More Than a Ride: Why Educators Should See "Tomorrowland"
Today's post is a special guest post by famed Erik M. Francis, M. Ed, M.S.
Don't dismiss Tomorrowland as another marketing ploy by Disney to buy merchandise or visit their parks by making a movie about one of its rides.
Tomorrowland is not SPACE MOUNTAIN: THE MOVIE. It's also not THE HAUNTED MANSION or PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN. There is no Jack Sparrow, and George Clooney's character is not cartoonish enough to turn into a character in the park or turn into an animatronic or hologram that will entertain park patrons as they wait to ride Space Mountain, Mission to Mars, or Star Tours. The only thing this movie truly has in common and connection with Disney is that it was produced by the studio and its title is named after the futuristic corner of their Disney parks - that and the portal to Tomorrowland is through one of its rides that was featured in the 1964 World's Fair (well, they couldn't use the saucer pillars since MEN IN BLACK already established they were flying saucers :D).
Tomorrowland is actually a statement about education -- particularly, what does it truly mean to demonstrate higher level thinking and communicate deeper knowledge, understanding, and awareness. It talks about the demise of the dreamers, the innovators, the inventors, and the creative thinkers who are to look beyond factual knowledge and conventional wisdom and imagine and wonder what if. In fact, the entire movie is an answer to what if questions.
What if the world and everything that is wrong or dysfunctional about it was able to be fixed?
What if the end of the world could be prevented or protected instead of perpetuated not only through our destructive actions and decisions but also our sensationalized and entertaining perspectives and points of view about how mankind and society will eventually self-destruct?
What if all this could happen because someone - in this case, an idealistic young girl who boldly attempts to ask her teachers who teach about the plight of mankind and society with their lessons about international conflicts, global warming, and even dystopian science fiction - was brave and bold enough to ask, "What can we do to fix it?"
Yes, all this in a Disney movie - or rather a movie produced and distributed by Disney.
However, this is not the typical Disney movie that portrays an idealistic, puritanical, and simplistic world in which everyone is animated - in appearance and action - and express themselves through song and dance. There is also nothing insipid or pedantic about this movie. It's not only a highly entertaining movie as well as one with a powerful message that says the following:
1) Girls are smart and wise! Forget PITCH PERFECT 2. This is the movie for girls this summer that is not only entertaining and enjoyable but also presents a powerful message about the potential of young ladies in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics - better known as S.T.E.M. The main character is an intelligent teenage girl named Casey (Britt Robertson) who has an edge not because she is rebelling against the norms and rules of society but rather because she won't settle for society to lie down and surrender. She's a believer, a dreamer, and (gasp!) an optimist who believes the world's problems can be fixed. In fact, her ideals and hopes are the catalyst that earns her the Tomorrowland pin and has her become identified by another young girl, Athena (played by Raffey Cassidy) to recognize and recruit her to come to Tomorrowland, a utopian society where all the residents are great dreamers and thinkers like her. These two girls drive the film forward and establish the central ideas and themes of this movie - even when the world is at its darkest and most down, there is always hope driven by ideas and dreams that it could get better.
2) Learning Through S.T.E.M. is academic, authentic, and awesome! Tomorrowland is more of a promotion for a S.T.E.M. education than an advertisement for a Disney education. The movie expresses the importance of developing deeper knowledge, understanding, and awareness of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. However, it does not preach. The message is subtle yet evident through the actions and attitudes of Casey. For example, there is a scene in which her father (played by Tim McGraw), who is an engineer who is about to be laid off by NASA once the local Cape Canaveral rocket launchpad where he works is demolished, is in his workshop tinkering with a technical device that won't work. Casey enters, suggests to "try this", clips one of the ends of the cable to another line, and it works. She doesn't provide an elaborate explanation or spout scientific terminology. She solves the problem simply by "trying this" - which is truly what is the intent and purpose of teaching and learning with S.T.E.M. It's not about answering questions, addressing problems, and accomplishing tasks by knowing, understanding, and "doing" the math and science. It's about thinking how and why math and science - and technology and engineering - can be used to answer questions, address problems, and accomplish tasks. However, they do it in a way that is both educational and entertaining rather than academic and austere.
US Dept. of Education
3) Kids want to think and test their thinking, not be taught to think and take tests! Interestingly, it's not the kids who frown or reject Casey for being smart. It's her teachers who stand in front of the room teaching about nuclear war and world conflict, about the polar ice caps melting due to global warming, and the dystopian science fiction written by Ray Bradbury, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell that paint a bleak forecast of our future and profess their own ideas about the impossibility of utopias. Casey raises her hand high in each class, which goes ignored until her English class when her teacher groans and rolls his eyes as he calls on her. That's when she asks, "Can we fix it?" Unfortunately, the class ends before a response can be given, and Casey is left on her own to think deeply about how could she answer her own question (which she eventually does). These are the scenes that truly gripped me not only as an educator but as a parent and a citizen of the world. Our curriculum and the teaching we do can be very negative, focusing on what are or have been the problems, how were they fixed or attempted to be fixed, and how can we learn what those steps so we can handle those problems if they happen again. Unfortunately, not every problem can be solved; however, they can be addressed, handled, resolved, or settled, and that's what we need to teach our kids - to think about how to solve problems but test whether their ideas, hypotheses, and predictions are valid and viable. That's how kids not only learn but also demonstrate and communicate learning, and that's what this movie is advising. Let kids think about and test their thinking, not be talked to and tested.
4) The failures and flaws of the future can be fixed even before they happen.Even Tomorrowland, which was a utopian society, crumbles. However, instead of being another story about the failures and flaws of the future as depicted in the printed and filmed texts of THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy, the DIVERGENT books, and the MAZE RUNNER novels, Tomorrowland focuses on how can these failures and flaws be fixed without revolutionary uprisings against the powers that be. In fact, this movie could be perceived as presenting the cause behind the dystopian futures of this film. We were so consumed with, exposed to, and stressed about different ways doomsday will happen that we were actually inspired and informed how to cause and create the apocalypse. Simply put - we provided ourselves with the tools of our own destruction by educating and entertaining ourselves about it rather than challenging and engaging ourselves to think deeply about how to avoid it. Tomorrowland takes more of a design approach to addressing the problem by accepting and acknowledging, Here are the flaws, so what can we do to innovate or invent to improve the worldrather than work toward avoiding it or even ignoring it? The future does not have to be flawed or even fatal. It can be fixed - and that's what Casey believes and sets out to do.
I won't tell you if she's successful though. You'll have to see this movie for yourself.
If you have children, take them. I took my 12 year old daughter - who wanted to see the movie because of the Disney connection - and her 9 year old sister - who didn't want to see it because what she saw in the ads didn't interested her. However, all three of us walked out of there blown away not only by how entertaining and enjoyable the movie was but also how it made us to enthused and encouraged. The three of us walked out of there constantly saying, "WOW!" not because of the story or the special effect but because the meaning and message was so encouraging. When I asked them what I thought the movie was about, their answers were the four items listed above, and the explanations were based on the conversation we had.
If you're a teacher, show this to your students - especially if you are implementing or attempting to implement a S.T.E.M. instructional focus at your school. Ask your students, "What does this film infer and suggest about the following: girls learning science and math, learning for and through S.T.E.M., thinking to learn vs. learning to think, testing vs. taking tests, the future can be fixed?" Then ask them, "How could you incorporate these ideas and themes to deepen your learning experience in and out of school?" Make your goal for demonstrating and communicating not only to meet the performance objectives of academic standards but also to demonstrate and communicate deeper knowledge and thinking to earn that pin to Tomorrowland.
If you know an elected politician in your local community or who works in politics, show them this film. Discuss with them what is the meaning and message of this film. Then challenge them to consider how could they change and lead their community and constituents to fix the future by focusing on making the present a better place. Have them fulfill those promises they made in their campaigns. Remind them what they promised and prompt them to follow through even in the face of doubt, discouragement, and disillusion.
That's what Casey did in Tomorrowland, that's what the movie teaches us, and that's why every educator, student, parent, and politician should see Tomorrowland- because it will challenge and engage you to think deeply about how to fix the future by focusing on today.
Erik is the lead professional education specialist and owner of Maverik Education LLC, providing professional development, guidance, and support on teaching and learning for cognitive rigor. His professional development seminars have been featured at national, state, and regional education conferences hosted by organizations such as ASCD, Learning Forward, and the College Board. He has worked closely with K-12 schools nationwide on aligning curriculum, instruction, and assessment to the cognitive rigor of college and career ready standards. His book Now THAT’S a Good Question! Promoting Cognitive Rigor Through Classroom Questioning will be published by ASCD in November 2015.