Posted by: Carol | March 16, 2012

What Grown-Ups Can Learn From Phineas and Ferb

Hi, everyone! This week, I’m doing something slightly different – I’m reposting a blog post I wrote for another site, here. At first, I wondered if I should, as it’s not directly about CTE, but my fellow contributors thought you might enjoy it and that it was relevant to the kind of instruction we strive to provide our students, in the CTE field. Certainly, my experiences with CTE have contributed strongly to my perspectives about education as a whole. Also, I’m interested to see how much you agree or disagree with the ideas espoused in the post. I hope you’ll read through, and tell me what you think, in the comments. Can you see CTE happening in what I’ve described below?

Have you ever watched an episode of the Disney Channel cartoon, Phineas and Ferb? If not, I highly recommend it. It’s smart, funny, and manages to tell engaging stories within pretty much the same plot-framework episode after episode – which is indicative, I think, of the creativity and brilliance of the writers. I was introduced to it by my six-year-old son, who asked if he could watch it, and as I often like to work within eye-and-ear shot of my kids, whenever possible, I slowly got exposed – and sucked in – to this clever television show.

I also realized that despite it being an animated series, and therefore able to exaggerate and push the boundaries of “reality” in ways that live-action shows and “real life” obviously can’t, there were some very real lessons that we as educators and adults could bear to learn regarding children and learning.

Phineas and Ferb ©Disney


1. Address a Need: At the start of each new “day,” or episode, the two title characters look around themselves and ask, “So, what are we gonna do today?” This query is always answered by the identification of some immediate need in their environment or community – a teenaged sister who needs to learn to drive, a challenge to play soccer by some rival peer group, the desire to cool the heat of a summer day with a beach party (even though they’re nowhere near a beach), the hope of having something “exciting” to report about their summer vacation once they’re back in school, the need to retrieve their mother’s lucky guitar pick that has slid beneath the wall, etc. The point is, of course, that each day’s endeavor has context. Whatever it is that Phineas and Ferb are working on/playing with, there’s always a reason and a point. No one ever asks, “Why do we have to do this,” because everyone knows. Even if the answer is simply, “so we can have the best day ever” –> code for “have enormous amounts of fun doing stuff with our friends.”

2. Play can also be an opportunity to learn and createPhineas and Ferb isn’t an educational show. Children who are watching it will not learn quantum mechanics, advanced mathematics, or even the finer points of papier-mache (all things that are utilized in various episodes). However, what they may learn is that if you happen to know how to do or make things, endless amounts of fun and adventure are at your fingertips. Educators and adults (excepting those who work with children between the ages of 0-5) are too quick to overlook the relationships between play and learning. The two types of activities often go hand in hand – but educators have long lost the art of integrating learning effectively with play in structured learning environments like classrooms. Why is this, when we all know that play will motivate student participation in ways that no class lecture or homework assignment ever will? Why does education need to feel difficult? The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t. It’s just how we’ve made it. The good news is, this is absolutely something we can unmake, if we have the will to do it.

Here are a couple other things to mull over – I truly believe that learning can and should be, in large part, fun. It’s not easy, however, to design instruction in that way. It’s much easier for teachers to deliver instruction through methods such as lectures, non-contextualized demonstrations, and verbal explanations of abstract theories, concepts, and facts – all methods that have low rates of transmission to students and create situations in which students – and educators! –  start to believe they’re not good learners. Who should education be easy for? The students? Or the educators? (I should also add that there are some incredibly gifted educators out there who are already doing this more challenging type of teaching. It’s the sad truth, however, that what I described in this paragraph is more indicative of what actually happens in classrooms all over this country.)

Which leads to the next lesson…

3. Fun only happens outside of school: Okay, I admit, this is the message that I’m hoping we can eventually debunk, on a large scale. The entire opening theme song is all about the fact that there are just “104 days of summer vacation,” and how the characters have to make the most of them. The entire series takes place outside the context of school, because fun happens outside of school. There are certainly references to school in the series. For instance, the character of Baljeet, a young mathematical wizard, is particularly tied to the rating and reward structures provided by traditional education models, which is played upon to great effect in the episode, “The Baljeatles,” when Baljeet has a breakthrough in self-expression, only to use it to express his desire to conform closely to the requirements of the establishment. It’s funny, but also jarring. You can listen to the song here  (lyrics can be read here).

Again, I wholeheartedly believe that we can and must change these paradigms about school and learning. With millions of children locked inside institutions that may be actively working to make at least thousands of them believe they’re bad at learning, maintaining the status quo seems simply unacceptable.

4. Project-based Learning engages diverse learners and brings them together for collaboration: One of the most striking things about this show is its cast of characters. Phineas (the show’s charismatic and visionary leader) and Ferb (his introverted and brilliant brother) have a core group of friends who work and play with them daily. This group includes the aforementioned “nerd” Baljeet, a “Fireside Girl,” (this world’s version of the Girl Scouts) named Isabella, and Buford, the resident bully who regularly harasses Baljeet. Other children come and go, but generally it’s these five who carry out whatever project happens to make up the day’s adventure. And despite their divergent interests and the way they approach  things according to their own somewhat archetypal world-views, they manage to collaborate positively together in nearly every episode. It’s not a real stretch of the imagination, either. The stuff they do (and albeit, these things aren’t really possible in the real world) is so interesting and engaging, I’d gladly help work on them. I’m betting you would too.

This is our challenge as educators – to create and design relevant, authentic, project-based learning opportunities and environments that engage all learners and meaningfully build on the individual contributions of each.

5. Age is no obstacle: Phineas and Ferb are constantly being asked (at a rate of almost once an episode – it’s a repeated bit) if they aren’t too young to be taking on whatever endeavor that day’s project happens to be. Their pat answer is, “Yes. Yes, we are.” But this answer is 1) obviously incorrect as it’s disproved by their successes, and 2) it’s an effective strategy to get the “concerned” adults out of the way, by affirming their world view (you know, the one in which kids are incapable of inventing, developing, constructing, designing, or executing anything real) within the context of…well, that world view. We grown-ups have a lot of ideas about what children are or are not capable of doing and learning. Once we sweep aside these preconceptions and assumptions, we may realize that they’re less to do with what kids can or can’t do, and more to do with how our own thinking limits us as educators – and our kids as learners.

6. Don’t forget the autonomy: An important component in all of this, of course, is choice. The kids in this show play and work and create together because they choose to – it is, after all, summer vacation, and this isn’t school. There’s a whole reservoir of motivation and agency educators could dip into if we could just do a better job of creating learning environments where students feel that they have some voice in what they learn and how they learn. I don’t advocate creating a “wild west” situation in the classroom, but it is possible to provide more choices and allow students to engage with material on their own terms, especially if we’re able to develop instructional models which focus more on experiential, contextualized learning.

7. Time is of the essence: Not only is summer vacation limited, each day comes to an end. The Phineas and Ferb crew wrap up each project in a day. This is not to say we should do the same with our students. But there’s an important lesson in this. Momentum and timing matter. Don’t let projects drag on indefinitely without authentic, outcomes-based feedback points and milestones.

Futhermore, with every month and year that ticks by, we continue to lose kids to the drop-out epidemic and the graduation crisis (about 7,200 kids per school day which equals roughly 1.3 million 12th graders not graduating with the rest of their class per year1). It’s untenable to have so many young people without employable skills, knowledge, or credentials accruing between the cracks of our school systems.

So, keeping all these valuable lessons in mind, perhaps it’s time that we educators and grown-ups of the world try applying them to our own efforts. What better project is there, after all, than figuring out how to make every day of school, “the best day ever,” for every one of our students? There’s a definite need, and who knows, maybe turning learning into play could be fun. I ask you, “So, what are we gonna do today?”


  1. […] What Grown-Ups Can Learn From Phineas and Ferb ( 33.629319 -85.804754 Rate this: Share this: Pin ItEmailMoreDiggShare on TumblrPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in Animation News and tagged Birmingham Alabama, Bully Bromance Break Up, Disney, Let’s Bounce, Perry the Platypus, Phineas & Ferb, Phineas and Ferb Live, State Farm by barcncpt44. Bookmark the permalink. […]

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