Using the Disney Method in teaching

So the Disney method? Well it’s quite simple. Disney thought that in order to engage the natural thinking styles of a group of people (we all think differently) the it’s important to understand both their communication and relational skills. Without doing this, whatever is being introduced will be un-matched to the group and fail to influence. If you’ve ever watched a powerpoint and fell asleep, this is the opposite of Disney’s theory of engaging audiences. It’s a parallel thinking technique.

Disney saw people in four ways. This also connects with Kieren Egan’s theories of imaginative education which is why I like it for games. The Spectator, The Dreamer, Realist and Critic provide a model of thinking styles that is relevant to children’s approach to transformational play (something that Bron Stuckey) talks about so well. Classroom games are experiences, not necessarily digital objects, so the importance here is to offer experiences around a game object or game-like scenario that match or influence the thinking style of the students.

The SPECTATOR looks at how this is viewed from the outside. You look at facts and evidence, rather than opinion. They use data to argue facts.

The DREAMER is critical to developing new ideas and goals – to widen the areas of thought. These don’t have to be achievable or even real. To the dreamer, anything is possible. They are not constrained by reality or judgement or criticism. In students, this helps develop agency.

The REALIST is necessary as a means of transferring those ideas in concrete expression – defines actions to be taken. This means taking what is being communicating and un-packing it using cognitive knowledge and skills. What can be done in reality, and what is best left to the imagination. The problem with realists is that if they don’t learn to balance what CAN be done with what is imagined, hypothesised and unreal, is that they become lock-stepped by narrow thinking. In other words, even the most realistic and pragmatic, need to act as if anything is possible more often.

The CRITIC is necessary as a filter and as a stimulus to refinement – evaluates pay-offs and draw backs. This isn’t the hater, the non-participator or the saboteur who often uses rhetorical fallacies to assert their opinion. In Disney’s model, the are learning how to make arguments and predictions based on evidence presented and experience. They learn strategies for ‘what if’ problems occur or ‘how can’ we make this better.

So when we ask a question to direct children’s learning: there is a need to ensure that we communicate the problem and under pinning ideas and concepts such that they match or influence the thinking styles of children.

This is a common method used in German Engineering for example, but little known these days. It was a method used by Disney to create ideas and evaluate them towards a workable solution. It was used at the height of Disney’s studio system.


  • Allows students to discuss an issue from 4 different methods (Spectators view, Dreamers View, Realisers view and Critics view).
  • Spectators view – look at problem analysis from the outside. It uses facts and data to make arguments  not opinions. For example. If trying to understand why countries go to war, children would look at data and facts external actual war. How many countries are at war, what was the longest war, the shortest. Which war has the most post-war problems or benefits (how can we tell). Looking at the problem from this perfective allows problem analysis.
  • Dreamers view – They ask what is the ideal, dream view of this solution if we made it. What is that we wish to happen. What is the extreme boundaries of our ambition. This is divergent thinking.
  • Realists view – Their job is to use convergent thinking. To look at the ideas presented, consider them mindfully with the spectators view and start to organise them such that they roughly appear as: done before, reasonably do-able now, could be done in the near future. They are not judging the dreamers, just helping to organise them. They would come up with a PLAN and they will have agreed and set CRITERIA. This helps students sift ideas and identify the most significant elements in the ideas. The PLAN is a set of steps to implement the IDEAS.
  • The Critics: Are looking at the risks and dangers, who would oppose the plan, what could be done to the plan to improve it. On what evidence should the plan be refined, rejected or implemented.

The Disney method was designed to be simple, and to allow teams to rapidly develop ideas and put forward workable plans for production, but also to ensure that the organisation had sufficient ‘dreams’ documented that could be revisited. This method was central to the development of much of Disney’s films, television, literature and theme parks.

I think that this method could be used towards games in the classroom. It could be applied to any topic, if presented as a problem – and even in PBL, it encourages teachers to approach the same problem in four ways using a method – it’s a way to overcome PBL fatigue where students quickly learn the seven steps and become bored with it.

How to use Balance, Gimping, Campaign mode to improve assessment tasks easily

How about trying something from my  epic book “Living with games, dying with zombies” or something like that. This is how to use game-methods to improve something most students hate – getting marks and grades back from exercises and tests. No game needed, no tech either … a Zombie could do this.

Let’s assume most teachers issue marks to their class and we know from research marks and class-ranks are really de-motivating for most people. If there are 30 students, then it’s not hard to work out someone will get top and someone bottom. League tables are a common feature of games however, so how come publishing them are considered a bad educational idea, yet an almost expected in games. There’s something obviously missing then.

The game solution

Rather than avoid posting a class-rank on the wall, or handing out individual ones privately to avoid awkwardness, use Excel. I know Excel right, that old donkey which comes with Office. The funky people might use Google Docs or a database. Depends on your geek-power. You could use paper if you want to be old school.

The Method

You get excel to read each row and pick out the student name and their mark and comment on what EXACTLY they need to do in order to improve their grade in DIRECT relation to the grades of the students TWO rows immediately above them.

The easiest way to do this is to MAIL MERGE it. Select the student’s row and include the two names and marks of those immediately ABOVE them and two names and marks of those immediately BELOW. Now print that stuff out and hand it out.

Each student (if you’ve followed me) has their mark and a comment on EXACTLY what they need to do to beat the two in front of them. They also know who are their nearest academic peers. You have just generated a second thing, better ‘groups’ by clustering. Yes, some are at the top and some at the bottom, but nothing’s changed right? – that was going to happen anyway. Wrong.

The top group has to SUSTAIN itself and bottom group has everything to play for. But now the fun part – how to get them to play. You’ve just created GROUPS of 5 to power peer-learning based on EVIDENCE.

Now start cheating. Break the norm-rules! I won’t bore you with a speech about the types of rules games use – but cheating is a very valuable rule in game-theory. It’s called GIMPING, I’ll explain that later.

Give the bottom THIRD of kids things they can grind on to improve as a GROUP. Repeating, re-doing, coaching, whatever. Tell them they’ve got a WEEK to re-submit a different task which you PROMISE will be no easier or harder than the last.

Give the MIDDLE third kids nothing new to do at all.

Give the TOP third something more philiophical to deal with with the promise of a few more marks if they do it. This should be something more open, not easily answered etc.,

Here’s what has happened. You have 3 key working groups (top, middle, bottom (you do anyway). You also have a peer-assisted learning loop happening, you are allowing the middle kids to float between the bottom and the top (choice), the top are being extended (or sitting on their laurels which won’t last long). The bottom kids are repeating the task, now working in a group to improve together because they feel more trusted and valued.

What changed in terms of teacher practice?

Ultimately, there is nothing radically changed in what’s being taught or the assessment itself. The big change is to way it is being reported and the finality of it. For the most able academic students, there are being given a new opportunity to explore the metanarrative

These theories may be political, economic, social, literary, philosophical, or any other kind that claim to explain the material to be learned. Challenge the students to find the most powerful underlying idea or principle – and what example(s) they can find to explain it. This, for high-achieving students focuses them away for ‘getting the answer’ and finding what is emotionally engaging about  the topic.

Why is this Game Based Learning?

If you like, call this learning in ‘campaign mode’. It taunts you with getting content that is ‘locked out’. This is typical of how Modern Warfare or Battlefield get you to work harder, to get better gear. In the context of the top-kids, it’s called balancing (wikipedia simple version) which creates uncertainty, leading to the tension and excitement. Why do this? Because the way marks and tables are managed in the classroom is the equivalent to what gamer’s call GIMPING. Most players don’t mind ‘some’ gimping if the game is balanced, but it if’s always GIMPED, it just sucks. And players who want to be better hate it.