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Learning Connections: Find the truth about the Pacific tree octopus

Aug 8, 2012, 14:16 PM
By Keith Ferrell

Find the Truth about the Pacific Tree Octopus

One of my fourth grade classes was about to embark on a research project, so in a recent lesson, I decided to teach and hone their research skills. Not wanting to go the standard route of teaching them how to Google more efficiently, I selected two topics, asked students to search for information on one of those topics, then share what they had learned. The two topics students could choose from were “The Tree Octopus” and “All About Explorers.” (I did skew the activity purposefully by telling them that they had to search for those exact phrases).

Most students went directly to Google and, without much thought, clicked on the first link and began writing down “factual” information about their chosen topic.
Some facts they discovered included:

• Christopher Columbus was born in 1951 in Sydney,
Australia.

• Marco Polo, Bill Gates, and Sam Walton helped finance Magellan’s expedition to the Spice Islands.

• Lewis and Clark were inspired to become world-famous explorers after being mesmerized by the stunning color photographs in National Geographic magazine.

• The Pacific Northwest tree octopus (Octopus paxarbolis) can be found in the temperate rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula on the west coast of North America.

• Unlike most other cephalopods, tree octopuses are
amphibious, spending only their early life and the
period of their mating season in their ancestral
aquatic environment.

• Tree octopuses have eyesight comparable to humans.

And so on…

The students shared their findings with the class, and as the discussion moved on, several of the students began to see some flaws in our research. We then began to inspect the websites more carefully and found many erroneous claims and facts throughout. The students were stupefied and could not believe that there were websites that look so real but lie. One student said, “They even have pictures!” They were more amazed that these were the first two hits that Google presented them in their searches. We continued the discussion with what to look for in websites that are reputable, using the “5 Ws”— who, what, when, where, and why—looking for URL suffixes (.edu, .gov, etc.), and reviewing how to double-check sources.

One of the sites where students found erroneous information, All about Explorers, was actually developed by teachers to educate students about the pitfalls of blindly Googling without using critical-thinking skills.

I’ve done many internet research lessons in the past, but none have the lasting impact that this one did. The kids jumped right into the task and rolled along smoothly, impressed with how easy the task was and what good researchers they were. The harsh dose of reality truly sticks with students and really makes them think about facts and information they find on the web.

—Keith Ferrell is the technology integration specialist at Singapore American School. He has been a classroom teacher since 1996 and has taught everything from 2nd to 12th grade. Read his blog, Ed Tech Ideas, at http://edtechideas.com.