General Education: The Disneyland of Higher Ed

A castle at Disneyland

Originally published on The evoLLLution.

What do Mickey Mouse and university students have in common? They all enter the doors of a hallowed place for a whirlwind experience!

While applying theme park studies to higher education may seem like a stretch, it’s not as far-fetched as it might seem. Theme park design is simply a metaphor for a holistic, comprehensive way of organizing our cognition so that it actually aligns with an institution’s mission of student success. Components of theme park design can be applied to higher education—particularly general education—most notably in the orientation of the student experience, the reassurance of the curriculum and university staff, and the impact of a curriculum’s theming.

Edutainment & General Education

The idea for Disneyland came out of the desire to build a place where families could play together, becoming an all-important narrative for American culture. In the mid-1950s, returning WWII soldiers were buying homes and building families, and the primary mode of entertainment was shifting from radio to television. Walt Disney recognized a captive audience and created a family-friendly television program that also advertised his new theme park. Built into Disneyland and the Mickey Mouse Club TV show was something Disney coined “edutainment,” a genre that would be both entertaining and highly educational, and a component that would be found in all Disney shows and properties.

General education programs are constructed to provide students with a strong foundation in the core skills and principles needed to be successful in their programs, their communities, their workplaces and their lives. Much like navigating a theme park, a student’s journey can be overwhelming and confusing; general education addresses this anxiety by providing a clearly defined path toward a student’s goal. Similarly, Disney theme parks pave a smooth path for guests by applying core principles of orientation, reassurance and theming.

Orientation

People often experience disorientation in new or unknown environments. To avoid this, Disney park designers provide intentional visual cues (what Walt Disney affectionately called “weenies”) to welcome, assimilate and charm guests. Not sure where you are at Walt Disney World? Cinderella’s Castle is always in sight! Universities provide similar orientation through the core general education curriculum. This foundational coursework gives students a taste of main ingredients before they customize a menu. They build analytical and communication skills as well as core social, cultural and natural knowledge that can be used later in a student’s specialty. Students learn how to process information and look through different lenses to view, consider and understand. When one enters a Disney theme park, the question isn’t which roller coaster to ride, but rather, which path to take to maximize the experience. The same can be true for entering higher education. General education helps students understand their landscape, recognize learning cues, and become more effective learners.

Reassurance

If you ever go to a Disney property, you’ll probably notice cleanliness, organization and staff who are available to answer questions. The organization works hard to reassure guests directly and indirectly. They use a technique called “architecture of reassurance,” whereby large structures are built in a way that isn’t overwhelming. Elements of reassurance are also designed into general education teaching and curricula. Faculty dispositions, first year experience activities and other support systems are designed to maximize student confidence. General education delivers information in an intentional, thoughtful manner. Core human knowledge is grouped into relevant seeds that take root and grow as part of a student’s educational metamorphosis.

Theming

Which sounds more interesting: a “gathering” or a “holiday party”? Themes are engaging because they tap into human creativity. A well-designed theme park uses stories, characters, décor, costumes, scripts and sounds to provide sensory experiences that are enjoyably memorable. This kind of planning helps unite guests and park, customers and product and—yes —even students and university. When institutions proactively weave their mission, values, learning objectives and outcomes into the student experience, there is an opportunity for connection. The sinews, or theme, of general education is foundational learning, self-consciousness and an understanding of how things relate. Students (and faculty) who have knowledge, confidence and a sense of belonging tend to be more engaged. They proudly represent their brand(s) much like families promote their favorite athletic team, school, or Disney character. It is an iconic closeness.

Conclusion

General education is often referred to as the “core curriculum” because of its fortifying relationship to specialized disciplines. Much like a theme park map, general education is designed to provide intentional and reassuring markers that orient, connect and support students in their academic experience. It is the key and pathway to a lifetime of learning. The journey can be edutainment!

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