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.

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