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.

Why Design Thinking isn’t a Rolls Royce.

There is a reason I called my blog Design for learning. I am a designer. I studied design, qualified as a typographer and illustrator and then worked in design and advertising. Design is not a subject, it is a craft. The best way to learn about design, perhaps the only way is from a designer.

Design is learned through literal and associative meanings. It is a craft not a process and it takes years of practice in a specialisation. Design is one form of Art, and art is about creativity, imagination and reacting to the world. It doesn’t seek to reduce it to a step by step cycle or even explain it.

In design, creative brilliance is the bridge to success. Designers are competitive and don’t easily settle. They argue a lot with other people, they argue with themselves even more. What designers want from a working environment are leaders who can create an atmosphere in which creative mavericks can do useful work. But it isn’t as fun as people might think. David Ogilvy said “Set exorbitant standards, and give your people hell when they don’t live up to them”.

Let me cut you in on the only rule you need to know. When you set out to design anything you have to work on the ideaL as Ogilvy called it.

X believes the world would be a better place if… Dove believes the world would be a better place if women were allowed to feel good about themselves. It does not matter if this statement is real or true, just that it forms a rule that the designer uses to explain it though literal and associative works, in numerous forms.
My ideaL is I believe the world would be a better place if people find awe and wonder in their interactions with it. However if I want to teach kids to feel good about themselves, that would be another ideaL. Mixing them leads to confusion. Linking them leads to action.

David Ogilvy used send staff all sorts of toys, objects and messages. A Russian doll meant, “If we hire people who are smaller than we are, we will become a company of dwarfs. If we hire people who are larger than we are, we’ll become a company of giants.”

He also said “Lazy and superficial men and women do not produce superior work.”

He had little had little time for office politicians, bullies, paper warriors, grovellers, pompous asses, and prima donnas. More than anything else, Ogilvy placed supreme importance on honesty. “Honest in argument, honest with clients, honest with suppliers, honest with the company – and above all, honest with consumers.

Ogilvy said, “On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.” This ad, from 1959 is a seminal work. Take a look at the headline.

What is that about that sentence that is considered one of the best lines ever written? – Can learning Design Thinking help you answer that question? It might, but if we ask 100 people, what would be the success rate? Would more people, with a knowledge of design thinking get it right than those without? Would they take less or more time?

Design Thinking (DT) had more failures than successes. This is well researched. Of course people rarely mention the failures in the headlines – just the wins. It’s amusing really that DT has fell out of favour with designers and researchers because it became homogenized, turning it into a linear, by-the-book methodology that delivered, at best, incremental change and innovation. Design Thinking was supposed to promote creativity, but creativity without creative intelligence resulted in N+1 adaptation.

For those who wrote down We believe the environment will be better if we build creative intelligence in others, technology has been a bonanza. They run rings around process-driven systems because CI tends to attract CI and the genomes that those networks thrive on. You can’t replicate that with a N+1 process, but you can say ‘enhanced performance’. Notice the Rolls advert headline didn’t say “goes better than before?” …

Creative Intelligence as the ability to frame problems in new ways and to make original solutions. This is what designers must do to stay designers and put food on the table. Stop moving and you are dead. Advertising doesn’t care if you don’t like change. It demand it.

This is what they strive to build in themselves and organisations because a company that oozes it, provides a climate that is more likely to keep people alive. You’ve watched the Gruen Transfer – these people have craft and they build these climates to survive. One thing that really shits people with CI is when those without it play ‘lets pretend’ games with them and later start adding rules. This is a great way to become a dwarf not a giant. People with CI see it a hundred miles off. They’ve used it their whole lives to go around issues and do exactly what they believe they should be doing. Seth Goldin – has CI. He tells people all the time about this, yet people still buy into N+1 because N+1 is enough. What if kids now need N+20 each week and you can’t do better than N+5?

Ogilvy wasn’t a design thinker – he valued and enabled creative intelligence and always said the reward is the clients, never the organisations. He did of course make a truck load of cash, but that is what clients pay for. Advertising doesn’t pretend to try to make the client or the consumer creative – just successful though creativity and craft. That is the price of an idea.

I see creative intelligence in the intellectual space of gaming, scenario and project based learning, systems, process paths and so on. What I find interesting is that Design Thinking is increasingly appearing as the ‘new thing in education, despite the low success rate. Perhaps its just ‘lag’ or perhaps something else. You can teach it – but you can’t teach it in a vacuum or in a few days. This is why kids who are growing up in Warcraft have it – and why a gamer kid can pwn an honours student if the environment was ridiculously skewed the favour of one  and NEVER (yes NEVER) the other.

Katie Salen has creative intelligence and so do kids. I know about 200 who would run rings around any topic if you designed it for them. This is another thing Ogilvy said – that you need to talk to the end user in their language and why he didn’t care for grammar in his work or care to learn the rules of it. To him, they were dysfunctional methods in actually communicating with the audience you were targeting.

In recent weeks, our Minecraft Guildies have build 12 districts from their imagination for the Hunger Games. Some of them are 6. Some of them haven’t read it, haven’t seen it. The other kids tell them the story – and reshape the story – they use their creative intelligence to design. This means that kids have (as research clearly shows) creative intelligence.

Is it on Gardner’s Nine Intelligences? to save you Googling it – no. Go watch a 14 year old play Battlefield 3 for an hour. That kid has all 9 plus creative intelligence. The fact he doesn’t know some facts, doesn’t make him less intelligent that the person asking the questions. Go on, play Battlefield with him – see how long you last … or better still build a better climate for him to learn in. It’s not hard – he’s got a map.