When he was a child, Mike Denninger was terrified of rollercoaster rides, but as an adult, he rides them for a living. That’s because he holds the rather quirky title of rollercoaster designer for theme park operator SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment.
The thing that Denninger loves the most about rollercoasters is their ability to incite emotion in people and that emotion – coupled with the dynamics that people experience during a ride – is what keeps people coming back time and time again. Interestingly, he thinks that teachers could learn two key things from rollercoaster design when it comes to lesson planning.
The first tip is that the start is key.
“If you think of a rollercoaster at the start of the ride you have to climb up a hill and that’s very purposeful,” says Denninger. “You need to climb the hill because you need the potential energy later in the ride to have dynamics like the airtime or maybe you’ll have inversions or overbank turns. But the moment of climbing the hill also builds anticipation and creates an emotional moment. You create this little bit of thrill and it builds and builds as you build your potential energy.”
The build-up approach can be used in a variety of ways during lessons. For example, teachers can tease content that will be coming later in the lesson, giving students a glimpse of the experiment or plot development in a text, but making the students wait to experience it.
Alternatively, the teacher can keep students in the dark about what is about to happen, keeping them in a short state of confusion until the reveal makes sense of everything and the ride can begin.
After the build up, the second point that Denninger wishes to emphasise is the careful pacing of the ride designed to take people through an emotional arc.
“So you have moments on a ride that are high thrill and you have moments that are in-between so the pace varies through the ride,” says Denninger. “If you think of any great rollercoaster, there will be moments when you drop down the first drop, which is incredible high thrill and high speed, and then you reach the bottom and pull out of that first drop, so you create a little bit of a pause and catch your breath and then you do it all over again. That’s pacing. The ride would not be thrilling or as fun if it was just constant acceleration or if you just went at the same speed.”
Again, Denninger says you can take the same approach to lesson plans. For example, teachers can more consciously create periods of frenetic activity and quiet reflection and experiment to find the sweet spot of how long each should be. This may differ depending on which class they are teaching and at which point in the school day the lesson occurs.
Of course, this pacing and emotional fine-tuning that Denninger advocates is probably something many teachers will do naturally already but pushing themselves to focus on the mechanics of how they structure a lesson in terms of pace will help solidify that and make sure you have the balance right.
And Denninger is keen to point out that this is a two-way street: Learning can influence rollercoaster design, too. SeaWorld is poised to open a new “hypercoaster” ride called Mako this summer, which, Denninger says, will be “a way for our guests to come to our park and learn about the plight of the shark.”
The ferris wheel of the French Revolution and the log flume detailing the water cycle are surely just a few years away…
Simon Creasey is a freelance writer @simoncreasey2