Published Online: October 20, 2010

What Would Walt Disney Learn in School Today?

Do you want to live in a country that would shun minds similar to those of Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and Walt Disney? As a Central Floridian, I often wonder how our contemporary American school system would meet the needs of the creator of Disney World. Would we give him an outlet to express his creativity or, better yet, foster it? What would his school day consist of? Would he draw a sketch of Mickey Mouse, only to be ridiculed by his teacher because he should have been practicing his times tables?

I am sure that in today’s high-stakes testing environment, Disney’s creativity would be stifled by countless hours of basic reading instruction. He might not even have an art class due to funding shortfalls and a resulting budget that clearly places the arts at the bottom of the priority list.

Most of us would agree that Richard Riley, Secretary of Education under President Bill Clinton, was correct in his assertion that, "We are currently preparing students for jobs that don't yet exist...using technologies that haven't yet been invented...in order to solve problems we don't even know are problems yet." How has the American educational system responded to Riley’s insight? The overarching approach has been to ostracize the skills that could prepare students to make a better America.

Critical thinking, creative thinking, and problem solving are slapped with the label of "fluff" by some administrators who—with their penchant for short-sighted thinking—coerce their teachers into devoting an absurd amount of time to test preparation. Even after the tests have been given for the year, they make sure teachers are preparing for the following year’s exams. Perhaps they do not realize that instruction in critical thinking, creative thinking, and problem solving has been shown to improve standardized test scores.

Teachers who veer from the "script" and give students opportunities to practice higher-order thinking skills may even have to keep a watchful eye on their classroom doors to make sure they don’t get caught teaching "fluff." Let’s dare to imagine for a moment: How many jobs has Disney’s "fluff" created? How much money does his "fluff" still generate for our economy 50 years after his death?

I’m not attempting to say basic skills are less important than these higher-order skills. I am also not saying that critical thinking, creative thinking, and problem solving are less important than basic skills. That would be like trying to decide if it was better to have kidneys or lungs—both are essential.

Critical thinking, creative thinking, and problem solving should not be limited to instruction in certain subjects. They should not be seen as something that only gifted-and-talented students can master. All humans are capable of these skills and need to be taught them, and they need to practice them. These skills are required to be successful not only in academics but in relationships, in the workplace, and with finances.

Citizens with the ability to think critically and creatively and to solve problems sustain our democracy. Do you want to live in a country where students can read an article about a political candidate but are not able to comprehend how that candidate’s platform will impact the country? These skills should be pervasive in the curriculum. To take it a step further, they should be pervasive in standardized testing. One reason being: This would guarantee that these skills are taught.

Teaching critical and creative thinking and problem solving typically entails activities that involve "real world" scenarios. We all know that these activities excite students. Through their active participation, students are able to pinpoint the relationship between what they are learning in school and what they are experiencing in life.

These kinds of challenges excite students from kindergarten through high school. They allow students to wrestle with "adult" problems, which bolsters their confidence and ignites a fire in them. If you’re a teacher, you have probably heard your students talk about these activities in the cafeteria and even at recess. They may even go home and do more than is required for the assignment. I’m sure some of them have even admitted to you that the activity was fun.

We know engaged students are successful students. Let’s create lessons that will captivate their attention. And let’s fight for these essential life skills in our curricula—whether it means receiving more training in this area, adjusting our instruction, or convincing our administrators and elected officials to allow us to engage our students in these types of activities.

Getting buy-in from above, of course, is easier said than done. But as we wrestle to take control of education back into our hands, remember: Critical-thinking, creative-thinking, and problem-solving skills are an essential part of what we need to be fighting for.

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