This post is a chapter from my book "Maker Education Revolution".
For image attribution, please scroll to the bottom of this post.
“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”
— Thomas A. Edison
Inventors are said to be children that never grew up. With their minds unchanged from their childish passion for curiosity and experimentation, they are the essential lifelong learner.
Indeed, the thinking process that inspired Leonardo Da Vinci to design a flying machine that was heavier than the air and of a five-year-old toddler making a tower of Lego pieces are probably very similar. The main difference between the two inventors is that Da Vinci had the advantage of a lifetime of lessons learned from experimentations, each one consisting of several cycles of trial and error.
Nikola Tesla, another prolific inventor, just like Da Vinci, had a track record of mostly failures, peppered with a few successes. Some of his successes changed the lives of millions of people. His inventions relating to the generation and transmission of alternating current electricity, for example, have been instrumental in the development of our modern societies.
What are some of the characteristics of inventors like Leonardo Da Vinci and Nikola Tesla? What can we discover from them about the nature of learning? And how can we use their approach to learning to create better educational environments for all of us, and especially our children?
Nikola Tesla was a prolific reader. He is often quoted to have said: “Of all things, I liked books best.”
From an early age, he devoured books. As a young man, he depended on Mark Twain’s works to help him through a difficult period in his life that involved recovery from serious illness and evasion of conscription in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire Army in the 1870s. Within books, Tesla discovered strange new worlds of thought, of facts and theories. He found inspiration, and he found answers to the many questions that troubled him. He found a way to escape reality when he felt tired and overworked. His curiosity about everything is demonstrated by the sheer quantity and variety of topics of the books that he read.
Tesla was an introvert. He enjoyed spending days in his laboratory, experimenting and tinkering. Tesla believed that to be an effective inventor, one must be absorbed in their work. By this, he did not mean that inventors should work in isolation, but that deep introspection, and quiet, quality time contemplating their central problem is absolutely necessary. In a modern world where distraction is everywhere around us, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, every week, this is something important to remember. In a way, the Internet and our access devices have connected us to the extent that we are never alone, but have taken away the ability to be alone, think deeply about something, or simply be bored. Invention and creativity can’t be rushed, yet at work and school all work is neatly given a fixed amount of time and resources to complete.
Tesla believed that the optimal way to solve a problem requires a balance between the theoretical and experimentation (constructionist) approach. He criticised Thomas Edison of not using modelling and abstract thinking to evaluate a problem, instead relying predominantly on experimentation. This, according to Tesla, resulted in an unnecessarily large waste of time. On the other hand, too much concentration on abstraction, not backed by experimentation in the real world, results in outcomes that are intangible and hard to understand. This is important in the context of learning. Tesla seems to agree with the opinion of the philosophers who believe that learning should be rooted in reality.
There is no substitute for hard work, even for the geniuses among us. Tesla was a legendary hard worker. In his autobiography he spends a lot of time describing many of the activities that in today’s hyper-efficient world would be seen as wasteful and unproductive. Contrary to modern attitudes towards efficiency and punctuality in everything we do, creative and original work cannot be project managed. Specific performance key performance indicators, deadlines, objectives and rigid reporting may work well in an industrial, performance-oriented environment, but do not work at all for inventors. Learning, like inventing, involves considerable effort that cannot be scheduled mechanistically or managed like a process. Inventing is not a nine-to-five job, neither is learning.
Inventors don’t work in isolation. They learn from each other. Whether it is breakthroughs or mistakes, whether they are colleagues or competitors, inventors are well aware that they are better at what they do by learning from others, and by knowing what has happened or is happening around them.
Tesla’s work on the wireless transmission of power involved physics and electrical components that are also useful in the transmission of radio signals. Tesla’s student, Guglielmo Marconi, apparently used some of Tesla’s patented work in wireless power transmission to build his revolutionary radio transmission device in 1895. Marconi also used radio transmission techniques developed by Herz and others.
Inventors are people, and by no means do they always act with a high moral standard, defying natural human emotions like jealousy and even contempt. When Marconi’s company achieved the successful commercialisation of his radio equipment and its stock value soared, Tesla sued for patent infringement. After Tesla’s death in 1943, the US Patent Office eventually upheld Tesla's radio patent number 645,576. This is what happens in the real world of invention and problem solving: collaboration, stealing or simply borrowing of ideas. In contrast, the conventional education system expects and demands that students should work in isolation to complete assessment tasks and assignments.
Inventors understand that inventions take a lot of time to deliver results, especially if the problem they are solving is large and complicated. This long-term view of work and life in general goes against the expectations for fast results in all levels of modern life. Personal instant gratification in the age of on-demand TV and express shipping of goods purchased on the Internet, the accelerated production cycle of all kinds of products, from cars to electric toothbrushes represent significant achievements of our modern civilisation. They also present challenges, as they condition us to think short term even though we know that anything that is important needs a long-term approach.
Schools too, expect fast results from students. A new concept taught in class today will be tested tomorrow, then another new concept will be taught the day after, before the student has the opportunity to fully internalise the new knowledge.
Tesla’s view on personal development was that it is tightly connected to invention. Invention brings about a constant opportunity to learn and test the new knowledge; it is an integral part of the learning process. Life, in a way, is a journey of problem solving. Inventing is problem solving. Whether you are solving a problem of irrigation in your garden or climate change, the pursuit of a better solution will push you to explore new possibilities in areas you would not have thought otherwise. Through invention, the process of creating a tangible output, you will be able to test those possibilities and select the best ones for further evaluation.
Over his lifetime, Nikola Tesla worked in an extremely diverse field of topics: alternating current, light, oscillators, X-rays, radio, remote control, just to name a few. He produced 278 granted patents in 26 countries. Tesla even imagined a ‘death-ray’ type weapon in which a high-energy beam would destroy targets at large distances, and robots, in the form of a remote-controlled board that he actually built in 1898.
Inventors do not feel confined to a narrow area of ‘expertise’. They tend to be polymaths, and capable of absorbing and utilising knowledge from any area if it provides the means necessary to solve a problem and complete an invention. Again, this contradicts common practice today in which, whether at school, university or the workplace, the key to efficiency is the total specialisation to a specific niche. Again, a remnant of the Industrial Revolution, it has influenced greatly how schooling is done, with learning outcomes neatly allocated within well-defined areas of knowledge.
Tesla, just like Da Vinci and so many other inventors who have defined our way of life, was far from perfect, but he was uniquely human. He expressed regret for not marrying and dying alone in a dark apartment:
“Sometimes I feel that by not marrying, I made too great a sacrifice to my work ...”
But he also expressed pride for his achievements. He saw his life as one of contribution to the world. Just like we can learn from the achievements of Olympic athletes, inventors like Tesla and Da Vinci were extreme individuals whose achievements can teach us a lot about learning and creativity.
While we don’t have to become as extreme as Nikola Tesla in our pursuit of knowledge, we can learn a lot from him and we can apply some of his attributes as an inventor in our day-to-day learning.
Image attribution: By https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/4c/6e/da5709a57832dbbb048ba4a17fe6.jpg Gallery: https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/M0014782.html Photographer: Dickenson V. Alley Wellcome Collection gallery (2018-03-31): https://wellcomecollection.org/works/zncts6ch CC-BY-4.0, CC BY 4.0, Link