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.

Episode
  • 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.
Episode
  • Misconceptions
Episode
  • Misconceptions
Episode
  • Misconceptions
Episode
  • Misconceptions
Episode
  • Misconceptions
Episode
  • Misconceptions
Episode
  • Misconceptions
Episode
  • Misconceptions
Episode
  • Misconceptions
Episode
  • Misconceptions
Episode
  • Misconceptions
Episode
  • Misconceptions
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