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A new stage and a global audience

by Tom Hanlon / Dec 9, 2016

Liora Bresler

Professor Liora Bresler brings an artist's sensibility to education

Liora Bresler had earned two bachelor’s and one master’s degree, all from Tel-Aviv University, when she came to the United States in the mid-1980s with her husband, who was working on his doctorate in engineering. While at Stanford, where she would earn another master’s and a PhD, she found herself studying under the renowned Elliot Eisner.

Eisner was a champion of arts education, something near and dear to Bresler’s own heart—which she found quaking when he sent her to a math class to do a qualitative case study.

“I knew nothing about education,” recalls Bresler, whose degrees were in philosophy, music performance (she was a concert pianist), and musicology. “Sitting in that class, I didn’t know what pedagogy was. I didn’t know what to write. There were four other people with me and they were writing a lot.”

Then it came to her: she was a musician, a music critic. She could look at the classroom as a musical composition. She wrote of the many parallels she saw between the class and an orchestra.

“He thought it was original. I was not original; I was desperate,” Bresler laughs. But her desperation led her to a way to contribute, a way of seeing education, and life, in ways that most people don’t. It is an ongoing, organic process, and it informs her teaching and research and life. “In my classes, in my writing in the last ten years, I am looking at how we can train ourselves to see more, to hear more, to process in a way that is important.”

Part of that importance, she says, lies in the hearing. She is invigorated in the classroom because she learns from the richness of the perspectives her students bring.

“It’s not a recipe,” she explains. “It’s a relationship. I’m still learning.”

Communicating through piano performance

Her love of piano performance springs from that appreciation of relationships. She began playing piano when she was 3. “Everyone was singing and there was a communal sense that I really loved,” she says. That communal joy and inspiration began to fade as she neared 6 years old and started playing classical music. “It was rigid and confining and I did not appreciate it. But I had three years of blissful exploration before that.”

Bresler was an anomaly in that she was better on stage than off. “When I was on stage, it was my wish to communicate, and it activated me. I was at my best then.”

Off stage, she says, her technique was “pretty awful.” But it was good enough that she played for German radio, and she performed in Israel and in Europe, and she received great reviews wherever she played, because the performances pulled the best out of her. Those strong performances were born of an “aha” moment early on in her music career.

“I gave a recital once and I was very nervous going out on stage,” she remembers. “But then I had this visceral realization that the point of performance was not to play correctly, but to reach people. That was really liberating to me.”

Speaking in front of the queen

That desire to reach people, to build community through the expression and exchanging of ideas, infuses Bresler’s scholarly work as well.

“My first big talk, I had a very similar experience,” she says. “It wasn’t about reading a paper. I needed to be unencumbered by the paper, I needed to move, I needed to connect with the people, inviting them into my ideas.

“The concentration it takes to give a talk is very similar with my pianist career and with my scholarly career.”

Bresler has given numerous keynotes over the years, the first being in 2002 for the International Society for Music Education in Bergen, Norway, a conference attended by Queen Sonja of Norway. “I was honored and flattered and really nervous. I thought I would be a disaster and would have to give them back their money!”

Far from a disaster, she had people afterward flocking to her, people from Asian, African, and European countries—all wanting her to come to their country to give keynotes.

“Keynotes are the place to talk about big ideas,” she says. “I talk about research in art education, but really the keynotes are on interdisciplinarity in the schools. I was invited to Turkey and China and Korea, where they were interested in entrepreneurship in the business world and creativity, so I spoke on embodied narrative.”

Bresler’s performance as a keynoter sparkles just as it did with piano performance. She has given 140+ keynotes and invited talks in more than 30 countries.

“It’s really a privilege,” she says. “I was raised as a concert pianist. I see engagement as cognitive and affective. It’s not about a particular answer.

“I’m not a very formal person; I wouldn’t know how to be formal if my life depended on it, and I don’t particularly strive to be, but I think it’s to engage, whether it’s music or ideas about things that matter.”

The creative aspects of interdisciplinary work

Bresler and her husband came in 1987 to the University of Illinois, where she began as a visiting assistant professor at Computer-Based Education Research Laboratory (CERL) and for the Center for Instructional Research and Curriculum Evaluation (CIRCE). She found she wasn’t as interested in computers as she was in “how people engaged with computers and how they engaged with life and the arts. So it became clear that I wanted to be in education. Being in education was exciting; it was open and inviting.”

She began in the College of Education in 1989 as an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction (she became a full professor in 2001). She has also been a visiting or honorary professor at Hong Kong Institute of Education, Stockholm University, Hedda Andersson Chaired professor at Lund University, and Stord/Haugesund University, as well as an affiliate or zero-time professor in the UI’s School of Music and School of Art + Design.

“I like the interdisciplinary aspect, because the discourse of the university is people talk about silos, and it’s not untrue, but I think there are lots of opportunities and I don’t know that we want to confine ourselves,” Bresler says. Interdisciplinarity can bring a playfulness and creativity that allow people to compose their lives—much as one would compose a musical piece.

“About 10 years ago I was invited to a dinner for the Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership,” Bresler says. “They were interested in me developing a course for them. The thing I like about entrepreneurship is we are creating our own journeys and paths; they are not ready-made. We have this tremendous space to create it in our shape and form.”

The notion that useful lives, courses, and intellectual pursuits can spring from academic entrepreneurship intrigued Bresler. “Last semester I taught a course called The Great Work of Our Lives,” she says. It’s possible, she notes, to lose a sense of self as a doctoral student jumping through the hoops of academia. “When we are successful, it means we bring everything we have of ourselves.”

It is part of Bresler’s work to help students discover how to do just that, and for her efforts she received the University of Illinois Campus Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching in 2005.

Starting dialogues among disciplines

Bresler is part creator, part communicator, part explorer. Early on, she explored and created and communicated through piano; now she does so through her research, her teaching, her presenting. The common denominators are passion and a zest to learn, to connect, to illuminate. And, bottom line, to celebrate life in all its possibilities.

Her research has long been grounded in qualitative methodology. “You can learn theories and you can learn skills, but it’s really a mindset, a way of listening, a way of being present,” she says. “I found early on that the arts can teach us how to be present and how to interpret and how to have a dialogue. I think the process of engaging with art makes it very relevant to the process.”

Bresler orchestrates dialogues through her classrooms, through her presentations, and through her writing—and as editor of International Handbook of Research in Arts Education, which explores social issues through the lens of more than 100 authors from over 40 countries across the globe. The authors are from various arts disciplines—dance, art, music, media, and so on—all handpicked by Bresler because they inspired her. Each section of the book features viewpoints on topics from the perspective of multiple disciplines.

“It’s interesting to see how much we share and also see our differences,” she says. “The community of each of the arts is very distinct.”

In 1999 Bresler, Tom Barone, and Gene Glass founded the electronic, free-access International Journal of Education and the Arts. Bresler served as the editor of the publication for 10 years and also established the book series Landscapes: Aesthetics, the Arts, and Education, published by Springer. She has served as editor of the Landscapes series for 15 years. In 2010 Bresler was named a National Art Education Association Distinguished Fellow.

Shaping a useful career

Just as Bresler helps students shape their own paths, she looks back on the path she herself has shaped.

“I had a discipline; I was a devout musician,” she says. “When I left it, it was devastating. And then I was introduced to this world of education and it was very captivating. And that made me interdisciplinary in the sense that my work as a musician was transformed as one aspect of educational research.”

She sees her interdisciplinary work as important and empowering, allowing her freedom and intellectual and emotional support, first as a student at Stanford and now on faculty at the College of Education.

“I think the interdisciplinary quality is the most important to me,” she says. “And the fact that our profession is entrepreneurial. There is so much openness in my experience. I use the arts. I orchestrate my structure of teaching to include as many experiences as possible to help my students.”

Bresler says her parents raised her to be useful, and early in her career she asked herself how she could be useful in academia.

“I think as I conceptualize about usefulness, I am doing my best for things that are really important to me, like cultivating habits of mind or sensitivities or thinking along these ways,” she says. “I can make a difference in a way that enriches me. It’s not that I give and I am depleted, but whether in my teaching or research or performances I am always receiving a lot. And that is a privilege.”


Liora Bresler: By the Numbers

Along with editing three books, co-authoring two books, co-editing four books, and editing 17 special issues in scholarly journals, Bresler has accumulated the below statistics during her career.


 Keynotes and invited talks given


 Countries in which she has given talks


 International visiting or honorary professor  positions held


 Papers and chapters in leading journals, books, and  handbooks


 Contributors to her International Handbook of  Research in Arts Education


 Countries represented by scholars in her  International Handbook of Research in Arts  Education


 Doctoral dissertations advised and directed


 Doctoral students' dissertation committees