The year was 1977. It was a very important year in the life of Brian. For it was in 1977 that something happened that would forever change my view of the world and what was possible.
It was May, and the newspaper and TV were filled with ads for an exciting new adventure in science fiction. It was a small, independent film, perhaps you have heard of it, called Star Wars.
I can remember my parents taking me to see the film and sitting in the theater as I was transported to a Galaxy far, far away. Even though, it said it was set a long time ago, I felt as though I were peering into the future.
As I sat there transfixed, I lay witness to the battle of good vs. evil, I saw amazing technology that was seamlessly integrated into every aspect life. I experienced space travel, and perhaps most importantly, I learned of the ways of the force. I can remember so much about the day. How the seats in the theater felt and even the stickiness of the floor. As I exited the theater, I did so as a new person.
FLASH FOWARD TO THE PRESENT!
After the National Association for Gifted Children endorsed the Disney Youth Education Series, I was presented with the opportunity to go and visit some of the educational experiences that were offered at Walt Disney World. These are 3 hour educational programs designed for students and their teachers to learn first hand how Disney creates some of their magic. Rather than relying on typical classroom environments, the YES Programs use the parks and many attractions as their learning laboratory.
As I read through the descriptions of all of the programs, I knew that above all others that I wanted to experience first hand the Properties of Motion Physics Lab. Not only do you get to experience the the practical application of physics, but you learn how force, motion, and gravity are utilized in some of the most popular attractions at the Magic Kingdom. What was even more important to me is that you get to do something that no other group of guests get to do. You get to ride Space Mountain with the LIGHTS ON! I had heard tales of this that sounded more like myths and legend than they did truth, and I knew that this was absolutely what I needed to see with my own eyes.
Like many of the Disney YES programs, the Properties of Motion Physics Lab begins before the park opens. I can honestly say that walking down Main Street with only your group and other people around is really something that everyone should get the chance to do. At that point in the day, there are no other guests and only groups of students from around the world there for the YES Programs. We made our way to Space Mountain and observed as the students learned about the principles of physics and how they applied to rollercoaster design by building some K’NEX structures. However, the conversation quickly shifted to what makes a successful thrill ride. Students identified factors like speed, height, and even G-Forces. After this, our group was invited inside to put these ideas to the test by seeing what Space Mountain is like with the lights on.
I am not sure that I am able to accurately describe how excited I was to see this. As we boarded our rocket ship, I felt that everything was about to change. I was completely right, but it was not at all what I expected.
After the ride was over, we disembarked, and then gathered with the group for a debriefing. As I looked around, it was as if everyone felt deflated. You see Space Mountain is a really, really boring and ugly roller coaster. With the lights on, there is absolutely nothing magical about it at all. The Disney YES facilitator discussed with the students whether or not this was a thrilling ride. This group of middle schoolers all agreed that it was not. They were then asked about the speed, height, and G-Forces. It turns out that Space Mountain has a max speed of 28 MPH, its biggest drop is about 7 1/2 feet, and the biggest g-force is 3.7 g. This is very comparable to The Barnstormer Starring the Great Goofini, a roller coaster designed for kids also located in the Magic Kingdom.
Disney takes great pride in that there are no “rides” in their parks. There are only “attractions”. The YES facilitator then asked the students how they could make this rather simple roller coaster into an attraction. Without any pause one student rather disgustedly interjected, “You could turn the lights out!”.
“Yes, you could turn the lights out,” responded the YES facilitator, “but would that be enough to make it an attraction?” The other students quickly responded that what they really enjoyed most about Space Mountain was not that it was just a roller coaster. Instead, Space Mountain took them on a journey into space. It was not about the ride itself instead it was about the experience.
After debriefing, we were all then invited to see Space Mountain as it was designed to be seen with all of the theming, special effects, and music. Even though we had just been on the same ride 15 minutes earlier, it was entirely different. As we disembarked for a second time, there was the familiar air of excitement after having traveled among the stars.
Once again, we debriefed, and I was struck by many of the students’ responses. They asked how were they able to speed the ride up and add bigger drops. Even after just having seen the inner workings and design they still could not believe that it was that different. In that moment it occurred to me that Disney had figured out how to transform a simple roller coaster that you might find in a traveling carnival into something that was magical and meaningful all through the power of telling a story.
What does this have to do with instruction and teaching you might be asking? It occurred to me that when we teach skills in isolation or assign worksheets, we are essentially giving our students Space Mountain with the lights on. When we design lessons rather than focusing on the standard or objective, we should focus on what is the story that we are trying to relate.
What we do in our classrooms should be less about imparting knowledge and hoping that it sticks in our students’ brains long enough for them to recall it on a test. Instead, we should strive to create experiences that will live in students’ minds for the rest of their lives. Experiences like seeing Star Wars for the first time or riding aboard a rocket on Space Mountain.
I HEREBY VOW STOP WRITING LESSONS AND START CREATING EXPERIENCES!
Think about what you are providing for your students. Ask yourself what you can do to transform your lessons into experiences. This is a topic that we will continue to explore in future posts. In the meantime, please share your ideas below.
So if you really want to what Space Mountain with the lights on really looks like and can not make it to a Disney YES Program, you can see it here. Just remember, you will not be able to UNSEE this.