Friday, November 25, 2011

Save the Pacific Tree Octopus!

We have all heard the dire predictions about the Internet making students dumber. I bristle at these accusations; the medium through which students access information has very little to do with their intelligence.  And this is the wrong focus anyway, as it’s not about being smart or dumb; it’s about becoming a strong critical thinker. And what’s needed to do that is teachers and classrooms that get students to think more deeply about what they read, whether it be a book, a newspaper article, a website, a viral video, or even an encyclopedia. Students have always needed help being critical readers and critical consumers.

This is why I love lessons that get students thinking more deeply about what they see and read on the Internet. A teacher that I am lucky enough to work with developed a brilliant and simple lesson that could be used in a number of different subject areas and across different grade levels.

Here is what Mrs. D did:

1)      Have students go to a website that contains false information. There are a number of great sites that do this well. One of the most engaging (and amusing) is the Pacific Tree Octopus website. This website contains great graphics, links to YouTube videos and convincing pleas to help the “endangered” Pacific Tree Octopus.
2)      Ask students to take notes on some basic facts about the subject of the website. Mrs. D. asked students to record important information about the Tree Octopus and then discuss with a table partner.
3)      Have students compare what they learned on the first website with a site that is edited like World Book Online or Britannica Encyclopedia. Mrs. D.’s students were very confused when they went to the World Book Online and couldn’t find anything about the Pacific Tree Octopus. At first they thought they hadn’t typed the term in correctly, then they were concerned that World Book Online must not have complete information. Students were not yet suspicious about that cute little Pacific Tree Octopus.
4)      Ask students to try a second site to confirm the information from the fake website. Mrs. D.’s students were relieved when they saw that Wikipedia had an entry about the Pacific Tree Octopus. However, on closer reading, the students realized that the Wikipedia entry referred to the Pacific Tree Octopus as a hoax. This is the fun part of the lesson. Students all react in different ways. Some laugh, some are mad, some tell you that they knew all along. Teachers should be ready for all of these reactions, but should also be clear that the original site was a fake.
5)      Ask students why they believed the Pacific Tree Octopus was real. Mrs. D. was shocked by how her students answered this question. Students replies included:
“It was on the Internet”
“You could give money”
“I saw one before” (my personal favorite, we have all taught this kid, haven’t we?)
“There was a video”
“There were pictures”
“There was such detailed information”
6)      Revisit the lesson with students the next class. Mrs. D. asked students to recall what they learned from the Pacific Tree Octopus lesson the next time they came to class. Students shared insights along the following theme:
“You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet”

What I love of Mrs. D.’s lesson is that it isn’t drawn out. It doesn’t take long to do. It is repeatable. Any teacher can do it. Schools could easily repeat the same lesson with different websites year after year until the message becomes crystal clear to the students:
“You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”

Someone who has done excellent work on this topic is Donald J. Leu of the University of Connecticut and his New Media Research Team. Dr. Leu and his team are working to collect research about the reading comprehension skills needed to be a successful reader in the 21st century. Furthermore, they are investigating how to best support students in order that students may become thoughtful and informed users of Internet information.

If you are looking for similar websites that could used in the same way, here are some good ones. I have also created a Diigo group called Critical Literacy Resources to collect more. Please feel free to join and suggest your own. Or leave a comment below about similar lessons or lesson ideas you have.

Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division - beware of exposure to this chemical!
All About Explorers - did you know Christopher Columbus was actually born in Australia?
Martin Luther King Jr. – A True Historical Examination Much more serious site for examination of bias and deception. This website is hosted by David Duke's foundation. Suitable for middle school and high school students with careful preparation and debriefing.

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