Disneyworld as the aspirational role model for schools: just what’s so wrong with that?

Read on Twitter yesterday: Overheard a primary school learner describe a visit to a nearby high school as “this is like Disneyland”. It really was that good…

How tremendous would that be. School as an outpost of Disneyland and all its aspirational urgings: Let the memories begin…Explore the happiest place on earth…Welcome to the magic… all powerful metaphors which are hugely seductive for children, teachers and families.

And what’s so wrong with these metaphors? Why shouldn’t schools be the happiest places on earth? Perhaps there’s far too little magic in schools and a dose of Disneyfi-ed magic would do everyone a power of good? As a place to ‘let the memories begin’, its difficult to contradict the proposition that schools should be just that – places which shape memorable memories, shape our lives and futures and all that is good in the world.

And this is of course exactly the problem with the Disney model of school development and community building. There is no argument against it. It is impossible to critique the desire to be at the happiest place earth, the welcoming force of magic and a place for memory making. The Disneyfication of the school is the full stop at the end of the question which asks what schools are for.

Where is the place for resistance? For criticality? For unreconcilable difference? In short, no-where. There is no room for resistance in Disney. It is, as the Borg constantly remind us, futile. Any and all conflict in Disney is moderated, sanitised and overcome. The hero and heroine will always overcome the forces of the awkward buggers who get in their way. The awkward squad might be entertaining, or seductive in their repulsiveness: but one thing they never become are winners.

The individual- the Disney Hero – will always triumph in the Disney School: this is sometimes presented as being for the benefit of the individual themselves, at other times for the benefit of a wider, grateful community. Whatever else, the individual is central to all of Disney’s concerns. Nothing else matters as much as ensuring the desires of the individual are fulfilled. In that sense, the Disney school is the natural endpoint of the personalised learning agenda.

Which is where the combination of Disney and School in the same sentence becomes a potential nightmare because it generates the demand above all else that the child’s view is paramount. That their desires, interests, fashions and choices are all that matter; that the only function for teachers or other adults is to ensure their voices are heard and their demands met. In the Disneyfi-ed, personalised school, the child is in a 24/7 sweet shop, entranced by the baubles, hypnotised by the bangles, flattered by the flickering lights and fed, up to their back teeth, with the educational equivalents of coca cola, candy floss and Peter Pan.

But school is not a sweetshop. It should of course be magical and memorable and a place for happiness: but we should also welcome the reality that school is – and needs to be – tough, that learning is difficult, challenging and sometimes – dread word – boring. School – education – life – is a struggle, not a sherbet dip.

Author: drnicko

Awarded an MBE for services to arts-based businesses, I am passionate about generating inspiring, socially engaging, creative practice within educational contexts both nationally and internationally.

2 thoughts on “Disneyworld as the aspirational role model for schools: just what’s so wrong with that?”

  1. But would all kids choose Disney style schools? In his book ‘Creating Tomorrow’s Schools Today’ (2010) Richard Gerver mentions that he thinks Disney style schools would be fun, but when consulted, the kids in his school said they actually would like, and subsequently was implemented in the school, a media studio and a shop. With the media studio the kids were enabled to actively produce their own animations and films rather than be passive consumers of someone else’s. This suggests that when involved in informed decision making processes about their learning, kids make effective learning decisions.

    The educational psychologist Carol Dweck’s research seems to demonstrate that when kids are praised for effort they grow to relish a challenge. Dweck suggests that teachers and parents praising effort of their students/kids is effective in making learning fun, and it doesn’t cost a penny.

    1. Hi Anna – i think you’re right – fortunately not all kids would chose a school modelled on Disney. What’s sobering is the adult belief that they would, and that its a model to aspire too.

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