Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Lessons from WDW 2: Priorities

This is part two in a series in which I explore the question: What elements of the Disney culture could be applied to educational design. 

My interest in this topic began with a blog post that I read from the Disney Institute Blog. To summarize, the post delineated four standards that drive Disney experience design. They were, in order: Safety, Courtesy, Show and Efficiency. While the four standards are definitely important and might appear in many industries' cultures, I was especially interested in the order in which they appeared in the Disney Institute list.

Safety was first. This makes sense to me, particularly in an industry that serves so many in such a confined space and in which there are so many moving parts. Disney's safety record isn't spotless, but given all of the variables they manage, their safety record is remarkable. I hope that the reason for putting safety first is obvious. Disney's reputation as "the happiest place on Earth" is dependent upon its visitors' sense of comfort and security. People need to feel as safe as they do at home, and Disney goes to great lengths to not only eliminate threats to safety and comfort, but to enhance safety and comfort on property.

I like to think that in education, we are as mindful of safety for our students and faculty as any industry. I certainly think that we are careful to do our due diligence to protect those who are in our care in environments that can be just as crowded and have just as many moving parts. I wonder, though, how much intentional thought we give to making comfort and a sense of security our number one priority. Given the nature of institutional furniture, I suspect that cost is prioritized over comfort. I've definitely  seen schools and classrooms that do a better job of creating a climate of security and comfort for their staff and students than others. In those cases, the sense of safety extends beyond basic expectations for physical safety to how safe kids feel expressing themselves, making mistakes, and taking risks as learners. I wonder what the conversations in those buildings around safety look like. I suspect for those spaces, safety and comfort are more than a compliance point on a check list. Regardless, as a whole, our profession can always improve, and I'd love to see what would happen if we asked questions that expanded our definition of safety.

The second standard listed was Courtesy. There is no doubt that Disney excels in this area. According to the blog post, Courtesy "establishes that all Guests will be treated as a VIP with a personal touch." Once a personal sense of security and comfort is secured, Disney goes beyond to make every visitor feel that they matter. This is the famous Disney magic that comes at surprising moments. It's the cast member who engages you in conversation or surprises you with a cookie to share. It's the customer relations representative who helps you resolve a concern and then follows up with you later. It's the custodial staff who leave surprises in your room, and it's the phone call from Goofy on your birthday. These are all personal experiences that keep my family coming back because we wonder what new magic we will discover on our next trip.

In education, there is no shortage of caring teachers and administrators who strive to extend that same courtesy to students, parents and the community. There are so many wonderful examples of schools whose cultures embody the spirit captured in Angela Maiers' phrase "You Matter." Yet, I wonder how often we jeopardize the sense of belonging a student has for the sake of efficiency or accountability. How often does our focus on standardization come at the cost of personalization? Under what circumstances do the needs of the system overwhelm the needs of parents, our employees, our community, and most of all, our students? I wonder what would happen if we ranked courtesy above compliance, cost, or competitiveness in our profession.

The third standard is Show. This is definitely evident in the smallest details at Walt Disney World. I am constantly amazed at the standard of presentation in every aspect of the Disney experience. The parks are clean and well-designed for movement. Every setting, from rides to restaurants, is filled with engaging details that reinforce the experience. Most importantly, Disney uses these details to create a sense of wonder and adventure.

It's the focus on creating wonder through design that I wish I could see more of in education. Believe me, I understand that the Disney company spends huge amounts of money to make that possible in their brand and to maintain it over time, but it is that upfront design thinking that makes the difference between Disney parks and other less successful parks. When Show is a priority, then the setting contributes to the experience and generates excitement. The best example of this that I can think of in education is the Ron Clark Academy.  Every surface of that school reinforces the sense of wonder and excitement that the teachers at RCA bring to their lesson design every day. The result is a pride of ownership that students have in their school culture.

Again, I recognize that the cost of investing in the setting for learning at the level of a Ron Clark Academy is a steep proposition in terms of time and resources (note the list of sponsors on the RCA website). That type of investment is a challenge to our public education system, but I wonder what the cost of focusing only on function is in terms of lost engagement. In the meantime, highly successful teachers and schools are finding ways every day to create an environment that enhances the learning experience in cost effective ways. I'm interested in imagining ways that our profession can design learning environments that marry form and function to generate joyous learning.

The final standard is Efficiency. I absolutely have no beef with efficiency. Disney includes it as one of their standards for good reason. Inefficiencies cause frustrations, cost money, and can compromise safety. One of my favorite efficiency solutions that Disney has provided is the FastPass. With a FastPass I am able to forgo waiting in line for a popular ride by collecting a ticket that allows me to return to the ride via a shorter line by returning within a particular time frame. Disney does not charge for this opportunity (unlike some of their competitors), but they gain in terms of efficiency and customer satisfaction. The efficiency serves Disney, but it also serves the end-user by enhancing the user's experience. An efficiency that only served Disney would not serve the other standards of Safety, Courtesy, and Show which take higher priority.

In terms of education, I worry that we've flipped the equation so that efficiency outweighs other considerations. The desire for efficiency leads us to look for one-size-fits-all solutions that, in turn, lead us to view learners in groups, rather than as individuals. We purchase one size of chair to accommodate people of many sizes. We measure all learners against a single minimum standard instead of pushing each learner to reach their own maximum potential. We map standardized curricula designed to guarantee a shared learning outcome for students whose passions, talents and life-paths are wildly different from one another, and whose interests may only intersect with those curricula in a few places. When we put efficiency first this way without considering the end-user experience, we guarantee the that we fall short of our potential as educators.

I understand that there are some fundamental differences between Disney's mission and resources and our own. It is easy to focus on those differences and assume that we have little to learn from a company like Disney. Still, a more fruitful discussion would be to focus on what we have in common, to ask the question, "In what ways might our schools be more like theme parks in terms of experience?"

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Lessons from WDW- Focus

Me holding the Mountain Trifecta of Fastpasses.
I'll admit it. When it comes to Walt Disney World, I'm "all in." The Disney folks know how to design an experience that is entertaining, inspiring, and yes, magical for thousands of people a day. In a sense, it is the ultimate playground experience, and I admire how they manage to create the "happiest place on Earth" for an endless stream of visitors who have very diverse backgrounds and experiences. As a result, when I am there, even though I know I am only one person in a crowd of many, I feel like the experience was designed for me.

Now, I know that there are those who roll their eyes at the Disney experience. To some, a week at a theme park cannot compare to a week on a mountain, a week on the beach, or a week exploring a foreign city. For those people, an intentionally crafted experience may feel artificial. On some levels, I agree. But I also believe that a crafted experience can be just as engaging as other experiences, and it may be the best-suited option to meet the needs of a very diverse clientele.

In education, we had better hope this is true. No matter how student-centered, real-world, and project-based we become, the formal educational process will always have qualities that separate it from the powerful informal learning that people do on their own. It is important that we be mindful of this gap and work to close it whenever possible. However, this doesn't mean that formal education is a bad thing. A structured educational system helps to address social inequalities and helps to meet the needs of a changing economy. Most importantly, it helps to safeguard democracy by creating an educated electorate.

I'm also not suggesting that our formal system of education uniformly fails to inspire and challenge. Many of us can point to important learning that we did in formal educational environments. I suspect, though, that the peak learning that we would point to in our school careers was personally relevant and well-designed. I also suspect that the most successful schools are those that can be agile enough to offer the best experiences for the widest population. To what extent systemic forces inhibit that kind of learning, and what can we do to nurture that learning are the questions we need to be considering.

There are others who dismiss the Disney experience as being nothing more than overly-priced food, long lines, and marketing immersion. It's valuable and fun to keep a healthy skepticism about products we purchase, and the Disney experience is no different; however, I find that over the years, my Disney experiences have only gotten better. Fastpasses alleviate the lines, the dining plan helps with the cost, the dining options have improved, and there are plenty of opportunities to "buy in" to the magic at little or no cost. At the same time, my own ability to navigate the experience has improved as well. I know from experience how to stretch my dollars and how to avoid the frustrations that new visitors run into, so I know that part of my affinity to walt Disney World comes from my ownership of the experience.

In education, I wonder if we have the same wherewithal to constantly improve the students' experience. I also wonder if the learning designs that we create allow students to personalize their experience so that they are contributing to the success of their learning. I wonder if we place enough effort in creating the quality of experience that will get our students to "buy in" and invest in the process. In short, I wonder if the students' experiences are at the front of our mind as we design the learning spaces and systems in which we strive to nurture learning. I suspect they are not.

Note that I am not pointing to my experiences at all theme parks. I've visited many different parks in many areas of the country. I cannot say that my experience with other parks has been as personally successful. All of the parks are fun, but only Walt Disney World has convinced me that their first priority is my satisfaction with and pleasure in the experience.

This leads me to wonder if there are lessons we can learn from the Disney culture that could be applied to our efforts for creating better learning experiences for students. In the next few posts, I will explore this question in greater depth.

In the meantime, I'd love to hear about your own experiences with Disney, and what they suggest to you about how we can better shape learning.