‘Tree octopus’ is latest evidence the internet is making kids dumb, says group

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..."

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Pearson'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.