Eisner's Contributions
Eisner's Contributions
Elliot W. Eisner

Dr. Elliot W. Eisner, Lee Jacks Professor Emeritus of Education and Professor of Education and Professor Emeritus of Art at Stanford University, was a preeminent scholar of education who received nearly every marker of success in the field of education.  To name a few: he held five honorary doctorates; he was admitted to two Royal Academies (in England and in Norway); he held a number of presidencies in scholarly organizations, including the American Educational Research Association, the National Art Education Association, the International Society for Education through Art, and the John Dewey Society.  He also received numerous awards for his work, including the Brock International Prize in Education, the Grawemeyer Award in Education, the Jose Vasconcelos Award from the World Cultural Council, a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Palmer O. Johnson Award from the American Educational Research Association.  These accolades stand as testimony to the power of his vision, the salience of his ideas, and the quality of his scholarship.  He authored or edited over 30 books/research reports, delivered well over 700 invited papers, and wrote roughly 300 articles.  



Key Contributions


1. Curriculum.  Early in his career, Eisner pushed the curriculum landscape by openly questioning the value of measurable objectives championed by scholars such as Franklin Bobbitt and Ralph Tyler.  Noting that objectives had utility in some instances, Eisner argued that exclusively utilizing behavioristic objectives served as a limitation to the curriculum through its failure to account for context and the idiosyncrasy of students.  Though much time has passed, the argument over the value of objectives remains relevant today as objectives often remain at the center of curriculum in standards-based education.  In addition, Eisner brought similar arguments to bear on the issue of standards in education, applying the Deweyan arguments of criteria as a viable alternative in evaluation.  Eisner cultivated several innovative means of considering and examining curriculum, which include an aesthetic approach to curriculum; a conceptualization of and responsiveness to conflicting conceptions ("ideologies" of curriculum); and a refined and enriched lexicon of curriculum, which expanded our varied lenses for viewing curriculum and to be useful tools in paying attention to what might otherwise go unnoticed: e.g., the intended, operational, received, explicit, implicit and null. Among other contributions in the field of curriculum, Eisner coined the term "cognitive pluralism" as among the orientations to curriculum.  This perspective highlights the idea that students should be afforded opportunities to learn and communicate their understandings through various forms of representation.  As each form both reveals and conceals aspects of the item so represented, Eisner argued for utilizing multiple forms in schooling, in the interest of epistemological corroboration toward enriched meaning in education. 

2. Qualitative Inquiry.  In addition to his immense scholarly contributions to curriculum, Eisner was instrumental in articulating the value of qualitative research in education, particularly at a time when it was often viewed unfavorably by positivistic-oriented researchers.  Eisner pushed many scholars to reconsider the merits of qualitative research by articulating its potential contributions to educational scholarship.  Further, he invited and facilitated critical examination of the subtle, yet poignant differences between scientific and artistic approaches to research.  At the forefront of the qualitative/quantitative debate, Eisner effectively outlined the merits of qualitative research generally (e.g., about purpose, methods, matters of validity, subjectivity, and generalization).  His influence on qualitative research in general is well documented, yet it was the advent of his own method, Educational Criticism and Connoisseurship, that pushed the boundaries of educational research.  Educational criticism was presented as a means to research matters of curriculum in particular. To summarize this approach, the goal of researchers who employ this method is to draw another's attention to the details that matter.  In agreement with Dewey, Eisner insisted that the "details" and their "mattering" are always mutually determinative, and thus, to say something about the one is necessarily to enter into a claim about the other.

3.  The Arts.  Mirroring his impressive contributions to curriculum and educational research, Eisner's influence on the arts has been similarly profound.  In this category, Eisner's contributions were threefold.  First, Eisner was one of the initial scholars to conceptualize and elaborate upon discipline-based art education, which now flourishes internationally but could also be reinvigorated in the US. Second, Eisner's ideas opened up possibilities for integrating the arts with other types of subject matter, so that all academic subjects might benefit from his rationales of cognitive pluralism, artistic forms of representation, and aesthetics.  Third, Eisner argued that education per se may be reconceptualized from artistic and aesthetic viewpoints.  

4.  School Reform.  Finally, Eisner's above contributions were all developed under the pragmatic guise that they influence contemporary education.  It was Eisner's practical orientation that fueled his scholarship in a fourth area: school reform.  Eisner purports a holistic or, to use his terminology, "ecological" perspective to the enterprise of school reform, which commits reformers to attend to schools as multifaceted, robust, value-laden institutions.  He recommended attending to changes in the educational dimensions of intentions, curriculum, pedagogy, school structure, and evaluation; and focusing on the forms of representation being cultivated or neglected. Descending directly from Dewey, and strongly related to his thinking on the conditions and methods of educational research, the theory behind such an exhaustive approach to reform is that the varied dimensions of schools operate as an ecology--if one is affected, then so are each of the four others.  Eisner's ecology may be further utilized as both a planning and evaluative tool to ensure that those engaging in reform efforts must seek coherence amongst the five dimensions of the ecology, lest implementation of the reform falter.  Further, the ecological perspective of schooling emphasizes the interrelatedness of any reform, whether its origin is from within the school or from external policy.  For example, amending assessment, such as through state-mandated testing, necessarily influences school curriculum, pedagogy, structures, and intentions.  At base, the ecological perspective of schooling channels a strong theoretical grounding but ultimately aims to influence contemporary schooling.  Interestingly, Eisner himself pondered the utility of educational research informing educational practice, and invited others in both scholarly and practical communities to consider this notion.  


Books by Elliot W. Eisner

The Enlightened Eye: Qualitative Inquiry and the Enhancement of Educational Practice. (2017, reissued by Teachers College Press).



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