Save the tree octopus!

Can students use technology to learn new things if they lack a base of knowledge? Core Knowledge Blog asks readers to consider 21st century skills and the Tree Octopus Problem.

Seventh graders used a set of guidelines — a rubric on the 21st Century Skills map — to evaluate the validity of web sites, such as one on the endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus.

The rubric also tells us we are research pros if we “look for copyright information or ‘last updated’ information” in the source. Very well: The tree octopus site was created in 1998 and updated within the last two months, so it must be a current source of tree octopus information. We are also research pros if we ”look for the authority behind the information on a website because I know if affects the accuracy of the information found there.” Merely looking for the authority tells us nothing about its value, but let’s dig deeper. The authority behind the site is the “Kelvinic University branch of the Wild Haggis Conservation Society.” Sounds credible. It is, after all, a university, and one only has to go the extra mile to be a Level 4, or “Totally Rad Researcher.” The Tree Octopus site even carries an endorsement from, and I’ve heard of them (haven’t I?) and links to the scientific-sounding ”Cephalopod News.”

Students won’t get the hoax unless they “actually know something about cephalopods — such as the fact that they are marine invertebrates that would have a tough time surviving or even maintaining their shape out of the water,” writes Robert Pondiscio.  Knowing that the haggis is not a wild animal might be a clue too..

All 25 students who used the rubric said the tree octopus site was credible. Told it was false, they couldn’t figure out why.

Some of the students still insisted vehemently that the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus really exists.

Do kids need better online searching skills — or more background knowledge?

The web site for Kelvinic University (Thermodynamic Education for the Mind) is a hoot. Anyone who’s ever seen a college web site would know it’s fake, even without the Department of Turkmenistic Folklore. There’s not a single photo of three students (one black male, one Asian or Hispanic female, one white male or female) walking across a greensward past leafy trees and lofted Frisbees.

About Joanne


  1. Well, in all fairness, I might not have had the knowledge to fairly evaluate sites at their age. It helps, of course, to have background content knowledge. It helps even more to have the savvy to look up words like cephalopod and haggis. Kids are not taught about many cultures in a systematic way, so they might not have any idea which culture eats haggis (the Scottish – which probably accounts for their dire temperament – haggis is frankly nasty).

    It’s far more important for computer intro classes to focus on research skills than on Powerpoint mastery. Without the ability to spot B—S–T, kids are dandelions in the wind, aimlessly floating about, without a direction. I’m in favor of a computer mastery curriculum – you don’t leave the class until you have mastered the skills. Some, having more initial experience, may move on faster. But, by insisting on mastery, we may avoid these types of situations.

  2. My larger point in this exercise is looking at the tools of “21st Century Skills” and asking whether they alone are enough to guide kids to reasonable conclusions. We tend to go to extremes, as Dan Willingham and others have observed, the pendulum swinging from all process skills to all content knowledge, when kids clearly need both. If the message being now heard by teachers is that “content doesn’t matter, it’s all about critical thinking, problem solving and innovation,” the 21st century skills movement won’t help and will probably hurt. The answer can’t always be “more information literacy skills.” Sometimes it comes down to “if it sounds too good to be true it is.” A heightened sense of credulity comes from a lack of basic knowledge about the world.

  3. This can be easily exposed as a hoax without the help of any high-tech skills. WHY have kids not been taught to look up (dictionary or other suitable reference book) terms they do not know? (sasquatch, haggis, cephalopod) It sounds as if they and their teachers are satisfied with a VERY incomplete understanding of what they read and that neither party has any intellectual curiosity whatsoever.

  4. Sadly enough, I have more than a few college students who would buy the tree octopus story.

  5. On my Mac using the Safari browser I can left click on any word and look it up in my local dictionary. So if one has the skills to use the available technology it would seem to make learning facts much less cumbersome. Although I wonder if the ease of using technology subverts memorization. For example, in looking up words in a paper dictionary one might have to repeat words in his mind while taking the time to flip through the pages. On the other hand, maybe one will spend more time looking up words so repetition will happen anyway.

  6. I use this site with my 4th graders for a “don’t believe everything you read on the net” lesson. I usually have a few GATE students who don’t buy it, but everyone else does… However, I’ll check it before using it this year. Last year when we brought it up in the computer lab, there was a huge headline about “octopus sex” in the sidebar. Not good for a site that’s often used for teaching younger kids about internet research.

  7. I suppose just plain common sense is also lacking? I can’t imagine falling for a “tree octopus” at that age, and yet Slate fell for monkey fishing. The internet has made us stupider. I deal daily with people who insist that Wikipedia is an A-okay source.

  8. I don’t know that 21st Century skills have any more clear definition than core content (outside of the Core Knowledge folks, who are self appointed as the arbiters of what everyone must know). But, even more important, I don’t know anyone who favors dropping core content in favor or 21st Century (or any other kind of) skills.

    Reliance on core knowledge to help in evaluating the validity of knowledge from other sources (like the internet, but also TV, movies, neighbors and friends, books or teachers) presupposes that one knew how to evaluate the initial bits of knowledge. And even in the most reliable and scientific context, the nature of “truth” is something of a moving target as new knowledge is accumulated and tested.

    Certainly the rubric presented is a good beginning. But I would think that going through the process with the Octopus Tree would be enlightening to students. Long before the internet we were plagued with misconceptions that “everybody knows.” I recall as the single parent of an infant, I was a particular target for such helpful information as: drinking from a plastic bottle lets more air into a baby’s stomach, drinking cold formula is the source of an upset stomach, in hot weather milk “sours” on a baby’s stomach (that was a favorite, since I know that stomach acid in any weather immediately causes milk to curdle), it’s important to cover a baby’s face out of doors (no matter the weather) to “keep the air off.” I started off by shaing all my new enlightenment, but soon discovered that I was no match for the things that “everybody” already knew.

    I have had similar conversations trying to convince people that Madelyn Murry O’Hare was not actively involved in a campaign to ban Christmas carols from the radio, or that rub on tatoos are not a major source of LSD exposure in children, or that Procter and Gamble was not an agent of the Church of Satan. All from people educated in lots of “core” knowledge, and prior to the internet. My general observation after many years is that there are very few people, from any SES background, who understand the working of the thermocouple in a thermostat and why “turning it up” to heat the house up faster makes no sense. (although I did know some low SES folks in a house where the thermostat had been set to stay below a certain temp who understood that they could work around this by keeping an ice pack on top)

    So–if 21st Century Skills include an acuity about which information to trust and which to be skeptical of–I say we needed that back in the 20th Century. Providing kids with pre-digested information until they have enough to go looking for their own is not a very logical progression.

  9. John Drake says:
  10. Penn&Teller (comic magicians) experimented by circulating a petition at a college campus for some kind of environmental awareness rally to ban the use of “Dihydrogen Monoxide” in the environment.

    Sadly, they collected hundreds of signatures to ban “water”. Only a few caught on to the joke.

  11. Penn&Teller video

  12. John Drake says:

    The website I refer to above started, I believe, the Dihydrogen Monoxide hoax.

    If I remember correctly, a city councilwoman from Laguna Niguel, CA was taken in by the hoax, and started a crusade against DHMO.

  13. “that neither party has any intellectual curiosity whatsoever.”

    This is a concern I have been expressing for years. However I take it one step deeper. There is a complete lack of imagination in most of the youth of today. Not only is there no interest in imagination, there seems to be an actual inability to imagine. They are growing up in a world that seemingly needs no imagination.

    Take for example Lego bricks. When I was younger, Legos came in five or six shapes, and two or three colors. You were forced/allowed to use your imagination when playing with them. If you built knights (and I did) you were forced to imagine features such as faces, hands, weapons, and armor. I did, and had many wonderful hours playing with them.

    Today Legos come in hundreds of shapes, and dozens of colors. There are specialized pieces to represent hands, faces, tools, weapons, and armor. You can build highly detailed and intricate models from kits. Now my nephew has as much fun playing with his Legos as I did mine. The difference is, he doesn’t have to imagine anything. His knights look exactly like knights. The dragons they fight look like highly detailed dragons.

    As another example look at video games. I am part of the first generation of video games. I remember seeing my first pong game in a bowling alley. I remember the sense of wonder at Space invaders and Galaga. I remeber getting my first Atari home system with it’s blocky graphics. Compare those with todays games in all of their life-like HD glory.

    How about movies even? Remember the awe and wonder at the first Star Wars movie when it first came out? Compare the original Star Wars (the non-retouched, non-special edition version especially) with the last Star Wars movie. See how old fashioned and low budget the special effects seem now? That same effect is happening all around to these kids. If someone can imagine it, it can be created, and thus no one else has to imagine it.

    They don’t even have to imagine when they are reading anymore. I am quite sure that my image of Frodo Baggins was much different than your when we were reading Tolkien. But now we all “know” exactly what Frodo looks like.

    It is simply incredible to see the frustration on my students’ faces when I require them to imagine something. They resent being asked to make the effort.

  14. KateC wrote:

    > The internet has made us stupider.

    Oh, I’m sorry but as an elder statesman from a time before the Internet I can assure you that the quantity of stupid hasn’t changed.

    Think of the Internet as a “stupid” telescope.

    Previously inaccessible examples of stupid are now instantly transmitted across time and space. This gives the illusion of an increase in the volume of stupid when in reality stupid is neither created nor destroyed merely passed, like a treasured family heirloom, from one generation to the next.

    But the power of technology now allows us to feel smarter then people from countries we’ll never visit and whose language we don’t understand. So while the principle of conservation of stupid is inviolable the forms in which stupid is expressed are ever changing, ever evolving.

    This modest satire brought to you by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trust whose motto is “we’re better the you”.

  15. Tree Octopus video

  16. I’m with gahrie. Do you remember recently when the STICK (you know, from a tree) was inducted into the toy hall of fame? My kids have the most awesome sticks. They are straight and have a fairly uniform diameter along their length, and the bark strips right off. So it takes no imagination whatsoever to play with one. I grew up in West Texas and have more imagination. We had, well I’ll just be charitable and call them TWIGS fer crissakes. We had to pretend they were sticks. My kids are hosed. Also, books, when I was a kid books absolutely sucked. We had to use the power of imagination to pretend that they were written with elan and so forth or that the characters were believable — they really weren’t. But now you read a kids book and say, holy sh–, is this realism or a fable, or what, its like journalism. It takes no imagination to believe it. Also TV. You watch kids shows these days and go, wow this is the bona fide article, a really entertaining half hour or whatever. When I was a kid TV really was a vast wasteland and it took hours and hours of fierce concentration on our part to imagine that we were watching something a step above schlock. I know why I am so smart, but my kids are doomed.

  17. Reliance on core knowledge to help in evaluating the validity of knowledge from other sources (like the internet, but also TV, movies, neighbors and friends, books or teachers) presupposes that one knew how to evaluate the initial bits of knowledge.

    Actually no. If someone trustworthy taught you the initial bits of knowledge you can get to the same point. This implies paying a lot more attention to the accuracy of school textbooks as opposed to the ratios of every single ethnic and gender group in the pictures (not that these aren’t important, just they’re of secondary importance – if it’s a choice between an accurate textbook with stereotypical pictures and an inaccurate textbook following all the non-PC books go for the first one).

    And even in the most reliable and scientific context, the nature of “truth” is something of a moving target as new knowledge is accumulated and tested.

    Yes, but within limits. Take the redefinition of Pluto as not a planet, to understand this news story it’s useful to know that Pluto was once a planet and what the other planets in this solar system are, and how they all differ from Pluto. Also, new scientific theories need to explain all of the facts that old scientific theories explained, making learning the facts useful. Indeed, physicists often use Newton’s Laws of Motion even though Einstein’s relativity has replaced them because for a variety of areas they’re a very useful approximation.

    To take an example outside the sciences, we may change our understanding of the causes of WWI, but it will remain a bloody war in which millions of people died and it will remain true that the Treaty of Versailles was used as a reference point during the 1920s and 30s in the lead-up to WWII.

    Long before the internet we were plagued with misconceptions that “everybody knows.”

    Education has never been that good. Particularly at teaching scientific knowledge. Admittedly in the matter of babies, there are some significant ethical worries abut experimenting with your own baby, making application of the scientific method more difficult.

    My problem with the 21st century skills movement is that its proponents apparently have no idea that they are calling for nothing new, just the same old things that educators have been calling for back into the 19th century (see A London Girl of the 1880s by Mary Vivian Thomas Hughes). And I have definitely seen no evidence that they have looked into why previous educators failed to achieve their goals, let alone attempted to avoid those problems. Failure to learn from the past doesn’t mean they will definitely fail this time, but it’s not a very promising sign.

  18. I agree with Tracy. There’s a danger inherent in assuming our times call for new ways because we assume we live in more sophisticated times. Many people desire to sweep away the lessons and wisdom of the past to make room for the new times. And many feel the need to fashion a new man. This attitude didn’t work very well for the 20th century.

  19. Ouch. This produced some bad flashbacks.

    We have to walk a fine line between teaching students to distrust everything and teaching them to question and evaluate everything.