took just the standard five, with such powers of perception we are functioning at a level never attainable by AI, not because any of these sensory receptors aren’t in themselves able to be artificially simulated – I am sure they are/will be soon – but precisely because of the way they perform together in a glorious symphony of interpretation, emotion and thought. But sadly all too often, rational, logical thought trumps these innate skills.

With all this rapid reasoning in school, to describe someone as ‘very sensitive’ is not to pay them a compliment. And to pause in a discussion, in order to think in a measured way, is to render yourself ‘slow’, vulnerable to an early diagnosis of poor information-processing ability. Perhaps this is why so many of my students these days precede every verbal utterance with the word ‘wait’.

Speed isn’t everything. Deep learning requires time, and so too does relationship-building, problem-solving and creating something original and of value. The speed with which can we process information, and the time it takes for us to retrieve and apply logic and reasoning skills is not indicative of our natural ability – no more so than an academic score in an exam is an accurate measure of a learner’s ability either now or in the future. This is a myth peddled in school. What a child shows that she knows in response to a given set of questions is held to be an accurate measure of her ability as a learner, both now and in the future. This is wholly flawed thinking but it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if we let it.

This begs the question, ‘What is learning?’ which leads us to ‘What is the purpose of school?’

I know what the purpose of school is not. It is not to sort and rank students by their academic ability. The purpose of school is to facilitate human growth, but nothing stifles growth more than being sorted and ranked. When students are being ranked via their academic ability, the resulting anxiety and fear of failure not only stifles their creativity, it slows down their information-processing speed too – the very thing which formal education seems to treasure.

Artificial intelligence can streamline so many aspects of education, from admissions, data storage and information management, through to marking and reporting. Intelligent tutoring systems will automate feedback given to students and this will no doubt be very appealing to over-worked teachers, myself included. But as teachers, it is our emotional intelligence, combined with our past experience of working with children, that enables us to recognise, instinctively, when a child is suffering from low self-esteem or a lack of motivation in the classroom. And it is difficult to see how that can, or should, ever be replaced. It is our sensory perception that gives us that all-important, all-seeing eye in the classroom. As model learners, it is our humanity that exerts the greatest influence over the outcomes we see in school.

In order to preserve and develop the full spectrum of human facets through school, we need a paradigm shift in the way we talk about learning. We need a new script. For the language of learning used in most schools is reductive, placing too much emphasis on our ability to think rationally, and solve problems logically and analytically. The way we interpret certain words, most frequently used in our learning commentary, may be so reductive that it impacts negatively on the learning itself.

Take the word resultsfor example. It is so often conflated with the word performance. As a parent of four children, I was often seated on the other side of the table at those speed-dating, 5-minute parent/teacher sessions. When I asked the question, ‘How has my son performed this term?’ I was usually told, ‘He performed well he English, he achieved an A. He performed very well in Mathematics, achieving an A*. He performed quite well in French, with a B, and not so well in Geography, achieving a C.’

The question I asked had been misinterpreted here. I enquired about my son’s performance, but I was only told the results of his performance. I was offered no commentary at all about the performance itself – the learning habits, attitudes, behaviours and perspectives that make him the learner he is; nothing about his creativity, his intuition, the ways in which he collaborates with others, his communication or his character.

When learning performance is reduced to alphabetical or percentagised results, we are left none the wiser about the hidden learning that lies behind these grades.

That’s why I devised the Hidden Learning Program. It is the script with which teachers can identify, monitor and comment on their students’ attitudes, behaviours and skills for learning. I hope it will help us to shed light on the invisible things that make us human. Those facets and perspectives that lie beyond the grade – beyond pupils’ verbal reasoning and intelligence quotients.

Do get in touch if you’d like a discussion about how you can become a partner school and trial the program with me. This is not a sales pitch, because the program is free. I want to work with like-minded leaders and teachers who can see the hidden potential in their students and want to do something about it.



Read more about hidden learning in the Invisible Curriculum Series by Andrew Hammond, published by John Catt Ltd




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