My Little Pony: Mindset is Magic

Carol Dweck is a researcher particularly into the areas of motivation, personality, and development. She’s done numerous studies and wrote a book, but her ideas about fixed mindset versus growth mindset really, really caught on since her TED talk last year.

So (and I am taking great liberties in paraphrasing), one’s mindset dictates how they think, feel, and act in every aspect of their lives. One might have a fixed mindset and believe their traits and talents are permanently set. Or, one might have a growth mindset and believe traits and talents can change with effort.

And naturally that makes me think of My Little Pony.

My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is the current iteration of a popular toy and cartoon franchise that I think motivated me to get potty-trained back in the eighties, so maybe that’s why research on motivation brings it to mind. Just kidding. Actually, I think it’s the cutie marks. Cutie marks (a play on the phrase “beauty marks”) are images that appear on a My Little Pony’s flank. These are often pictorial representations of the pony’s name. My favorite one as a kid was Moondancer; I remember she had a crescent moon and three stars as her cutie mark.


I spotted this pony cosplaying as Moondancer at the county fair a couple years ago.

But cutie marks can also indicate something that the pony is particularly good at, or associated with. Applejack, who works on an apple farm, has apples for her mark. Fluttershy, who works with animals, has three butterflies. There are even characters called the Cutie Mark Crusaders who do not yet have cutie marks (I guess it’s a coming of age thing), but continuously try new hobbies and explore new interests in case that is where there cutie marks will come from.

So what does this have to do with a fixed or growth mindset?

Well, first there’s the idea that a pony’s cutie mark is somehow pre-destined. This would fit into the fixed mindset mentality, that talents are something you’re born with, something innate, and something that cannot be changed.

However, once you actually watch the show (because you have an eight-year-old niece), this is not an entirely comprehensive understanding of it. Yes, many of the ponies have cutie marks that relate to their talents and interests. But for even many of the ponies there for set dressing, the cutie mark is not the be-all and end-all to who that pony really is.

There is more to a fixed mindset than believing in natural abilities. Someone with a fixed mindset might give up quickly on something they’re not good at when they first try. They stick with what they know because they believe their potential is static.

Main character Twilight Sparkle seems to have that mindset in the beginning of the show. The first episode shows that she’s very bright and academically inclined. She is referred to as a gifted student who is very talented at using magic. She is even mentored by Princess Celestia, the ruler of the land — who tells her that “there is more to life… than studying” and assigns her some homework most unusual: to make friends. The point of the show is that Twilight Sparkle learns how to make friends and then nurture and maintain those relationships, while her friends also learn valuable life lessons. So while Twilight Sparkle does have a natural inclination towards book learning rather than social interaction, she does learn to be a good friend (and learn to love it, too). This is an example of a growth mindset — recognizing that some people are born with talents, but that you can sculpt your talent through experience and effort. Attitude affects aptitude.

I also appreciate the fact that ponies who have special talents and interests do not necessarily make their living off these special talents and interests. Rarity the unicorn is a fashion designer and seamstress who runs her own business. Her special talent is finding gemstones. She uses this talent in service of her passion, rather than building her business on this ability. Pinkie Pie is another example — her ability to throw awesome parties can come in handy, but she still has a day job at the bakery.

Supposedly it is preferable for people to have a growth mindset — it helps us be persistent, to be open to new experiences, to learn better from failure, and have better self-esteem. Knowing that, though, it is difficult to nurture a growth mindset in young learners, often because adults model a fixed mindset themselves. In My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, the pony peers do a good job of praising one another’s efforts while also acknowledging their innate strengths. Ponies often struggle with a concept before they master it, and these concepts frequently have to do with social and emotional learning. They cooperate more often than they compete; they make room for making mistakes in their relationships, because they know perfection is an untenable expectation to have of themselves and of each other.


So, overall, I feel like this is a good cartoon to watch with your kids (and nieces, they also matter!). The characters do a good job of challenging our expectations of them, and modeling different ways to learn positive character traits. Two hooves up!

5 Things Kids Can Learn from Video Games

So I recently read Alice Keeler’s post on 5 Things Teachers Can Learn From Video Games. I come down on the pro-gaming side, and have since the days of Bubble Bobble on the original NES. So if your kids are into video games, do not distress. They might be learning.


Video games can help your kid with decision-making. Specifically, budgetary ones. Many video games have their own economies, where you can pay for better gear or more lives or whatever. You often have to earn money of some kind and save up. Sometimes you have to make decisions because you can only hold or afford so much in game. And I would rather practice make the wrong choice about what to spend my money on in a video game than in real life.


Not every video game economy is equally imaginary.

Video games can help kids make friends and build social skills.
Video games can help us learn to be patient, persistent, and face up to challenges. They can help us learn to handle frustration and disappointment. Plus, they are a common hobby these days, and even though kids aren’t supposed to play them at school, it doesn’t stop a lot of cafeteria conversations revolving around them. And often communities are built around video games, whether in or outside of the game itself. I for one participate on Nintendo’s Miiverse; it’s a good place to ask for help if you’re stuck on something in a game, or just journal or comment on your gaming experience. In fact, the most polite argument I think I’ve ever been in during all my years on the Internet was on Miiverse.


Taking turns! Sharing! Yay!


Video games can make your brain do work. Problem-solving is an important part of many video games. Often you have to come at a challenge from new and different directions. That’s learning in progress. They get immediate feedback from the game to tell whether or not their ideas work, and they can learn from it and try again until they succeed. (With breaks if needed, of course.)

Video games can also be an outlet for creative expression, perhaps as part of the game itself, or within the community around it.


The Legend of Zelda series of games are well-known for the puzzles, among other things.

Video games might inspire your kid to learn more. Kids who want to learn more about a game, or improve their game experience, might seek out books about the game. If books do not exist, they may take to the Internet and scour message boards or other resources to find answers. I also see kids write about their gaming experiences — maybe they’re journaling their experiences; maybe they’re sharing tips and tricks; maybe they’re creating a story for their game character and going more the fictional route. Either way, video games, like any hobby, can spark kids’ interest in a topic and open them up to new kinds of learning experiences.


Team Science actually lost to Team Art, but I think we still get the picture.

There are psychological benefits to gaming. Sure, I’ve already listed some, but some studies show that video gamers show improvements in basic visual processes, attention and vigilance, executive functioning, and some job-related skills.

Granted, not every video game is an appropriate choice for every kid (the same way that not every book, movie, or TV show is an appropriate choice for every kid). But that doesn’t condemn the whole medium; even games not purported to be “educational” can provide unique and useful learning experiences.

Disclaimer: I drew all this art (because nerd alert) using Nintendo Wii U Pad or 3DS. Characters depicted are property of Nintendo.


Teaching and Learning and The Force Awakens

Okay, now is where there are going to be spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Teaching and learning are huge themes in the Star Wars movies. Teachers guide their students and sometimes impose on them. Students sometimes select their teachers —  often a choosing between the light side and the dark side of the Force in the process. Mentor-mentee relationships are some of the most important in the franchise.


I can’t explain this clip art. I just like it.

The Force Awakens features lots of learning, though much less teaching. Finn the former stormtrooper has had blaster training, and transfers that training to operate the gunner positions on at least two different ships. Later on in the movie, he’s even willing to pick up and use a lightsaber, despite that being a very niche weapon.

Finn learned to do those things with minimal teaching. He is coached on the TIE fighter by Resistance pilot Po Dameron — who himself has never flown a TIE fighter before. He is also learning on the fly. Rey the scavenger talks him through some aspects of operating the cannon on the freighter they steal, but he’s mostly on his own for that.

You don’t always need a teacher to learn, although it usually helps. For better or for worse, we can learn simply by being in great stress. He is forced to learn because he is in life or death situations. There are loads of examples of people learning in these kinds of situations, but a lot of the time the takeaways are not practical or transferable. For example, a child in an abusive situation may learn unhealthy ways to cope with the abuse. In fact, considering that Finn was “taken from a family [he’ll] never know” and “programmed since birth” to be a foot soldier, he probably had a lot of experience learning in situations not so much tailored for his specific learning needs, but rather for the needs of those hierarchically above him.

Rey the scavenger also demonstrates much learning throughout the movie. We are only given glimpses into her past, but she’s been living alone on a desert planet for most of her life. So I presume that many of her basic skills and abilities come from simply needing to survive. She’s good with a melee weapon (staff) because she needed to defend herself. She’s familiar with mechanical pieces and parts because she needed to scavenge from shipwrecks to survive. At one point she tells Finn that she’s never piloted a ship off the planet before, which leads me to assume she’s had experience moving machines on the surface, comparatively. She moves quickly and makes split-second decisions when Han Solo is her copilot. But I think her really interesting learning experiences come from her interactions with Kylo Ren.

Kylo Ren is the masked dark side Force-user of the film. He idolizes his predecessor, Darth Vader, and while he may have the same power, he does not have the same self-control. Unlike Rey, Kylo has had training — first from Luke Skywalker, who he turned against; later from Supreme Leader Snokes. (We do not see either actually train Kylo, unlike in A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, where we see student Skywalker interact with teachers Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, respectively.)

Kylo uses the Force to try and get information from Rey, by doing something that seems like reading her mind. He can recite her favorite daydream but she blocks him from the information he wants. Then, she tells him something deeply personal about himself, shocking him and sending him running to Snokes. How could Rey have done this without being trained herself? Well, as I said before, it’s not ideal, but you can learn and adapt in a stressful situation. Also, Rey probably paid attention to what Kylo was doing enough to try it on him. Any parent who has cussed around their kids knows that this unintentional teaching happens. Rey tries this power out on a stormtrooper later, making several mistakes she can learn from before getting it right.

Later on in the midst of a lightsaber duel, Kylo tells Rey she needs a teacher, and says, “I could show you the way.” However, though he has more training than Rey, I would argue that Kylo is not prepared to be a teacher at this point. Simply knowing more than someone else on a given topic is not qualification enough. Yes, she could learn from him, but she has already demonstrated that she can learn things from him that he did not intend to teach her. But I’m not going to worry about it too much, firstly because I do not constitute any kind of Jedi or Sith education licensing agency. But also because Rey responded to Kylo’s invitation with a lightsaber to his face.

I am sure that, if I watched it again, I could probably mine some more examples of teaching and learning from The Force Awakens. And goodness knows I would (I haven’t seen it in 3D yet…). But perhaps I should rewatch the original trilogy to get a better understanding of how Jedi teach Force powers to their students.

And also because it’s winter break, and I don’t need an excuse to nerd out.