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It's time to be inspired by Leonardo da Vinci

Peter Green, Headmaster of Rugby School, explains how to rethink school subjects

Posted by Julian Owen | November 30, 2017 | Teaching

The fuss about the threat of a nation of ‘techno-nerds’ following the success in STEM subjects by this year’s A-level students makes us revisit the need for the arts to be a compulsory and life-enhancing part of the school curriculum. But adding an A to STEM to arrive at STEAM is not enough to secure their place. I suggest it’s more to do with rethinking the objectives.    

The new head of the Arts Council, Sir Nicholas Serota, has asked Durham University to consider what role, if any, arts can play in education and the two-year study is due to start early next year. Both developments have made me ponder on the exam-driven division between the arts and the others. 

Leonardo da Vinci would surely be dismayed by the small-mindedness of our taxonomy, our sifting, sorting, labelling and boxing in of Subjects (with a capital S). He went where his imagination and learning took him. His range of interests knew no artificial boundaries of classification. They ranged across what we call painting, sculpture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, architecture, cartography, and probably many more. (As a 15-year-old today, choosing his exam subjects, he’d probably be encouraged to drop the sculpture.) 

He was an early pioneer of technology and engineering. We have a subject in our national curriculum called design & technology. Imagine Leonardo, the already famous inventor, being asked to teach that class. He’d become absorbed, I’m sure of it. But the children in the science lab would be waiting for him. And so would those in the art studio. He’d dash from room to room, each time changing his hat and wondering why he had to do so. Why weren’t all the students in one room? 

All children can do all subjects. Teaching is about helping them do it in a way that corresponds more closely to life itself. 

Surely the da Vinci premise is that being good at art helps you become good at maths. Subjects are simply approaches to life, ways of capturing its magic. The thing that would appal Leonardo most is the mental separation between classroom and life that we have allowed to develop. I am dismayed by children who say, ‘I can’t draw’ or ‘Don’t make me dance.’ All children can draw and dance. They seem to unlearn these examples of unfettered expression as formulaic teaching steps in.    

Science is full of poetry. Mathematics is an abundance of patterns. The arts present scientific and technical challenges. Across them all, we see connections – a necessary touchstone for educators and a source of wonder for children. 

In our world of constant assessment, the separation of subjects sounds wonderfully free-form and undisciplined. We probably can’t do much to change the school day but we can change attitudes to what is learned. 

If we want our children to have enquiring minds, let’s join up the subjects rather than divide them. They can’t all follow da Vinci, but let’s give them a chance. 

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