I recently had the wonderful experience of enjoying the Disney World parks with members of my extended family who span a 70-year age range. As we averaged about 20,000 steps a day, exploring the Magic Kingdom and other parks, I couldn’t help but watch the anticipation and excitement on the faces of all the children and adults around us. I imagined other families’ days started much like our own: waking up early, eager to start their adventures and excited for that special something that would be the high point of their day. And I imagined their days ended much like ours: everyone happily exhausted, satisfied from a day of delights and new experiences.

As leaders of professional learning, I believe we can learn a lot from Disney. Of course, I’m not talking about the cost of the experience – I’ll be paying off the expenses from that trip for a while! Nor am I talking about the glitz and special effects that create a sense of fantasy. I’m talking about the way that Disney attends to every detail to ensure that all attendees have a unique and memorable experience, one that they explore and grow from together.

Here are some of the things I believe we can apply to professional learning, especially to large-scale gatherings and ongoing learning experiences now that we are coming back together in person.

Create excitement and anticipation for the experience

Long before I got to the park, it was suggested that I download the Disney World app. As I explored the app, I began to imagine some of the possibilities. It was helpful to see details about the various attractions, and the more I read, the more I began to imagine myself in the experience. As others in my family checked out the various aspects of the park, I could see their anticipation and excitement growing, too.

We should strive to create that same excitement and anticipation in the learning experiences we design and facilitate. For example, in the weeks leading up to our Annual Conference, the Learning Forward team sends what we call a “sweater letter.” It addresses many of the logistical details participants need to know – including a reminder to bring a sweater or jacket since conference facilities are known for being chilly – and points out some highlights to get them excited.

As you consider the professional learning experiences you lead, how do you build anticipation and interest in the learning? And for those experiences that involve large groups of participants, how do you make the experience feel personal and engaging?

Provide “just in time” support and feedback

As my family and I walked through the Disney parks, I was surprised how many times a staff member would approach us to ask if we needed something. Whenever we paused to find our way, someone would approach us and say something like, “Hey there. Can I help you with anything or show you how to get anywhere?” The staff members always stayed with us until they were sure our questions were answered and we knew our next steps.

Learning facilitators can do what Disney did for my family: thoughtfully create an environment and culture where learners feel safe to ask questions in order to get the answers and feedback they need. The Implementation standard of the recently revised Standards for Professional Learning describes what I mean: “Professional learning leaders establish a culture of feedback that prioritizes supportive relationships in which educators can share challenges, build trust, and examine beliefs and practices in a compassionate and productive environment. They hold the shared expectations that feedback processes lead to improved learning for educators and students.”

I have seen district and school leaders do an excellent job of this. I’ve seen it in large sessions, where facilitators walked around answering questions while also providing useful feedback on participants’ work. I’ve also witnessed instructional coaches visiting classroom teachers to respond to questions and provide in-the-moment feedback, leading to stronger implementation of new practices.

As you consider the kind of support and feedback you provide as part of your professional learning, how do you create a culture of high trust and openness to feedback? What strategies will you develop to ensure each of your learning facilitators is offering specific and targeted feedback?

Remember to celebrate

Part of the magic of Disney World is the nightly fireworks celebration. Although Disney finds smaller ways to celebrate throughout the day – parades, visits from costumed characters, and other special moments that bring smiles to children and adults alike – the fireworks show is the culminating event that brings everyone together. No matter how tired we were at the end of the day, my family and I always found enough energy to celebrate.

Although fireworks are usually out of the question during educator gatherings, learning leaders should find our own ways to celebrate during the learning journey. When my colleagues Stephanie Hirsh, Kay Psencik, and I wrote Becoming a Learning System, we dedicated an entire chapter to celebrating progress. In that chapter we wrote, “Celebrations reignite the human spirit and propel staff toward even greater accomplishments. Celebrations can touch hearts and fire imaginations, bonding people together and connecting them to the organization’s goals, vision, and values. Work takes on a new sense of meaning and joy.”

One of the tips we offered for designing celebrations is to make them meaningful and sincere. Celebrations don’t need to be elaborate; they may be simple, regular recognition of good work and progress throughout the learning journey. I’ve facilitated groups where we celebrate learning moments with high fives, drum rolls, or applause. I’ve seen learning facilitators roll in a dessert cart after a long day of learning or flash a photo of someone’s good work on a screen. In every case, what mattered was that the learners felt seen and appreciated and that they got to pause and mark the moment.

Make sure celebrations are meaningful and sincere. They don't have to be elaborate; just regular recognition of good work and progress throughout the learning journey. Share on X

As you look for ways to support the learning momentum in your setting, how will you use celebrations?

A spirit of continuous improvement

I’m sure there’s more we can learn from Disney as we design and facilitate professional learning to meet the needs of all educators. The spirit of continuous learning and applying new knowledge is what professional learning is all about. As Walt Disney himself said about Disney World’s sister park, “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.”

Learn more about Learning Forward’s Annual Conference at conference.learningforward.org.