Youth + Internet = Learning about Tree Octopi

Will Our Youth Believe Anything They Read On The Internet? Just Ask The Tree Octopus

By Brett Michael Dykes

February 2, 2011

Every few months, almost like clockwork, an alarming report comes along purporting to show that the Internet is turning everyone’s brains — particularly the brains of this generation’s children — into mush. It’s apparently that time again.

A few days ago Pearson, which bills itself as “the world’s leading PreK-20 educational publishing company,” sent out a press release touting a new study. Its title was attention-grabbing: “Schools Facing Learning Crisis Spawned by Internet.” Its opening line read: “Schools around the nation are facing a learning crisis caused by the Internet…”

Scary stuff, right? Tell us more!

TreeOctopusPearson’s release explained that the Department of Education funded the study and that it was administered by Dr. Donald Leu, a former teacher and “national authority on integrating technology into instruction.” Leu’s study highlighted fallacious reports on the fate of the “tree octopus” — an allegedly endangered species roaming the treetops of the Pacific Northwest — as a key illustration of this baleful trend.

Researchers on Leu’s team asked a group of students to hunt down information on the critter, which of course does not exist. But the same researchers pulled a bit of trickery on the students — they directed them to a website – – dedicated to saving the mythical tree octopus from extinction. And presto: the kids taking part in the study fell for the hoax and even continued to believe in the tree octopus after the study’s leaders explained that there was no such thing.

Here’s a sampling of the tree octopus factoids featured on the site:

Tree octopuses have eyesight comparable to humans. Besides allowing them to see their prey and environment, it helps them in inter-octopus relations. Although they are not social animals like us, they display to one-another their emotions through their ability to change the color of their skin: red indicates anger, white fear, while they normally maintain a mottled brown tone to blend in with the background.

According to Leu, the founder and director of the New Literacies Research Lab at the University of Connecticut, the moral of the exercise is simple: “anyone can publish anything on the Internet and today’s students are not prepared to critically evaluate the information they find there.”

But is this really a “learning crisis” that’s “caused by the internet?” Or, for that matter, is it a problem that’s really specific to the internet at all? Indeed, the paucity of critical thought in our nation’s schools has bedeviled experts for a very long time — long before the internet made its sinister appearance on the scene.

In 2009 Dr. Robert Rose, a longtime Southern California educator, wrote a piece for the Huffington Post lamenting his struggles over the years in being able to teach kids to think critically. Rose argues that doing so will inevitably ruffle the feathers of some parents and educational bureaucrats.

Remember, in their developmental years, most American kids are encouraged to swallow all sorts of fanciful tales — such as the one about the rotund, jolly fellow who comes down chimneys each Christmas to deliver presents, or the one about the fairy who exchanges small change for baby teeth tucked under a child’s pillow. Additionally, many religions children are brought up in require significant leaps of faith. So is it really that big of a step from such socially sanctioned guilelessness to taking a website’s claims about the mythical tree octopus at face value?

Citing the cultural legacy of childhood deference before the harmless fictions that please their elders, Rose draws a sobering conclusion: Instruction in truly critical thinking “does not and cannot happen in the way our schools are structured with their hierarchical power base that punishes thinking that differs from the status quo,” Rose wrote. “For that reason . . .  we can teach the process and skills of clearer thinking, but we can’t teach them to think critically and apply those skills to the real worlds they live in. It goes against too many vested interests that fear their power will be diluted.”

Nevertheless, we wanted to give the Leu study the benefit of the doubt — without embracing it, well, uncritically, as some observers seem to have done. But the press release from Pearson was short on details and didn’t supply any information about where the study’s results and methodology might be found online. And the website for Dr. Leu’s group does not appear to have published any such material.

So we sent the Pearson publicist who distributed the press release an email asking for specifics: “Regarding the release you sent out titled ‘Schools Facing Learning Crisis Spawned By Internet’ … is there anywhere I can find the specifics of Dr. Leu’s study? What age groups were the kids who fell for the tree octopus thing? How many of them? What percentage of the kids in the study fell for it? Etc.” As of this writing, we have yet to hear back from them.

Still, we think the overall lesson for the kids here is as follows: Don’t believe everything you hear or read, on the Internet or elsewhere — or, for that matter, in press releases.

UPDATE: After this piece was published, Donna Bone, the Project Coordinator and the New Literacies Research Lab, sent us an email in response to our request for the demographics of the participants in Dr. Leu’s study. She said that the group monitored “our 50 best online readers” in 7th grade classes from “economically challenged” areas of South Carolina and Connecticut.

When Will the Education System Catch Up with the Times?

“We shouldn’t be putting them asleep. We should be waking them up to what they have inside of themselves.” ~ Sir Ken Robinson

Here is yet another very interesting view on today’s education system courtesy of TED (Technology, Education, and Design). Sir Ken Robinson discusses our current state of education and where it needs to go if we are to see all students fulfill their true potential through their creativity and multiple intelligences. Robinson challenges the way we are educating our children, arguing that our current education system is the problem, not the solution.

He questions why our education system, which was born out of the “intellectual culture of the Enlightenment and the economic circumstances of the Industrial Revolution,” is still being used today. Why, in our modern times of information explosion and rapid technological advances, are we still teaching our children via these archaic systems?

In his discussion Robinson scolds today’s educators for their methods. “Our children are living in the most intensely stimulating period in the history of the earth. They are being besieged with information that calls for their attention from every platform – computers, from iPhones, from advertisers, from 100s of television channels. And we’re penalizing them for getting distracted from what?” From the boring content courtesy of our archaic schools, education system, and teaching methods, says Robinson.

An especially good point that he makes is that in school you are told that the answers are in the back of the book, but A.) You’re not allowed to look there, and B.) No talking to your neighbor about the answers.

Yet outside of school, in the workplace and everywhere else, that would be called “collaboration.” Robinson argues that collaboration is the stuff of growth.

Between his excellent points and unique presentation style, this is a must watch video: Ken Robinson: Changing education paradigms

Anomalies or the Norm in our Education System?

Every now and then I run across stories on the Web that, I hope, are not true representations of the state of the U.S. education system. I instead hope that these are just anomalies, examples of those “students” who just weren’t paying attention in school and who are far from the norm.

If for no other purpose than to provide a good laugh, check out these examples of people who perhaps just missed some important facts in their math, science, and history classes:

People “Shocked” that the Titanic Really Did Sink

– Tough “MPH” Math Problem

Waiting For “Superman”

I just viewed the movie/documentary Waiting for Superman. It really did not tell me anything new that I didn’t already know, or at least suspect. More than anything it increased my disgust with the bureaucracy (administration and unions) of our education system.

That being said, this film omits what I think is another very significant part of the problem – disengaged parents. “Waiting” makes it seem like all parents are awesome and engaged, and that everything that’s wrong with our education system is due solely to the “broken system.” I believe that, unfortunately, as much as we hear about disengaged teachers, there are just as many disengaged parents who are not investing the time in their own children’s education.

I’m including here some clips and links to some of the most interesting information and statistics emerging from the documentary. It is definitely worth watching in its entirety if you are an educator. I think every teacher (union or not) should be forced to view it. Click each link below to see a clip or article:

Education vs. Incarceration

Saving America’s Schools (Michelle Rhee)

The Dance of the Lemons

Bill Gates Testifies before Congress on U.S. Education System

The Global Talent Crisis