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What Every Teacher Can Learn from the Old-School EPCOT Center


Lessons about Teaching I learned at Epcot Center

Whether or not you have walked beneath the giant golf ball at Walt Disney World’s EPCOT theme park yourself (its correct name is “Spaceship Earth” by the way), every teacher can learn a few lessons from this theme park. I use the term “EPCOT Center,” even though the park dropped the “center” from the name along the way, because in its heyday (the 1980’s and 90’s) EPCOT was a much different park—solely dedicated to a noble purpose:  educating children today to make a better tomorrow. Over the years the focus of the park has shifted, leaving a large part of its initial purpose behind, but remembering what made EPCOT Center great can still help teachers today.

First, a bit of history on the park:  EPCOT is an acronym that stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow and was a brainchild of Walt Disney himself. Disney imagined EPCOT as a living, breathing community, where people could actually live, and innovative ideas could be tried out on real-life families. Although Disney did not live long enough to see his dream become a reality, the leaders of his company tried to bring a version of Walt’s dream to life as part of the Walt Disney World Project. EPCOT Center was established in 1982 (coincidentally the same year I was established).

Second, a bit of history on me:  My dad, a high-school principal, first encountered EPCOT Center while chaperoning a senior trip to Walt Disney World. As a former science teacher and a lifelong learner, my dad was drawn to its emphasis on education. On subsequent trips, he was able to take his own kids (i.e. me) along.  I was eight years old when I first visited EPCOT Center, and it left an indelible impression on me. Maybe you have many of the same memories that I do, but if you never visited the original EPCOT Center yourself, I recommend reading this blog post.

So without further ado here are five lessons teachers can learn from the original EPCOT Center.

  1. Instill a sense of wonder. Immerse your students. There’s something about walking beneath Spaceship Earth that instills a sense of wonder and awe. Massive buildings devoted to Energy, Motion, the Living Seas, the Land, Health, and Imagination invite young minds to explore. The World Showcase pavilions themed to various countries around the world made you feel like you were actually visiting those countries. Throw in robotic dinosaurs, Viking boat rides, and animatronic Founding Fathers, and you can learn simply by osmosis. I will never forget the experience of being on a ride called “Universe of Energy.” First you were seated in a theater, where you watched a video about how oil was formed from the bodies of decomposing dinosaurs. Not the most thrilling of information. As soon as the film ended, the curtains on the sides of the theater rose to reveal that the theater you thought you were in was anything but. Your “theater seats,” which are actually the ride vehicle, began to move forward into a prehistoric, misty, musty-smelling world where life-like dinosaurs hovered above you in the darkness. Talk about wonder! I was amazed! What I perceived to be an uninteresting lecture was actually an immersive ride. As teachers we need to find creative ways to pique our students’ interest. Whether it’s through eye-catching visuals, hands-on activities, or field trips to real-life locations, if we can tap into our students’ wonder, we have started them down the path of learning. To read about the Universe of Energy ride, click here.
  2. Make learning fun. Is this too cliché? Science was never something that interested me much, but in EPCOT Center things were different. Body Wars was a flight-simulator ride that shrunk the audience down to the size of a white blood cell and took you on a pulse-pounding ride through the human body. I can still remember being sucked through the bloodstream, lungs, and other organs of the body. As a side-effect to all that fun, I learned some subtle lessons about how the body functions. I know we teachers don’t have multi-million-dollar budgets, but we should seek out ways to make learning inventive and fun. Think of a new angle you could take on old information. Find a way to spice it up. Students have enough “ho-hum” instruction that something different will make their day!
  3. Spark your students’ imagination. For 8-year-old me the ultimate ride that EPCOT had to offer was the “Journey into Imagination” ride, which featured a purple dragon named Figment. (Guess where he got his name?) The message of the ride was simple, conveyed through a catchy, Sherman-Brothers-written song:  “One little spark of imagination is at the heart of all creation.” The ride itself was inventive and fun, and its lesson still resonates with me today. If I can spark the imagination of my students, I won’t be teaching them what to think; I’ll be teaching them how to think. To read more about Journey into Imagination click here.
  4. Teachers and students can have fun learning together. Every time we went to Walt Disney World while we were growing up, I think my Dad suffered through the Magic Kingdom for us kids. But when we finally went to EPCOT Center, it was his chance to become a kid again. It was funny seeing my dad, such an authority figure, excited to learn and experience things alongside me. It showed me that no one—regardless of age—should ever stop learning. As a teacher I try to learn alongside my students. With the reading aloud of script-stories, I am a fellow participant in the lesson with my students. Rather than going to my desk and checking my email (which I still sometimes do), I stay and experience what they are experiencing. The experience of learning together creates an important bond that resonates with students long after the lesson is over.
  5. Education is a noble goal and the hope of tomorrow. The original EPCOT Center had a noble mission: Educating the children of today to build a better tomorrow. According to EPCOT Center, the hope of humanity lies in education. The park even had a theme song called “Tomorrow’s Child,” whose best lines go like this:  “Tomorrow’s child/gathering gifts from our past/building a world that will last/holding the spark/as we embark…the future world is born today.” It’s easy for teachers to get bogged down in the minutiae, but we need to remember the ultimate philosophy of our profession:  To build the world of tomorrow.

Of course, I’ve taken my own kids to EPCOT. I want to do for them what my parents did for me; yet as the years pass, I see the emphasis on education slipping away. EPCOT today is not what EPCOT Center was before. But rather than mourn what is no more, I am going to celebrate what was. I’ll do that by attempting to re-create it in my own classroom. I want to make tomorrow’s child the best he or she can be.

This post is dedicated to my dad, who taught me that the best teachers are those who never stop learning.

Our family beneath Spaceship Earth during our last visit to EPCOT.

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