E.W.Eisner: What can education learn from the arts?

Elliott W. Eisner delivered the John Dewey Lecture 2002 at Stanford Uni. It was titled ‘What can Education Learn from the Arts about the Practice of Education?’ He argued that the distinctive forms of thinking required to create artistically crafted work apply to what pupils do in the sharing of learning activities with their teachers.

If the significant words : ‘eisner, arts education’ are googled, you will find the enthralling 12 page lecture. I’m very grateful to Bruce Hammonds of http://www.leading-learning.co.nz for his referral to it. It’s an absorbing read.

In pleading the case for the arts and artistry, generally considered, at best, a fall back position or court of last resort in schools, Eisner  makes some intriguing observations. He reckons that the introduction of psychology to education thought in the fourth quarter of the 19th century tried to establish psychology as a science. Heavyweight Thorndike’s desire to establish it as a science in which,”…we shall become the masters of our own souls as we now are masters of heat and light” encouraged Fredrick Taylor to develop a vision of efficient and effective schools. This led to a strong tendency to “…mandate, to measure, and to manage.”  Such a movement from qualitative appraisal to a quantitative was a conceptual revolution.

It does not require a great leap of imagination or profound insight to recognise that the values and visions that have driven education during the first quarter of the 20th centuiry are reappearing with a vengeance today. We look for “best methods” as if they were independent of context; we do more testing than any nation on earth; we seek curriculum uniformity so that parents can compare their schools with other schools, as if test scorse were good proxies for the quality of education. We would like nothing more than to get teaching down to a science even though the conception of science being employed has little to do with what science is  about. What we are now doing is creating an industrial culture in our schools, one whose values are brittle and whose conception of what’s important narrow. We flirt with payment by results, we pay practically no attention to the idea that engagement in school can and should provide intrinsic satisfactions, and we exacerbate the importance of extrinsic rewards by creating policies that encourage children to become point collectors.  Achievemnt has triumphed over inquiry. I think our children deserve more.

He goes on to suggest that the current reform movement needs to pay more attention to the messages that its policies are sending to school children, since those messages may undermine deeper educational values. Our desire to package performance into standardized measureable skills sets questions that need to be asked  about the kinds of minds that schooling helps to develop.

It’s a healthy provocative article concluding with a call to “… restore decent purpose to our efforts and create the kinds of schools our children deserve and our culture needs.  Those aspirations, my friends are stars worth stretching for,”