Elliot W. Eisner, connoisseurship, criticism and the art of education

Elliot W. Eisner, connoisseurship, criticism and the art of education. Elliot W. Eisner has deepened our appreciation of education in a number of areas. Here we examine his argument that education involves the exercise of artistry and the development of connoisseurship and criticism. We also assess his contribution to the debates around school reform.

contents: introduction · elliot w. eisner · art ·artistry · elliot w. eisner on connnoisseurship and criticism · knowledge · elliot w. eisner’s contribution to school reform · conclusion · further reading and bibliography · links · how to cite this article. See, also, on these pages: elliot w. eisner: what can education learn from the arts about the practice of education?

Elliot W. Eisner (1933-) has made a significant contribution to our appreciation of the educational process. He is particularly known for his work in arts education, curriculum studies, and educational evaluation. However, Eliot Eisner - Picture used with permission. All rights reservedmuch of what he has to say has a resonance for a far wider readership. Among his most noted works are The Educational Imagination (1979, 1985, 1994) – an exploration of the design and evaluation of curriculum programmes); The Art of Educational Evaluation (1985) – a collection of essays covering key aspects of his earlier work; Cognition and Curriculum (1994) – an examination of the mind and representation); and The Enlightened Eye (1991, 1998) – the extension of his thinking to qualitative research into education). He also made an important contribution to the school reform debate in North America especially through his book, The Kind of Schools We Need (1998). His examination of process and the artistry of education is of particular importance for the sphere of informal education (see Jeffs and Smith 2005). His work shares a number of important themes with John Dewey (on experience, creativity, education and art), Donald Schön (on reflective practice) and Howard Gardner (around multiple intelligences).

Elliot Eisner has received various awards including the Palmer O. Johnson Memorial Award (from the American Educational Research Association), a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship and five honorary degrees. Eisner has also served as president of the National Art Education Association, the International Society for Education through Art, the American Research Association, and the John Dewey Society.

Elliot W. Eisner – career

Born in 1933 Elliot Eisner grew up in the west side of Chicago. He looked set for some sort of career in art. From early in his schooling he displayed considerable talent and this was encouraged by his mother – who hoped he might be a commercial artist (Uhrmacher 2001: 247). He studied at Roosevelt University, Chicago (gaining a BA in Art & Education in 1954). P Bruce Uhrmacher reports that while in college Elliot Eisner worked with African American boys in the American Boys Commonwealth in the neighbourhood where he grew up). His focus moved from art as such to art education. He completed an MS (Art Education) at Illinois Institute of Technology in 1955; an MA (Education) at the University of Chicago in 1958; and a PhD in Education at the University of Chicago in 1962.

Eisner worked as a high school art teacher in Chicago (1956-1958); an art teacher at the University of Chicago (1958-1960); an instructor in art education at Ohio State University (1960-1961); and an instructor in education, University of Chicago (1961-1962). He became an assistant professor of education at the University of Chicago in 1962. In 1965 he joined the faculty at Stanford – first as an associate professor of education and art (1965-1970); and then from 1970 on as a professor of education and art.


From an early point in his career Elliot Eisner was worried that most schools, by failing to properly appreciate the significance of art, were offering an unnecessarily narrow and seriously unbalanced approach to education. Moreover, he began to recognize that many of the then current conceptions of cognition – because they lacked proper attention to artistic modes of thinking – were inadequate (Uhrmacher 2001: 247). Later, Howard Gardner, was to make a similar point within his argument for attention to ‘multiple intelligences‘. Elliot W. Eisner made the case for developing a proper attention to the cognitive in art rather than it being only driven by emotional and what were termed ‘creative’ forces. Uhrmacher (2001: 248) comments that Eisner ‘stressed that environment shapes artistic attitudes and that art education has unique contributions to make to growing children’. Eisner was also to argue strongly for a concern for the critical and aesthetic in art education (see below) – and for a better exploration of historical context. He was later to argue that approaches which simply gave children arts materials in the hope that their creativity might flow resulted in programmes ‘with little or no structure, limited artistic content, , and few meaningful aims’ (Eisner 1988). Uhrmacher judges that ‘in large measure due to Eisner’s advocacy, art education has become a content-oriented discipline.

Part of the reason for Elliot W. Eisner’s influence has been his involvement in key projects and initiatives. These include the Kettering Project (begun in 1967) providing curriculum materials for new and untrained elementary teachers (and based around his theories) and the Getty Center for Education in the Arts (he served on the advisory board from 1982 on). The Getty Center is well known for its advocacy of what has become known as ‘discipline-based art education’ (DBAE) (see Alexander and Day 1992). DBAE also had it roots in Harry Broudy’s advocacy of aesthetic education during the 1950s. It emphasizes four main content areas (disciplines): art production, art history, art criticism and aesthetic enquiry.

A further element in Elliot Eisner’s influence has been his obvious enthusiasm for the artistic activity of others. Both he and his wife Ellie are known for their support of the arts.


A further, important, strand to Elliot W. Eisner’s work has been his interest in educational work as artistry. Viewing education work as an expression of artistry allows us to look beyond the technical and to develop more creative and appropriate responses to the situations that educators and learners encounter. In this activity Eisner shares much with Donald Schön and his advocacy of alternative approaches to viewing the way that professionals ‘think in action’ (1988). When we listen to other educators, for example in team meetings, or have the chance to observe them in action, we inevitably form judgments about their ability. At one level, for example, we might be impressed by someone’s knowledge of the benefit system or of the effects of different drugs. However, such knowledge is useless if it cannot be used in the best way. We may be informed and be able to draw on a range of techniques, yet the thing that makes educators special is the way in which they are able to combine these and improvise regarding the particular situation. In so doing they also draw on an idea of what might be good or make for flourishing (see Jeffs and Smith 1990). It is this quality that can be described as artistry. It involves a shift from a focus on technique to one more focused around praxis (see the discussion of curriculum).

Artistry, therefore, can serve as a regulative ideal for education, a vision that adumbrates what really matters in schools. To conceive of students as artists who do their art in science, in the arts, or the humanities, is, after all, both a daunting and a profound aspiration. It may be that by shifting the paradigm of education reform and teaching from one modeled after the clocklike character of the assembly line into one that is closer to the studio or innovative science laboratory might provide us with a vision that better suits the capacities and the futures of the students we teach. It is in this sense, I believe, that the field of education has much to learn from the arts about the practice of education. It is time to embrace a new model for improving our schools. (Eisner 2004)

Eisner’s belief that education had much to learn from the arts naturally led to the his exploration of the significance of aesthetic judgement and critique – and his attention to these (particularly in The Art of Educational Evaluation andlater in The Enlightened Eye) has found an appreciative audience amongwhofindthe formulaic and technical orientation of current, dominant approaches to curriculum activity and education workwanting.

Elliot W. Eisner on connoisseurship and criticism

One of the great benefits of Elliot W. Eisner’s activities has been the way in which he has both made the case for a concern with connoisseurship and criticism, and mediated these concerns for educators and researchers. The importance of of his advocacy of these ideas cannot be underestimated – especially at a time when rather narrow concerns with instrumental outcomes and an orientation to the technical dominate. Together they offer educators a more helpful and appropriate means to approach evaluation, for example.

Elliot W. Eisner describes connoisseurship as follows:

Connoisseurship is the art of appreciation. It can be displayed in any realm in which the character, import, or value of objects, situations, and performances id distributed and variable, including educational practice. (Eisner 1998: 63)

The word connoisseurship comes from the Latin cognoscere, to know (Eisner 1998: 6). It involves the ability to see, not merely to look. To do this we have to develop the ability to name and appreciate the different dimensions of situations and experiences, and the way they relate one to another. We have to be able to draw upon, and make use of, a wide array of information. We also have to be able to place our experiences and understandings in a wider context, and connect them with our values and commitments. Connoisseurship is something that needs to be worked at – but it is not a technical exercise. The bringing together of the different elements into a whole involves artistry.

However, educators need to become something more than connoisseurs. They need to become critics.

If connoisseurship is the art of appreciation, criticism is the art of disclosure. Criticism, as Dewey pointed out in Art as Experience, has at is end the re-education of perception… The task of the critic is to help us to see.

Thus… connoisseurship provides criticism with its subject matter. Connoisseurship is private, but criticism is public. Connoisseurs simply need to appreciate what they encounter. Critics, however, must render these qualities vivid by the artful use of critical disclosure. (Eisner 1985: 92-93)

Criticism can be approached as the process of enabling others to see the qualities of something. As Eisner (1998: 6) puts it, ‘effective criticism functions as the midwife to perception. It helps it come into being, then later refines it and helps it to become more acute’. The significance of this for those who want to be educators is, thus, clear. Educators also need to develop the ability to work with others so that they may discover the truth in situations, experiences and phenomenon.


Elliot W. Eisner’s work around cognition – Cognition and Curriculum (first published in 1982) revisited and developed in 1994) – has become a significant reference point in debates around teaching and curriculum making in the United States (and to some extent in the UK as well). Perhaps best described as a ‘cognitive pluralist’ Eisner argues that cognition frequently approached as a phenomenon that deals with knowing rather than feeling. For Elliot Eisner, knowledge cannot be just a verbal construct (and constrained by the structures of language). Rather, as Lloyd-Zannini (1998) has put it (after Eisner) ‘knowledge is an intensely variable and personal “event”, something acquired via a combination of one’s senses – visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, gustatory – assembled according to a personal schema, and then made public – expressed, typically, by the same sensory modalities utilized in the initial acquisition’.

The key to developing knowledge within schooling and other educational settings (such as the family) is to create a varied and stimulating environment in which people become ‘immersed’. Educators also need to encourage people to try make meaning; to ‘read’ (or conceptualize) the situation. This they do by constructing images ‘derived from the material the senses provide’ and refining ‘the senses [as] a primary means for expanding…[one’s own] consciousness’ (Eisner 1994 28-9). People need access to the experience of different forms of representation or symbol systems. Trying to make sense of these, being encouraged to draw upon them and play with them, nurtures the imagination and allows people to be more creative in their responses to the situations in which they find themselves. ‘When we define the curriculum, we are also defining the opportunities the young will have to experience different forms of consciousness’ (Eisner 1994: 44). Eisner, like John Dewey, is clear that our ability to know is based in our ability to construct meaning from experiences.

School reform – Elliot W. Eisner’s contribution

Uhrmacher (2001: 250) has helpfully adumbrated Elliot W. Eisner’s contribution to school reform around three major poles:

  • Advocating moving beyond technocratic and behaviouristic modes of thinking – and for having a concern for ‘expressive outcomes’.
  • Calling to attend to fundamentals. Eisner has consistently warned against educational fads and fashion. He has criticized dominant paradigms and invited educators and others to ask questions such as ‘what is basic in education?’.
  • Arguing that schools should help children create meaning from experience, and that this requires an education devoted to the senses, to meaning-making and the imagination. Eisner argues for a curriculum that fosters multiple ‘literacies’ in students (especially by looking to non-verbal modes of learning and expression) and a deepening of the ‘artistry’ of teachers.

Elliot W. Eisner (1998, 2004) has argued strongly for a shift in the emphasis and direction of schooling. He has commented that educators know experientially that context matters, ‘indeed, context matters most in the “chemistry” that makes for educational effectiveness’.

Even to talk about effectiveness as though it were independent of the kind of intellectual values that schools ought to support, seems ill conceived. Thoughtful educators are not simply interested in achieving known effects; they are interested as much in surprise, in discovery, in the imaginative side of life and its development as in hitting predefined targets achieved through routine procedures. In some sense our aim ought to be to convert the school from an academic institution into an intellectual one. That shift in the culture of schooling would represent a profound shift in emphasis and in direction. (Eisner 2004)

Over the time that Eisner has been writing there have been significant shifts in the context in which schools have to operate. While there have been other voices calling for changes in the culture of schooling (notably Howard Gardner in this arena), the impact of globalization, growing centralization in many schooling systems, reaction against more process-oriented forms of pedagogy, and a growing instrumentalism education have served to make Eisner’s message both more pertinent to schools, and more difficult to respond to.

Elliot W. Eisner – an assessment

Here I want to begin by briefly turning to three areas of criticism that relate to some issues arising when bringing Eisner’s thinking into the realm of educational practice.

First, there are some questions around the way in which Elliot Eisner’s work around cognition (and art) has tended to be translated into a discipline-based, rather than a more child-centred and relational approached (as is arguably the case with Howard Gardner). In part, the appeal to discipline is linked to Eisner’s concern with both connoisseurship and criticism. The later does lend itself to a location within particular tradition before critique and movement can be properly attempted – and this may have something to do with the adoption of the notion of ‘discipline’ as an organizing idea. This does not preclude, however, the adoption of ‘project’ ways of working as Elliot Eisner has demonstrated in Cognition and Curriculum Reconsidered.

Second, Elliot W. Eisner is asking educators to develop in particularly sophisticated ways. To be connoisseurs and critics – as Parker C. Palmer (1998) has shown – they have to engage in a continuing exploration of themselves, others and their arena of practice. They have to be able to reflect-in- and -on-action, engage with feelings, and be able to make informed and committed judgements. Some would argue that many educators currently in practice are simply not up to this. Indeed, this was a case that Lawrence Stenhouse made with some force with regard to the difficulties that classroom teachers had with more process-oriented approaches to curriculum during the 1970s (see the article on curriculum theory and practice on these pages). However, it could be the issue here is less about the inherent ability of people to develop as connoisseurs and critics, and rather more about the quality of environments that organized educational systems afford both around the development of their staff and the resources and discretion they have in the classroom or learning environment.

Third, there will, inevitably, be criticism of Eisner’s approach from those who have come to either view education as commodity or as something that should be approached as a product. Unfortunately, it is they who dominate the agendas of many educational systems today (see, for example, the article on globalization and education on these pages). Those who want to reduce education to training; constrain exploration by specifying preset outcomes; and focus on what can be accredited rather than experienced and learnt, will have profound difficulties in approaching Elliot W. Eisner’s work in any meaningful way. For to work in this way entails entering into what Erich Fromm (1976) called ‘being’ rather than a ‘having’ orientation to the world. It involves approaching education in a completely different frame of mind – and as Donald Schön and others have shown this is an exercise fraught with difficulty.

P. Bruce Uhrmacher has commented that Eisner has striven not merely to infuse education with art, ‘but to make art central to the mission of schools’ (2001: 250). He quotes from The Kind of Schools We Need:

The arts inform as well as stimulate, they challenge as well as satisfy. Their location is not limited to galleries, concert halls and theatres. Their home can be found wherever humans chose to have attentive and vita intercourse with life itself. This is, perhaps, the largest lesson that the arts in education can teach, the lesson that life itself can be led as a work of art. In so doing the maker himself or herself is remade. The remaking, this re-creation is at the heart of the process of education. (Eisner 1998: 56)

Elliot W. Eisner’s contribution has been both to highlight, again, the importance of art and artistry in education (and research) – and to bring some significant insights into the process of remaking and re-creation that is education.

Further reading and bibliography

Alexander, Kay and Day, Michael (eds.) (1992) Discipline-based Art Education. A curriculum sampler, New York: Oxford University Press.

Eisner, Elliot W., and David W. Ecker (1966) Readings in art education, Waltham, Mass.,: Blaisdell Pub. Co.

Eisner, Elliot W. (1971) Confronting curriculum reform, Boston,: Little Brown.

Eisner, Elliot W. (1972) Educating artistic vision, New York,: Macmillan.

Eisner, Elliot W. and Vallance, Elizabeth (1974) Conflicting conceptions of curriculum, Berkeley, Calif.,: McCutchan Pub. Corp.

Eisner, Elliot W. (1979, 1985, 1994) The educational imagination: on the design and evaluation of school programs. New York: Macmillan.

Eisner, Elliot W. (1982) Cognition and curriculum : a basis for deciding what to teach, New York: Longman.

Eisner, Elliot W. (1985) The art of educational evaluation: a personal view. London: : Falmer Press.

Eisner, Elliot W. (1988) The role of Discipline-Based Art Education in American Schools, Los Angeles: Paul Getty Trust.

Eisner, Elliot W., and Peshkin, Alan (1990)Qualitative inquiry in education : the continuing debate, New York: Teachers College Press.

Eisner, Elliot W. (1991) The enlightened eye : qualitative inquiry and the enhancement of educational practice. New York: Macmillan.

Eisner, Elliot W. (1994) Cognition and curriculum reconsidered, 2e, New York: Teachers College Press.

Eisner, Elliot W. (1998) The enlightened eye : qualitative inquiry and the enhancement of educational practice. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Merrill, 1998.

Eisner, Elliot W. (1998) The kind of schools we need : personal essays, Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Eisner, Elliot W. (2004) ‘Artistry in teaching’, Cultural Commons, http://www.culturalcommons.org/eisner.htm. Accessed: February 11, 2005.

Fromm, Erich (1976) To Have or to Be, 1979 edn. London: Abacus.

Jeffs, Tony and Smith, Mark K. (2005) Informal Education. Conversation, learning and democracy 3e., Derby: Educational Heretics Press.

Lloyd-Zannini, L. P. (1998) ‘A review of Elliot Eisner’s Cognition and curriculum reconsidered’, Gifted Child Quarterly, 42 (1), 63-64.

Palmer, Parker C. (1998) The Courage To Teach, Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass.

Schön, Donald (1983) The Reflective Practitioner. How professionals think in action, London: Temple Smith.

Stenhouse, Lawrence (1975) An introduction to Curriculum Research and Development, London: Heineman.

Uhrmacher, P. Bruce (2001) ‘Elliot Eisner’ in J. A. Palmer (ed.) Fifty Modern Thinkers on Education. From Piaget to the present, London: Routledge.


What can education learn from the arts about the practice of education? Elliot W. Eisner argues that the distinctive forms of thinking needed to create artistically crafted work are relevant not only to what students do, they are relevant to virtually all aspects of what we do, from the design of curricula, to the practice of teaching, to the features of the environment in which students and teachers live. [Originally given as the John Dewey Lecture for 2002, Stanford University.]

See, on these pages, Howard Garner, Donald Schön, John Dewey, curriculum theory, and globalization.

How to cite this article: Smith, M. K. (2005). ‘Elliot W. Eisner, connoisseurship, criticism and the art of education’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/elliot-w-eisner-connoisseurship-criticism-and-the-art-of-education/. Retrieved: insert date].

Main picture: Photo by Daniel Posthuma on Unsplash

© Mark K. Smith 2005