Designed [Learning] Experiences

legolandThis article, “Why Schools And Hospitals Should Be More Like Theme Parks” speaks to the call for the design of what Ellsworth calls processual paths through pedagogically charged learning environments (Ellsworth, 2005). While this author focuses on physically-designed space, I recommend reading as if it were describing a semester’s course schedule, or even an hour of class time. For example, this excerpt:


So what does a well-designed environment look like? Varied rhythms are key—you need enough to engage you but not so much you get exhausted or stressed out. Think about what guided one of the original “experience designers,” Frederick Law Olmsted, who created Central Park in New York City and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Olmsted had a knack for arranging natural scenery to create a sense of mystery and discovery, which drew people in and ushered them smoothly through a space. More than a century later, his work influences Disney parks, where the park architects mix “decompression zones” in with the attractions to let people rest before finding something new to explore. A careful observer may notice that the middle sections of many Disney buildings are fairly plain, saving the ornate details for the corners. It creates a kind of visual friction that draws your eye and sparks curiosity. It can be seen as a kind of greeble—the model maker’s trick of adding non-essential surface details—to add a bit of novelty and visual intrigue, and to keep you moving.

The magic of the Magic Kingdom, however is not in the guided experience, but in the mix of guided and self-directed experiences. Self-directed opportunities honor participants’ prior interests and knowledge. It gives them agency in the experience, and lets them set a pace that is right for them. A guided experience is a movie, or a ride that you’re strapped into. In schools we lecture, assign readings and videos, etc. These can be very entertaining, and can be very immersive. But more cognitive effect is realized when there’s greater interactivity.

As I’ve mentioned previously, Disney is starting to do this more in mixing rides and interactivity. As educators, that we allow this, and how we do this in courses is key. Again, while the physical layout and design is important (the main point of the article), I argue that we cannot and should not try to compete with Disney or companies whose business is experience design — we just can’t afford to do it well. What we should do is learn from them and employ the concepts of rhythm, guided learning, self-directed learning, reflection/decompression, etc. A creative mind and a cardboard box can be as educational and engaging as a million-dollar playhouse.

We are embodied beings. We experience the world with our senses. It is important that they be stimulated to learn. We are also independent and interdependent social beings, so that balance must be respected as well.

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