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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Who Will Be Our Next Walt Disney?

By Peter DeWitt — September 18, 2011 5 min read
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While we are all forced to wait for Superman, we need Walt Disney.

Walt Disney imagined things that most people did not think were possible. Walt Disney was the Goliath of his generation. Disney was both reflective and creative. He had a sense of the past and could look into the future. His ability to dream was only matched by his ability to articulate his vision to people around him who could help make his dreams come true. Walt Disney’s dreams became our reality.

There are millions of people who make the trek to Disney World and Disneyland every year. Children go to experience a place where their imaginations can run wild. Adults go there to experience a second childhood and remember a time that was much simpler and fun. We need not go anywhere else to find the Fountain of Youth because it exists anywhere that Walt Disney touched.

Disney encompassed good leadership by igniting the imagination of all who worked for him. His engineers were called Imagineers, and their job, one might call it a mission, was to create a place where all kids and adults were welcome. They created a place where everyone went back in time, but they were also given a glimpse into the future. Everyone who entered the gates lost the stress of their lives for the hours they spent in the park.

In a world that seems so violent and stressed, Disney’s programs focused on family and adventure. Children who were drawn into the plots were sure to go out and play the characters outside or in the woods with their friends. Many tree cabins were built during the time of Disney by parents and children who wanted to escape reality.

Will We See This Creativity Again?
Will we ever have another Walt Disney? Many say he was one of a kind but I wonder if there are others out there. Are there children sitting within our classrooms who could imagine and create as big and as wonderful as Walt Disney did?

It has been said by many that today’s generation of children lack imagination because everything is done for them. They have handheld games that are created by technicians with great imaginations, creativity and marketing genius. They have televisions in their rooms, DVD players in their cars, and play organized games where they have to follow directions and rules. Every part of their lives is controlled.

Unlike the games of today that seem to stifle imagination, Disney’s inventions inspired imagination. Walt Disney created games and shows that centered on family fun and innocence. Since the mid-1980’s with the elimination of many Federal Communication Commission (FCC) regulations that held television shows, games and activities to different standards, this present generation is given insight into a much more adult world. They are surrounded by images and marketing schemes that our parents never had to contend with when we were younger. Even the Disney Channel itself has changed to a much more young adult network.

Most schools have always strongly believed in philosophies that have a focus on imagination. Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences has played an important part in schools that want to focus on the whole child. Most school climates foster the use of the imagination. Whether its differentiation or hands-on center based learning, teachers, both classroom and special area, try to expose students to experiences where they can use their imagination. Project-based learning (PBL) is one such instructional tool that we can use to get students to focus on something they can use in the real world. It requires inquiry-based learning and imagination.

Will STEM Schools Provide the Answer
Unfortunately, there are schools that do not focus on the imagination because they are too busy or concerned with providing test prep and “drill and kill” methods of teaching. There are schools where students do not have recess during the day, and do not promote the use of nature in their curriculum. Those schools are potentially ruining the real education that students need to be exposed to.

At home, there are parents that do not allow their children to play outside. Much of the entertainment that these students are exposed to focuses on company-created materials and the kids are lacking exposure to the outside world. Many children who live in poorer cities do not live in safe neighborhoods and recess may be the only time they get an opportunity to go outside and play freely with their peers. What if a child with the potential to be the next Walt Disney lives in these neighborhoods or attend these schools?

STEM schools are cropping up across the country (Robelen). STEM schools offer a focus on science, technology, engineering and math. Will these schools offer the kind of imagination and ingenuity we need in this country? Will the next Walt Disney enter their doors and receive the type of education needed to bring the kind of creativity Walt Disney did? They certainly offer a missing niche that the public school cannot always offer. However, if the public school system received some mandate relief, perhaps they too could offer more STEM curriculum.

Magnet schools and charter schools offer a focus beyond the curriculum public schools provide to students. However, some of those schools do not offer more than a test prep philosophy. With all of the school choice that is being offered to a small population of students who are fortunate enough to win the school lottery, it seems as though some of the escapes from bad schools that are being offered, are more of a case of the lesser of two evils.

What can students who do not live near a STEM or magnet school do to find creativity? Many of us spent our seasons playing outside in the woods or on child-made baseball fields where we played baseball for five or six hours. Our winters were spent sledding down big hills and making snowmen in freezing temperatures and we lived to talk about it as older adults. Sometimes disconnecting from the internet allows us to reconnect with our larger world. It is possible to find creativity within our own thoughts without the distraction of the internet and television.

During these times of financial stress, children need their imaginations more than ever. They need time to imagine a better world where there isn’t as much stress. If they find that in a STEM, charter, magnet or public school system, then we will be the better for it. We just need to maintain a balance and realize that one size fits all programs will not educate everyone equally, which is why the public school system is so concerned with high stakes testing and NCLB.

Students need to learn that they have the power to create better experiences for themselves and for others. As much as school systems are at the hands of state and federal mandates, there must be time built in where children can wonder. While we are all forced to wait for Superman, we need Walt Disney.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.