Project-Based Learning

Project-Based Learning Using Disney Movies

Popular movies can be an entry point for students to dig deeper into historical studies.

A magic lamp sitting on a sand dune in a desert, a wisp of blue light coming out of it
©iStock/RomoloTavani

Last year, I was surfing Pinterest hoping to find some interesting ideas to implement in my AP World History class. I came across several articles where individuals had used the classic tales animated by Walt Disney to encourage student learning.

After thinking on this, I had an epiphany: What if I had students use historical knowledge they had gained throughout the course to pick out inaccuracies in Disney films? This had the potential to be an interesting project for students to explore a movie of their choosing and develop a polished presentation to teach their peers about the selected time period and region. I wanted to create an assignment in which students harnessed and nurtured their creative abilities but also accomplished the goals.

After extensive planning, I was able to develop a project that embodied the analysis of historical context, a fun animated classic, and also primary sources. The parameters for the culminating project were as follows:

1. Summarize the story as portrayed by Disney.

2. Determine the origins of the fairy tale behind the movie. Where did the fairy tale originate in the world? How true to the tale did Disney stay?

3. Determine the setting of the movie (time and place) and whether the architecture is appropriate. For example, is Mulan set in Han China, when the Forbidden City had not yet been constructed?

Is the clothing congruent with the setting? How accurate is the appearance of the characters? Are there any geographic misrepresentations? For example, does Hercules mention visiting Mount Kilimanjaro in Greece?

4. Determine what was going on the world at this point in history. Consider all events globally and identify at least one major event from each continent (except Antarctica).

5. What historical inaccuracies can you find in the movie? Aside from talking animals and the magical powers of wands and genies, what fallacies are represented in the movie?

6. Select two primary sources from someone who would have been a contemporary during the time and in the location of the movie’s setting. If Beauty and Beast takes place in Revolutionary France, you can use a letter from Robespierre. This source should be connected in some way to the movie. If you use Robespierre’s letter, perhaps you want to relate it to Gaston in his attempt to raid the castle.

As with any new project, I had some trepidation about whether the outcome would be as desired. There were several potential flaws that occurred to me. “What if the students really just see this as an excuse to watch a movie and really don’t analyze it as I envision? What if the students just decide to turn in poster paper? What if I haven’t prepared my students to think about these movies in a global context and really analyze them? Have I really thought through any possible hiccups? With so little guidance into what the final product should look like, what should I expect?” Because my students had worked so hard to prepare for the AP test, I figured I would wing it. Trial and error, right?

At the end of this project, I was more than impressed. Of course, there are always modifications to be made, but essentially all of my students created final presentation products that were polished, analytical, and comprehensive. I received some Prezi presentations, video compilations, elaborate PowerPoints, and even a PowToon. 

Several of my students reported that they had learned more from this project than any other assignment in their history classes. Others reported that the freedom they were given to search out resources and to create a product in a format other than a written report was refreshing.

I consider every lesson a learning experience, no matter how many times it has been implemented. This lesson with a select group of students has taught me that project-based learning encourages a deeper learning model. I have also learned that despite our best intentions to maintain a structured environment, there is something beneficial about letting students guide their own learning. We as teachers all know that our students learn more when they are interested in a topic, but letting them drive their own learning takes this to the next level.

I consider this assignment a success and plan to implement it again this spring. I’m still considering taking it even further into the redefinition category—for you fans of SAMR (substitution, augmentation, modification, and redefinition).

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.