Mona Lisa

When I look at the Mona Lisa painting by Leonardo DaVinci, I see a slight smile. Not much. And if I look away and then back I can see it more clearly….but if I just stare at it….I begin to see the smile less and less…and if I stare it for a long time, I begin to see the depth of both the smile and the simple form of the mouth with its wave that we all share, blended together, hovering over each other like an artistic rendering of a scientific study.


And maybe this is an old discussion revitalized today? As I sat watching the PBS Special “Decoding DaVinci” last week I noticed several things about Leonardo that I then researched—

Leonardo da Vinci was born in a Tuscan hamlet near Vinci. He began a nine-year apprenticeship at the age of 14 to Andrea del Verrocchio, a popular sculptor, painter and goldsmith who was an important figure in the art world of the day. At Verrocchio’s busy Florence studio, the young Leonardo likely met such masters as Sandro Botticelli while working beside fellow apprentices Domenico Ghirlandaio, Pietro Perugino and Lorenzo di Credi.

The first thing I noticed was how lucky he was to apprentice at such an early part of his life, with a master whose studio was filled with excellent examples and populated by other masters who would drop by. The culture Leonardo grew up in, was educated through, and that set the standard for his own work, was filled with high quality artists and their productions of art. He was there when his master was commissioned by the town and they had to design how to make and install a two-ton gold ball on top of the Florence Cathedral. This opportunity thrust Leonardo into integrating the design of the ball, the engineering of the ball, and the engineering of how to lift the ball into place. These were apprentice opportunities that became highly informative of his later work.


The integration of art and science, engineering and color, aesthetics and stability and safety, were all involved, integrated and implemented. Although it would be nice to invent schools where all students regularly encounters masters and their interesting lives, perhaps we could help bend schooling towards some of the benefits of arts, artistic thinking and integrating the arts into ELA and STEAM….science, technology, engineering, arts and math. Integration across domains may seem like a high concept, but it really is much more doable and most importantly, it is very needed in the modern workplace economy. Bosses rarely ask you to read five pages and produce a five-paragraph essay. More often they ask you to find the research on bumpers and integrate the best characteristics of previous bumpers into a new design for the bumper of the car model you are working on. This means integration of knowledge, literature, design aesthetics, scientific reports on bumper stability, etc.

Educating for Integration

So starting to bend schools towards this idea also includes combining teaching methods and this may the biggest hold up. Every teacher has some type of project assignment, but few teachers are steeped in the knowledge of project-based learning, assessment of different learning styles that students display when completing the project method, and the strength to correct their own teaching strategies based on real-time assessment. Educating for integration would mean that teachers were competent in a variety of domains, instructional techniques, formative and summative assessment strategies, backwards mapping curriculum and transparent reporting of student progress based on documentation of evidence-based student learning.

Where to Start? A Lab School

The field of education needs more demonstration sites where good schools welcome visitors to review how professional teaching and learning techniques are being applied to support better, more creative learning in students. These sites are variously called a demonstration school, or a lab school. Lab schools also have a feature that attracts visitors: When the Mona Lisa’s smile is the focus for 3rd grade learning, a sense of wonder and experimentation on the part of the staff is very instructive for visitors. When teachers help guide learning by asking students to measure the Mona Lisa’s smile, to replicate the blurring of Leonard’s lines, instead of being responsible for delivering a canned curriculum on renaissance painters, the visitor sees the excitement and renewal for teaching itself. We must make teaching valuable—to teachers and students. A lab school helps teachers to dig into deeper learning for themselves and their students by trusting the teacher to not just unpack the Mona Lisa, but to bring it alive for their students. A lab school can increase teacher learning and help teachers become more professional. And when lab schools build teacher capacity, they bet their student achievement on teacher knowledge and professionalism. Building lab schools is one place to start.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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