Elliot W. Eisner, The Role of the Arts in Educating the Whole Child

A Cleveland Area Presentation

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 12, No 3 (Fall 2001)

Kathleen Cerveny

The 2001 Summer Music and Art Institute for Teachers was presented through a collaboration among Cleveland State University, Young Audiences of Cleveland, Cleveland Opera, the Cleveland Orchestra, and ICARE (the Initiative for Cultural Arts in Education, a program currently housed at the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture). The Institute was the first such collaboration by this diverse group of organizations and programs. The featured keynote speakers were Cleveland Municipal School District CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett and Elliot W. Eisner, professor of education and art at Stanford University.

Dr. Byrd Bennett reiterated her often-expressed passion for the arts and her commitment to bringing art and culture back into the mainstream curriculum of the Cleveland Public Schools. The audience of more than 200 teachers from Cleveland and neighboring suburbs was no less gratified for having heard this message before. The tangible progress within her administration and in direct financial support of arts in the schools demonstrate that she is "walking the talk."

Dr. Eisner's remarks, however, provided the real substance that one always hopes for from a keynote speaker. Professor Eisner's address pushed the discussion of arts and education to a new level, raising the bar on future expectations for the role of the arts in educating the whole child. He may well have surprised a number of people in the audience with the two main points that were the basis for his conference address.

• The arguments being made for the re-introduction of the arts to the core curriculum are neither the best nor the right arguments.

For one thing, the arts have far greater utility to learning than simply being a tool to teach other subjects. (In many districts this is the seemingly justifiable but “back door” rationale for bringing limited, curriculum-relevant arts experiences into the classroom.) For another, the research is not conclusive enough to make a convincing case for the much-heralded notion that studying music improves analytical brain functioning. It is not clear that there is a direct causal relationship between studying music and improved math scores, as attractive as that idea may be. Rather, Dr. Eisner believes it is past time to make the case for teaching the arts for their own sake — and the arguments to support this case are compelling in their own right.

• Not only should we teach, with professional expertise, the disciplines of music, dance, theater, and the visual arts to our children, but also we should change the ways of teaching and learning math, science, history, and other core subjects to more closely resemble the way teaching and learning take place in the arts.

Regarding his first point, Dr. Eisner presented nine cognitive development attributes he believes convincingly make the case for including the arts in the core curriculum. These, he said, are among the essential skills an individual must acquire in order to be an educated and functioning adult in society — and which are learned nowhere better than through the serious study of an arts discipline.

[The following comments are paraphrased and are not intended to represent the full extent of his remarks on each point. K.C.]

Dr. Eisner believes that the serious study and practice of an artistic discipline is the most effective way for children to learn the following:

  1. How to perceive and explore relationships. Human relationships. Cause and effect relationships. The relationship of parts to a whole.
  2. How to think and express within the constraints and affordances of a medium. Or a set of rules. Or an existing set of conditions. How to choose when faced with a range of possibilities.
  3. Nuance matters. How to pay attention to subtleties and be sensitive to slight differences that can make very big differences to others, or to potential outcomes.
  4. Form can express feeling. How the shape of the built environment or the elements within it affect our experience of place. How the forms we choose for communication affect the way we are heard.
  5. Purposes are best held flexibly. Exploring opportunity is the essence of creativity, and being flexibly purposive is the key to solving problems.
  6. Not all we know can take the form of language. Intelligence, awareness, and understanding are cultivated by developing the ability to think in images and symbols.
  7. Surprise is the reward of imagination at work. Experiment and discovery are the rich pathways to ownership of learning. Measurement (as in “outcome measures” and “proficiency testing”) measures little real learning.
  8. There are many different and completely valid ways to be in the world. There is not always a single or even a right answer. Cultures, lifestyles, beliefs that are different can also be interesting — even exciting.
  9. Some activities are self-justifying and important for their own reasons. The journey is the purpose. We do some things:
    • because we like the process — sex, play, practicing an instrument;
    • because we like the outcome — a clean kitchen, the ability to perform music with others, a coffee mug we made ourselves;
    • because there is a reward — a paycheck, applause, the respect of our peers;
    • because it is the right thing to do.

Based on these arguments, said Eisner, the notion that the value of the arts lies in their ability to help teach other subjects, is upside down. Instead, he said, the rest of the core curriculum needs to make use of the teaching and learning approaches that address the same cognitive development that comes naturally and powerfully through a study of the arts. Nuance and surprise and relationships should be part of the learning platform for all subjects. As these nine skills come to be valued and nurtured in other academic subjects, Eisner believes that learning becomes a creative process and accomplishment in these other subjects then takes on the character of a work of art.

In summing up, Eisner advocated for a point of view expressed frequently throughout his address: standardization of learning should not be the goal of schools. We should embrace the fact that there are differences in people — in aptitude, interest, and proclivity. “The good school increases variance among students and elevates the mean in the process.” He closed by bringing his themes home to the purpose of the gathering in Cleveland. “Teacher training does not end with the receipt of a diploma. It must be completed in the schools. A good school is one that has an environment and an ecology that supports the growth of all the participants — not just the kids.”

Elliott Eisner, Ph.D., is professor of education and art at Stanford University. He is author of more than fifteen books and many articles. The focus of his academic research is the development of aesthetic intelligence and the uses of critical methods from the arts to improve educational practice. He was originally trained as a painter and designer.

Kathleen Cerveny is senior program officer, Arts and Culture, Cleveland Foundation.