Filling their minds with mouse droppings

Or, why Mickey Mouse Clubhouse is scientifically terrible

Two events spurred me to write this post.  The first happened in class last year.

Me: (Showing students pictures of stars and nebulae)

Student: You mean that stars are shaped like a ball?

Me: (Feeling like I’m walking into a trap with such an easy question) Yes.

Student: You mean that they aren’t shaped like stars with those little points?

Me: (With dawning comprehension)  Yes.

Student: I feel like I’ve been lied to.

Me: Yes, you have been lied to your entire life.

I started to think things like, “What aspects of language, like star the shape and star the stellar body, contribute to students cross-linking concepts to form untrue beliefs?”  It wasn’t until later that I asked, “How do these untrue beliefs arise?  Is it a specific event, culture, media, or just students trying to make the best inferences from what they know?”

The second event happened while reading the Berenstein Bears book about the Scout troup to my daughter.

Me: (Reading the part in which they come to a narrow gulch)  How do we get across?

My daughter: They need a mousekatool.

For those not familiar with Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, the premise is that some sort of Man v. Nature conflict arises, and Mickey Mouse and friends must save the day.  One aid to the protagonists is a collection of mousekatools dispensed from a mousekadoer into Toodles.  The mousekadoer was originally built by Professor von Drake, though he doesn’t do much to program or maintain it.  Typically, there are three identified tools and one mystery tool.  When trouble with no obvious resolution arises, someone will say, “We need a mousekatool.”

What’s the problem with this?  Isn’t it teaching problem-solving and resourcefulness?  Well, how’s this for a metaphor for humanity’s relationship with technology?  We get our technological wonders from other machines.  Only a few scientists need to know how things work.  When we need more or better machines, we’ll have the machines build them for us.  How useful is it to a kid to hold this belief?  (Footnote: I just built a bow-and-arrow-like device out of some Forsythia branches to show students about elastic interaction energy.  Student: “Wow, you actually built that?”  It was two branches and a piece of string!  For children, do products come from stores and mousekadoers or from people?)  I’ve always thought interpretations like this were suspect, but the mousekadoer is a giant alter to which Mickey chants and dances to invoke it.  Toodles is a mouse-face simulacrum invoked by his own chants, something about Toodles always being there when we need him.  The real problem with Toodles is magical thinking.  Like my daughter, kids come to believe that by invoking the external entity Toodles, all problems will be solved.  Now all we need is Toodles 2.0 who senses when we need him, obviating the need for human thinking at all.  Welcome, robot overlords!  (Note: Dora the Explorer’s Map and Backpack aren’t much better when it comes to magical thinking.)

Just once I would like for a plausible tool for the job to fail to work right.

The gang: Oh Toodles! …

Mickey: Let’s try a hammer to fix this car.

Goofy: Hey, you dented my car!

Or, for a tool to be subpar but workable (like a reasoning Think Aloud).

Mickey: We need a flathead screwdriver for this flathead screw.

Goofy: Oh no!  Toodles didn’t bring us a screwdriver.

Donald: We could try this penny to see if it will work.

I get that it’s good to try to make do with what you have, but no one is given a magically created set of four tools that are guaranteed to be needed during the day.  What about a tool that isn’t used?

Mickey: We haven’t used this hammer yet.

Goofy: Mickey, I think that would be a bad way to clean a tea pot.

The worst part is the mystery mousekatool, which always works when the other options don’t.  I don’t think we can justify it on the grounds of teaching kids resourcefulness with the tools they have.

The series has more to condemn it than just this metaphor of tools and technology.  The only person who creates tools in Professor von Drake, the one who built the mousekadoer and Toodles, and his ideas are often just wrong.  I don’t think we should purposely fill a kid’s head with wrong ideas if we can still tell good stories without doing so.  I understand some amount of implausibility and willing suspension of disbelief, but let’s not harm a kid’s chances of scientific success.  Which untrue beliefs are the most easily discarded as children mature, and which persevere as cancerous memes, affecting their future knowledge?

Discarding useless ideas

What makes us more likely to discard untrue beliefs?  Now that I’m aware of this problem, I’ll be on the lookout in science education research for results on what kind of misconceptions are the easiest to change to true beliefs.

As a first guess, I think that the presence of an organizing principle, like a scientific model, might serve to discard ideas as well.  For instance, my belief “Santa Clause has a red and white suit” is associated with my model of Santa Clause.  When I find out that he isn’t real, I can re-evaluate all my ideas about Santa Clause.  I decide to keep the belief “Santa Clause has a red and white suit”, though I now think of Santa Clause as a fictional character.

Magic works this way too.  Everything that I am told is magic (which I distinguish from illusion), I put in a bin in my mind labeled “Things that can’t really happen”.  However, if I am told that it is science and believe the teller, then I might try to integrate the new belief with my old beliefs, making it more difficult to extricate should it later prove false.  Would it better serve children to tell them that something not really possible is magic or science?  Let me know what you think.  I’m very interested in hearing from other parents and educators on your opinions of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and other children’s programs.

Misconceptions in specific episodes

Here’s some reasonable conclusions children may draw from what they watch.  I’ll update this list as my daughter watches more episodes.

  • Misconceptions
“Goofy’s bird”
  • Baby birds can fly right after they hatch from their eggs.
  • The moon goes through all the phases every night.
  • A ball can be thrown at the ground, bounce to the moon, and then bounce off just a little bit.
  • Constellations will reliably point to the moon.
  • Stars are small, have five points, and will fit in the palm of your hand. (Note: Dora the Explorer isn’t much better here.)
“Mickey’s Little Parade”
  • While not strictly a science misconception, Daisy identifies as bugle as a trumpet…repeatedly.
  • Daisy uses a magnet to attract a wind-up key.  Chances are it’s probably iron, but Daisy says that it’s metal and that magnets attract metal.  She would be right for ferromagnetic metals and slightly right for paramagnetic metals, but she’s wrong for such exotic diamagnetic metals as copper, silver, or lead.  Also, the falloff of her magnet is clearly not the fourth power of distance like for real bar magnets.
  • Misconceptions
  • Misconceptions
  • Misconceptions
  • Misconceptions
  • Misconceptions
  • Misconceptions
  • Misconceptions
  • Misconceptions
  • Misconceptions
  • Misconceptions
  • Misconceptions
  • Misconceptions

How I taught Earth and Space Science, 2011-12


I haven’t finished filling in all the models or how I used them, so this will be a work in progress, but I wanted to get it posted so that I don’t forget about it.  Please hassle me if you want more details about anything.

I have mixed feelings about not teaching Earth & Space Science to 8th graders next year.  This was my first year teaching the subject, and I really enjoy some of the ways that it integrates various traditional science disciplines.  I also enjoyed exploring ways to teach 8th graders, with their budding reason and not-so-much interest in anything to do with science or listening.  It was hard to pull together a curriculum from pieces, so I wanted to memorialize the pieces for myself, and I hope that some of what I write may be useful to others put in my situation, i.e. asked to teach Earth Science because very few who major in the geosciences go on to become teachers.

Basic Philosophy

I had wanted to study Earth and Space Science from a pseudo-historical perspective of, “What kind of things did people have to know to survive?” This line of reasoning started with keeping track of time and weather conditions, “What are the rhythms of the skies?” I also wanted to start with how we use natural resources before we moved on to specifics like rocks, let alone minerals. Since the other teacher teaching this subject was comfortable with the Prentice Hall Earth Science textbook that the school district had purchased, this meant that we had to skip around and go in reverse for some of the chapters. I often strayed from the textbook for weeks at a time. I had wanted to try some of the nascent Modeling Earth Science materials, but (1) I tried to stick as closely with the textbook as I could stomach and (2) I prefer a more expansive survey of Earth Science than the Modeling materials currently express. I think that there are many more things that students can reason about concretely without confining oneself to geology.

You should also know that the following list is my complete list of Models, not what I actually covered. Some I fully developed, and some were Models in name only, with my intent being to develop them further in the future. You should also know that I loosely followed an outside-in order, starting with space, then Earth and its atmosphere, water features, and finally stuff buried in the ground.

General Resources


  • Science in School has good free articles about science topics for classroom use.
  • Sun Tracking Hemispheres to plot the sun’s location in the sky. I had several classes collaborate to take data throughout the day.
  • I made mineral testing kits with:
    • copper penny, wire nail, glass plate, white streak plate, black streak plate (for hardness and streak testing)
    • magnet
    • dilute hydrochloric acid (HCl) (diluted from Muriatic acid) in dropper bottles
  • Rock and Mineral specimens from Ward’s Natural Science
  • hot-plate geyser
  • lots of stuff for pressure/atmospheric dynamics

Books and Articles

General Pedagogical Techniques

Continue reading

How crystals grow, ice edition

This is a follow-up to How crystals grow, marker edition.

Yes, I cheated.  Rather than put my microscope inside my freezer, I melted the layer of ice and then reversed the video.  Still fun, though.  My only complaint is that I started with a frost of very tiny ice crystals.  I’m going to try it again by placing my glass slide in another container to slow the crystallization.


How crystals grow, marker edition


My daughter received these Crayola Crystal Effects Window Markers™ for Easter.  I’m not sure if they are discontinued because I couldn’t find them on other than a reference in a craft project. You write on glass, and they form crystals over a period of a few minutes.  I had my ProScope HR at home to take some microscopic views of salt and some other crystals that we are using for our Minerals unit.  The 8+1 Science website got me thinking about the essence of minerals, which is the interesting arrangements that atoms make.  Of course, I already knew this, but I think I may emphasize this point a little more.  Anyway, back from this digression, I wanted to take a time-lapse video of the crystallization.  It uses humidity from the air, so it might be some sort of deliquescent material, with the crystallization taking place after whatever volatile solvents evaporate?  (Please correct me on this if I’m wrong.)  On my time lapse, the crystallization happened so quickly that one couldn’t see it, so I went with a real-time video.  You can see the part where the crystallization happens below.  It’s still darn fast, but I don’t have the frame rate on this microscope to slow it down.

My next plan is to freeze some water on a glass slide and watch it melt but play it in reverse.

Concept Mapping and The Rock Cycle

Two awesome but not yet perfect (until–hint! hint!–they support links that can self-refer) concept mapping tools are VUE (Visual Understanding Environment) and IHMC CmapTools, both fairly cross-platform software packages.  IHMC CmapTools supports built-in social tools and cloud storage, but VUE is not bad either.  Both have some nice presentation tools and good export formats (with just a few hiccups).  As an example of what you can do, I present the Rock Cycle diagram we use in my class.  Unfortunately, I constantly think of new arrows to add on the diagram, and I’m not 100% satisfied with the terminology on the arrows.  I.e. it could use some refinement.  I would appreciate comments from geologists or Earth Science teachers.

The Rock Cycle

The Rock Cycle

How to guide students

Frank Noschese recently pointed out on the Modeling Physics listserve an article, Putting Students on the Path to Learning: The Case for Fully Guided Instruction”, by Clark, Kirschner, and Sweller in the Spring 2012 American Educator about why Guided Instruction is the best for most students.  My favorite quotes:

A number of reviews of empirical studies on teaching novel information have established a solid research-based case against the use of instruction with minimal guidance. Although an extensive discussion of those studies is outside the scope of this article, one recent review is worth noting…

The article goes on to discuss a review of other studies comparing totally unguided learning with guided forms of learning, even though the authors initially concern themselves with teaching in which learners “must discover or construct some or all of the essential information for themselves” (emphasis mine).  One review is the best evidence that we expect?!  I had hoped to find some information to refine my model of how students learn, namely under what circumstances different forms of learning work best.  To be fair, some of this is found in the article, but the descriptions of the research are lacking.  I can only conclude that he means to test discovery learning by means of his example.  I would rather they just tell me accurately what the research says than to go hunt through the footnotes, which I find to be an inefficient waste of my time.  Well-played, sirs!

Before I read, I’m going to list my prior conceptions of learning.  My current understanding of guided inquiry indicates the following features of learning.

  • Students retain more when they are initially expected to work with what they know.  Highly interconnected knowledge is more likely to be committed to long-term memory.  When students engage a problem with their prior conceptions, they search their brains for existing mental coat hooks on which to hang new knowledge.  Interconnected knowledge makes learning more coherent and helps students to organize their knowledge.
  • Students inured to schooling do not venture willingly into the uncertain realm of inquiry.  Students who have proven themselves with traditional modes of learning (i.e. lecture and reading) do not initially enjoy it, and students who are struggling with prerequisite concepts may not benefit from it.
  • Students are more motivated to learn something abstract when they need to know.  The rest of the teaching world insists that best practice is to pre-teach and front-load vocabulary.  In Modeling, we do not apply the word to its meaning until there is a compelling reason to do so.
  • Extending the lessons of vocabulary (a verbal representation), students need repeated exposure to multiple representations of a concept.  In the act of translating between representations, students (to borrow Robert McDuff’s CIMM definition of learning) coordinate the activation of multiple parts of the brain.  As with connectedness of knowledge, this ensures long-term retrievability.
  • Learning via guided inquiry is effective but not efficient.  Although the authors argue its efficacy, interactive engagement and Modeling methods have been shown to promote long-term retention, but instructors have to leave out much of the traditional curriculum.  However, there are also positive externalities to learning this way, including promoting self-reliance and teaching process skills.  Having my daughter figure out the details of how to perform a chore may not be the most efficient way to communicate the subtleties of a task, but people usually bristle at too much lecture on the finer points of sweeping with a broom.  There is a balance here.  As long as she has been shown the basic mechanics and understands the goal involved, she is ready to begin.  There is a Gradual Release of Responsibility here, and I can view it as a mode of direct instruction or a mode of guided inquiry.  There are things I want her to discover for herself, and things I want to show her first.  By setting her loose, I am building her work-ethic and responsibility too.
  • Sometimes breaking concepts into small chunks and teaching each works great.  Jump Math is one of my favorite examples of this. They also do it in a way that is fun, by showing students what they can do with what they already know.  The method does ask students to try things for themselves, but they are usually little things with which students are guaranteed to succeed.
  • Sometimes one has to supply a few tools for thinking, and students cannot help but think.  CIMM (Cognitive Instruction in Mathematical Modeling) is my favorite example of this.
  • Whatever they are learning, students need feedback.  In Modeling and many inquiry methods, the feedback comes from guiding questions, which place greater cognitive demands on students.  Students also give feedback to each other, which means that they have to listen to each other.  Depth of processing is key.  One of the only ways to get students to listen to each other is for the teacher to stop talking, and while this is necessary, it is not sufficient.  If students aren’t taught or guided how to listen, they will feel frustrated when the teacher doesn’t answer their questions directly.
  • What students think about (depth of processing) while they read or learn is important.  Classroom culture is a good way to build this expectation.
  • Just because students do not become experts at acting like scientists without ten years of experience doesn’t mean we should wait to teach these skills for five years.
  • Observation is theory-laden, that is, interpreted through preexisting schemata.  Students will misremember or misobserve to fit their prior conceptions.  Thus, teachers must engage with student prior conceptions either before or after teaching new concepts.  Not addressing misconceptions is not an option.

Like my students learning something new, my learning about learning and teaching is fragmented.  Right now it is a list, but as I go on, I must organize it into a more useful and connected form.  I’ve been experimenting with concept-mapping in my Earth & Space Science class, so perhaps sometime soon I’ll build connected models of teaching, learning, and practicing through this medium.

Back to the article, which notes that transfer is a problem for minimally-guided methods.  It is no wonder.  Transfer requires some guidance.  Students must be guided how to abstract away differences and build lasting edifices of knowledge.  In some circumstances even, abstract reasoning should be taught before particular concrete examples (See and the interesting comments).

A second point concerns whether discovery-learning actually creates misconceptions.  Although we want students to use the scientific method as a general tool for dispelling their own misconceptions, it would be helpful if students did not have so many.  I tend to blame an incoherent teaching of elementary and middle school science, which in the U.S. has been neglected for over a decade.  Teaching students concepts without application and for which they are not ready is the real harm.  When students know the words for big scientific concepts or have memorized Newton’s Laws by heart but can’t explain them, we know that we have overreached student abilities.  Teaching something poorly early is more damaging than having students practice observing and measuring in the early grades.  To be sure, feedback must come early enough that students do not form lasting misconceptions before they can be corrected.

The achievement gap problem has a simple solution: Allow students who are frustrated to meet for quick direct instruction and practice.  The long-term benefits of this type of metacognition are clear for self-regulation.  Because it is clear that some struggling students will choose to work with their friends anyway, one can make it mandatory at first using formative assessment results to choose the target population.

I think I will have to read more about Mayer’s “constructivist teaching fallacy” (Note: Look up “Three-Strikes Rule” and “Constructivism as a Theory of Learning versus Constructivism as a Prescription for Instruction”).  I would agree that a theory of learning cannot be immediately applied to teaching.  I would not say that I am constructivist in my teaching but rather that I want students to know how to make science work for them.  In the grand scheme of things, I have no doubt that I will teach my students wrong and/or useless ideas.  However, if in doing so, I have taught students how to think and learn for themselves in even the most challenging situations, then I have succeeded.  Might there be some connections to a growth mindset here?

The limitations of working memory make it all the more important to help students assemble their knowledge of the world into working-memory-friendly chunks.  Since memory works by “forgetting” the useless details, is it possible with direct instruction to control what details students consolidate and forget?  I like how the MIT RELATE project‘s MAPS (Modeling Applied to Problem Solving) SIM model and Model Hierarchy, which I think scaffolds student behavior in a good way and reduces demands on working memory.

I would also like to learn more about the worked-example effect (See the articles end notes, 29-32).  It could be used within Modeling during the Model Deployment phase.  To unburden working memory also seems to call for clever use of a problem-solving strategy and keeping track of steps on paper.

Update: The Twitterverse comes through with more details.  @jybuell refers to a comment by Richard Hake on @ddmeyer‘s blog, which refers to a previous response to Kirschner and Swell by Hmelo-Silver, C.E., R.G. Duncan, and C.A. Chinn.  They make many of the points I made, only much better.  Conflating minimally guided instruction like discovery learning with more guided modes of inquiry is no good.  IL (Inquiry Learning) and PBL (Problem-Based Learning) provide many forms of scaffolding for students that address the working memory concerns and offer positive empirical results.


In response to recent cries from the #scichat Twitter community, I have started an Earth & Space Science blog.  I am teaching Earth & Space Science for the first time but have taught mathematics and physics in the past.  I have yet to determine what to put here, but I hope to learn from my blogosphere progenitors as I try to improve and incorporate Modeling Earth Science ideas into my practice.