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Save the Tree Octopus! Helping Students Develop Critical Thinking Skills

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“Wait a minute…” All heads turned as a student, who only moments before was silently typing away at her computer, slowly rose from her seat, eyes locked on the screen in front of her. After what seemed like an entire minute of silence, she looked straight at her teacher and said, “…this is all a lie!” 28 pairs of eyes slowly moved from her to her teacher, who sat smirking at the front of the room. “You are absolutely right,” the teacher replied, “but can you prove it?

Students should not only be expected to find information online but, perhaps even more importantly, they also need to be taught how to be critical of the information they find there, and how to corroborate, analyze and judge it’s validity. Most teachers would identify this as an important 21st-century skill, but how do you teach it?

At Hill-Murray School outside of St. Paul, Minnesota, we decided that this skill was important enough to include into the digital literacy lessons our students complete every year as a way of helping them develop the skills they need to survive and thrive in a technology-rich learning environment. I was lucky enough to lead a collaborative team of teachers and counselors that planned and delivered lessons focused on topics like cyber safety, cyber bullying and effective digital communication, along with a particularly engaging lesson that focuses on information literacy.

Early on in the year, students learn about evaluating information with a fun and engaging lesson as part of our school’s digital citizenship curriculum. The lesson begins with some “invisible theater” where the teacher tells her students that they are going to be learning about online advocacy and provides them the link to a website as an example. As students open the link in their browsers, the teacher explains how websites can be used to advocate for a cause they believe in, even one that isn’t well known. The website discusses the plight of the Pacific Tree Octopus, an endangered species that most people have never heard of because corporate lumber interests have suppressed knowledge of its existence so they can continue to log in its habitat. This made the students upset, connecting with them emotionally and pulling them into the lesson. On the surface, the website looks very legitimate with all sorts of sources, updated news feeds and lots of illustrations and professional-looking artwork. The teacher tells the students to spend some time evaluating how a website like this one can help create concern for the tree octopus and what kinds of methods it uses to try to get the public to take action.

While the website may pass a cursory examination, it doesn’t generally take long for one inquisitive or detail-oriented student to begin to see the multitude of problems with the site. Clicking on links results in 404 errors. There is a suspicious absence of scientific attributions on the site. And many of the pictures of the endangered tree octopus are actually stuffed animals or plastic toys stuck in trees. After a few minutes, students begin to share their findings with each other and their curiosity quickly turns into skepticism, which is exactly the process we want our students to engage in when they approach any unknown or suspect source of online information. On the day I was helping to facilitate the lesson, it was at this point that our previously-mentioned rabblerouser stood up and decried the authenticity of the site in front of the entire class.


The introduction to the lesson couldn’t have gone better. With most of the students realizing that the site was a fake, it was time to tell them the truth. The lesson for the day wasn’t about online advocacy, it was about identifying fake information. But they hadn’t won yet. The students were told that while knowing the information isn’t accurate is a good start, being able to prove your position by backing it up with real facts and reliable evidence was what effective researchers do, and it’s what makes argument and positions strong.

The students were then given approximately ten minutes to try to come up with a list of reasons proving they knew that the Tree Octopus site was indeed fake. The students got to work together, sharing different ideas regarding ways that the site could be proven fake. Before long, they had created a giant class list of different approaches that could be used to debunk the fake site and that could be relied on in the future to argue against suspect information. The students came up with strategies like corroborating with trusted sources, looking for authenticity markers such as authors and external links, and cross-referencing the information that they find with classmatesstrategies that are also recommended by academic experts. After the lesson, the class list was hung up on the wall and used as an Anchor Chart (a poster-sized visual reference tool) for the next research project they begin.

Even if students didn’t remember every strategy that was listed, the fact that they had experienced and participated in the debunking process themselves helped drive home the point that they needed to be more skeptical of the first thing they read online, and be more selective with the information they include in their research. After the lesson, teachers noticed that many of their students wouldn’t just immediately go with the first search result, but would look to others or try to run their research by fellow students to see if their findings lined up with what their partners also found. This use of higher-order critical thinking skills is not just important for success in school, but is also becoming more and more important in the ever-changing online environment of our information age. The skills that they learn from the Tree Octopus will serve them well in their future roles as college students and citizens, which is the definition of a truly authentic 21st-century education.

Editor’s Note:


If you want to learn more about evaluating online information in your classroom, take our free, online course Finding & Evaluating Information on KQED Teach.

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