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Education: Elliot W. Eisner

April 1st, 2005

Education: Elliot W. Eisner


Elliot W. Eisner

Arts education is integral in the formation of critical thinking skills and should not be neglected in our children’s overall curriculum, said Elliot Eisner, the winner of the 2005 Grawemeyer Award in Education.

Eisner, Lee Jacks professor of education and professor of art at Stanford University, believes that with schools’ increasing reliance on standardized testing, arts education has mistakenly been pushed to the margins, to the detriment of students’ cognitive development.

“Cognition extends beyond what we can put into words,” he said. “How does a painter know when a painting is finished? How does a poet know when a poem is finished? How does a composer know when his or her piece is complete? The arts enable people to express ideas that cannot otherwise be articulated.”

Unfortunately, Eisner said, this connotation that the arts are instinctual and not intellectual leaves people with the feeling that arts “are nice, but not necessary.” This has led many school districts to cut funding from arts education programs.

“If the image of a refrigerator door covered with children’s drawings continues to be the public’s image of arts education, it will remain in the margins,” he said.

Eisner encourages school systems to adopt curricula that are both explicit - that which can be measurable and graded — and implicit — that which teaches values and subtly infuses itself into the classroom and school. He said arts education is quickly falling into a third category that he defined as “null curricula,” or curricula that is absent from schools.

“What children don’t learn is as important as what they do learn,” he said. “What the curriculum neglects is as important as what it teaches.”

Art teaches children what Eisner calls the “act of seeing, not looking,” by exploring the qualities of a particular object or situation in multiple ways.

“Our language abilities do not define the limits of our cognition,” he said. “We know more than we can tell. The arts give children an opportunity to exercise judgment and individuality. There is no right or wrong answer in a work of art. The arts celebrate multiple conceptual ideas.”

The arts call attention to new ways of looking at the world by reframing situations through a different, and perhaps non-traditional, perspective. This helps children confront ambiguities in life better than curricula focused on single correct answers, Eisner said.

“There are many ways to see and interpret the world, and art is the window through which we can look at it,” he said.

Art works well as a complement to the education we receive, Eisner believes. In Western culture, it is taught that clear, unambiguous goals must first be developed to solve a problem. Then specific tactics must be formulated to achieve those goals. Eisner said this thinking is too restrictive.

“When people work on a problem, opportunities arise to solve problems that could not be identified at the start of work,” he said. “The arts give us the ability to cast ideas into a dynamic frame of reference rather than a static one. We learn how to encode and decode meaning through the arts, which can help better address such situations.”

Eisner said that the arts and sciences often play off each other. For instance, to describe how a musical composition subtly changes mood throughout the work, a person may compare it to the biological metamorphosis of an insect over time. In order to understand one subject, you must understand the other.

This is true for many things, including learning to read.

“Writers start with a vision and end with words,” he said. “Readers start with words and end with a vision. Exposure to an arts education makes this process possible at both ends.”

World Order: Roberta Cohen and Francis Deng
Psychology: Elizabeth Loftus
Religion: George M. Marsden
Music: George Tsontakis

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