The Vitruvian Man – a context for learning

Finding a quantity given a percentage (or fraction) is a useful skill yet considered to be an extension topic for year 8. I thought I could give it a go but set the scene, so-to-speak, without the oft-used context of shopping and sales.

Enter the Vitruvian Man. Wikipedia has a good image and brief explanation of this drawing by Da Vinci interpreting ideal (hu)man proportions according to Vitruvius. Wikipedia also provides a list of these proportions.

Lesson Activity

My ‘hook’ question to the class was “How do forensic scientists figure out the height of victims given minimal data?”

I showed and explained the Vitruvian Man. We even managed to do a quick revision of properties of squares and how this was used in the drawing. Anyway, here’s how I used this “tool”.

  1. Divide the class into pairs (or small groups).
  2. For each pair, give a card which showed one of the proportions (e.g. 1/4 of height = shoulder width) as well as a measuring tape
  3. They take the fractional measurement of their partner, i.e. the item to the right of the equation, e.g. shoulder width
  4. Demonstrate how to calculate the height given a known percentage (or fraction); in my example, multiply each side of the equation by 4
  5. Finally, measure the actual height and compare to the calculated height

Discussion points

  • How do the actual and calculated height compare?
  • What are the reasons for differences?
  • Why multiply both sides (make a point to mention working with Algebra and equations)?


The class really enjoyed the activity and didn’t really mind the ‘maths’ at all. Given that this class is deemed below-average, the level of engagement was good. The students – all girls – already associate percentages with sales but, for most if not all of them, this is the first time they’ve associated it with the human body. I know that I will use the Vitruvian Man again.

This was a lively lesson with talking and standing up and discussing. This isn’t every teacher’s cup-of-tea but it suits me just fine.

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6 thoughts on “The Vitruvian Man – a context for learning

  1. Bill Genereux says:

    If you really want to go out on a limb, continuing in this vein, you could discuss and/or draw comic book heroes. Normal people have body heights of 6.5 – 7 “heads” but superheroes are drawn to 8 or 9 “head” high scale. Page 19 of this drawing book discusses the concept.

  2. malyn says:

    Thanks @Bill for the comment and the lead.

    I do intend to revisit the Vitruvian Man when we do Ratios. The superhero ratio should present an interesting point of discussion, i.e. 1:9 as against 1:8 for the head:height. Perhaps Vitruvius – and Da Vinci – believed in the superiority of the brain (head) vs braun. I’m curious now which is closer to the norm. 🙂

  3. brittgow says:

    Another interesting part of the discussion could be using babies and young children, whose head to body ratio is wuite different. Notice all young animals have a high head to body ratio and large eyes in relation to their face – often considered ‘cute’ and ‘desirable’ and prompting instincts to look after them.

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