Disney and Education


Let me just be clear on a few things:

  • I love Disney and its ability to create incredibly immersive experiences.
  • I am a HUGE proponent the power of designed, built environments for learning (Ellworth 2005, etc.). Experiences that situate learners’ experiences in embodied contexts that touch multiple senses are experiences that “last a lifetime”.
  • They’ve created top-notch, heavily-designed multimodal learning (and entertainment) environments that hold consumers’ attention throughout a learning experience.
  • If all (or even 1%) of my public education experience had been “Disneyfied” I’d not only not complain, but would probably have gone off and done amazing things in exotic places instead of being a trouble-making advocate for participatory education at a public land-grant university.

That said, I think you and I, as [talented as we may be] run-of-the-mill educators should stop trying to create high-production learning activities — (metaphorically: “educational rides”)  for students.

Here’s why:

  • school architects (and budgets) can’t compete with Disney
  • instructional game developers (and budgets) can’t compete with video games
  • instructional multimedia designers (and budgets) can’t compete with Hollywood

But western educators have been trying so hard, since the Industrial Revolution, to crack this nut. They’ve created classroom structures that try to center students’ focus on the teacher; curriculum that carefully pulls “tour groups” of students along a intricately-scaffolded path from lesson to lesson, so that most can successfully retain the content they have absorbed until the end of the tour, and demonstrate that level of absorption by squeezing it out into a machine-scored bubble test sheet.

The axiom that we’ve been following is: standardization is economical and effective. 

But humans are not standardized. We have unique physical, mental, and emotional makeups shaped by our genetics and our environments. What is exciting to you may bore me silly, and vice-versa. But we’re stuck together following the same curriculum, doing the same carefully designed-for-the-average-learner activities because we’re the same age. That’s stupid. It was an idea that needed to be tried in education because it worked for the Model-T at a time when schools had to deal with thousands of under-educated, previously-working kids showed up in classrooms that were ill-prepared to scale up what little individualized learning they could still do. We have better options now. We can go back to personalized learning.

Co-Creation of Experience

While many of the Disney rides, like Splash Mountain, are AMAZING — for a ride where riders pretty passively just sit there and literally absorb the splashes — Disney is beginning to realize the power of co-created experiences by harnessing what good games have been doing forever: creating unique experiences that emerge through interactions. Toy Story’s Midway Mania is a good example of an early attempt at this.

Disney MidwayMania

The movement and spinning of the car is still very factory-model — one can imagine oneself as a widget on a conveyor belt moving along a factory floor — and that is half of the creation of the experience. It is the role of the pedagogue (designer) to usher learners along a path. But rather than sit passively and absorb as content is displayed for them, the widget/learner has agency and can toss virtual rings at a screen, and has peer-driven motivation to out-toss your fellow rider.

Granted, we’re still in Disneyland mode, and I said above that educational designers need to get out of Disneyland mode. We can’t operate there. We don’t have the money or the chops to do it. But, what can we do?

We can let go of some of our need to control content — starting with some activities, or for parts of some activities — and design openings for learners to personalize and co-create the content themselves.

Isn’t this dangerous? How can we trust that they will get it right? We don’t want them to learn the wrong things!

Yes. We can’t. Sure we do.

Novices get things wrong. They make mistakes. So do experts. Experts learn from mistakes. So do novices. Experts learn from each other, and from novices, and from the “happy accidents” that occur when they’re making mistakes. This is how knowledge is created. This is how good learning is done. It’s how we learn to learn on our own. Instead of being spoon-fed content by an expert, we co-create it, and thus make a deeply personal, deeply embodied connection to both the content and the learning!

And, again, we can start small. Because when we create our own experiences, the bar is low. It is low because we learn so quickly how hard it is to create anything close to Disney’s level of production. And in realizing that, we immediately lower our expectations of, and increase our respect for, the teachers who help us learn, and their efforts at it.

But they won’t learn that unless we challenge them to co-create their knowledge; to be participatory learners; to work together with their peers on the really difficult processes behind teaching and learning. Invite them in.

One thought on “Disney and Education

  1. Pingback: Designed experiences | regardingjohn

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