Democratising Da Vinci (or why technology in schools is a no-brainer for the world)

By | October 13, 2013

This might not seem of immediate relevance, but stick with me on this one, all will become clear hopefully.

There are plenty of historical examples of people who have stood out in their time for their genius. I could cite hundreds, but as Leonardo Da Vinci seems to be current shorthand for this, I’ll use him. Da Vinci is universally regarded as one of the great geniuses of European culture; his accomplishments in art, technology and physiology in a time of ¬†widespread ignorance, supernaturalism and a non-existent education system¬†are an ongoing source of astonishment.

He managed to see further and with greater accuity than those who had gone before or who were to follow. In fact, his drawings of the anatomy of the human body did not see the light of day again until long after similar work carried out by early-modern scientists had discovered exactly the same things.

My thesis for what follows – and this is where this post starts to get relevant – is that Da Vinci, no matter how talented, should not be seen as an unassailable genius, given to the world one time only. It is unlikely, Darwin would argue, that he represents the peak of human achievement or evolution.

I think it much more likely that every age in human experience has had its (multiple) Leonardos, but the intersection of such immense talent with the opportunity and freedom for it to develop and thrive happens much, much more rarely.

Da Vinci was a freak – but a freak of coincidence. His undoubted immense talent was apprenticed to the pre-eminent Florentine workshop which had already produced Botticelli, putting him squarely at the B of the Renaissance’s Bang. His artistic education taught the basics of anatomy and the social connections he made through the commissioning of his art brought opportunities to innovate weaponry and defences for Italy’s warring city-states. His genius met with the ideal circumstances, and flourished.

Why doesn’t this happen more often? Well, the law of averages suggests that for every Da Vinci, Newton, Lovelace or Averroes hundreds of millions of equally talented people never met with the necessary circumstances to succeed. They were born into slavery, or to a life of subsistence farming, or in a jungle, or – and this is the common denominator – in a time and place where education, knowledge and power were poorly distributed. Tragically, even in recent times, going to a school which forces students down narrow paths towards traditional models of academic success has had a similarly deleterious effect on many.

What is the relevance of all this to the world of educational technology?

Modern technology is the great leveller for intersecting talent with opportunity. In the past so much talent was wasted; today everyone can and should be given the tools they need to succeed. If we can give all children access to powerful, intuitive and highly-available technology, they will be able to;

  • know & understand everything human kind has ever discovered
  • synthesise this to create things that demonstrate what they understand, and to reveal new information
  • work with each other and with expert people they’ve never met to go far beyond what an individual can do

In short, great technology in schools, deployed democratically and integrated into a creative curriculum will allow every learner to match their talent with the opportunity to exploit it.

For the first time in history, this generation’s thousands of geniuses could all realise their potential. That is education’s purpose; to allow humankind to make the most of itself.

In a future where knowledge and power are more effectively distributed through access to technology, the number of individuals achieving what isolated outliers such as Da Vinci did will be exponentially increased. Extraordinary individuals will be harder to pick out from the crowd, because the crowd will be full of them.

As we’ve spent the past five-hundred years perfecting methods of instantly killing millions, creating social and religious divides which drive perpetual cycles of conflict and pushing the planet to the edge of crisis, this bumper crop of geniuses cannot come too soon. Co-incidence? Surely not.

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