Have you a dollar to spare for the endangered tree octopus?

In 1957, when televisions were still fairly new and remarkable bits of home-owned technology, a clever crew of BBC reporters created an April Fool’s gag that never should have fooled a soul but there were more than a few people willing to believe spaghetti grew on trees in Switzerland. They just saw the clip on television. How could it not be true? It was on a trusted fact-filled program, for goodness sake.

I think I was in university when I came across a story about a teacher who’d gotten this great idea for teaching his grade 3 students a lesson. I’m going to get some of this mixed up maybe because I don’t know where I read or heard about it, but I think he’d created this whole science class around a fake creature of some kind and later quizzed the kids on what they’d learned about it. He then failed every one of them. When they asked why that happened, he explained what the real lesson was: the need to think critically about what you’re told, even when the information comes from someone you should trust as an authority. They failed because they failed to be skeptical about his bizarre lesson.

More recently, last Wednesday in fact, a group of us were hanging out at our banned book club meeting and the conversation meandered into how airplanes fly. I had asked how parents go about explaining that kind of thing to kids and one of the guys mentioned that most of us would explain it wrong anyway because we were taught the wrong thing about wings and air movement when we’d been in school. XKCD jokes about it. There have been misconceptions about how wings work that made it into text books (including flight training manuals). While not wildly wrong, an inaccurate explanation of how it works (the Bernoulli principle) will never be as good as an accurate explanation.

Which reminds me of the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide

Long lead in, but here’s the main story I wanted to highlight: the internet is making it very easy to believe what we see without question. Obviously this isn’t a new problem, as some of my examples demonstrate, but it’s still a concern as more and more people look to the internet as their main source for news and information. Snopes.com has an extensive list of things people have believed to be facts, like the DHMO petition and the letter that Christians sent around that quoted The Onion as proof Harry Potter was turning kids into Satanists.

The Daily Mail published an article recently about a study done to test for this kind of gullibility, using the endangered tree octupus.

Donald Leu, a researcher from the University of Connecticut, conducted a study among the Facebook generation of students – deemed ‘digital natives’ due to their online savviness – to try to prove they will believe anything they read on the internet.

He directed students to the website http://zapatopi.net/treeoctopus, where they found details about the fabricated endangered Pacific Northwest tree octopus in order to test students’ ability to evaluate information they find online.

Not surprisingly, it was discovered many students lack critical thinking skills. Leu also discovered that they don’t know how to do decent research when it comes to looking up useful information either.

‘Typically, students will click on the first listing at the top of the results page and take a quick look, then continue down the list without studying the source of the website to figure out whether it’s the best source of information,’ he said.

‘Often they pass right by the website they should be looking at because it doesn’t look like the website they have in their mind.

‘The challenge is we’re not preparing kids in the classroom for these new online reading skills. If kids are largely going to use the Internet now and in the future, these skills for online comprehension must be included in what teachers teach.’

The study also found that students shun search engines in favour of typing what they think is the right site directly into the address bar, such as Georgewashington.com.

Mr Leu said: ‘When they did use a search engine, they skipped right over legitimate pages because it didn’t look like what they had in mind.

I guess that’s the lesson educators need to take from this. It’s not just the fact that false/misleading information is around to confuse people, it’s the fact that students might not know how to do any research effectively. They’re not doing it right and either they just don’t realize they could be doing it better, or they just don’t care about doing it right. They might just want to get it done so they can sooner do something else. It’s hardly the way to demonstrate learning has happened and I’m sure teachers want their students to come out of their classes with applicable skills at least. Knowing how to seek out the best information and how to use it should be part of everyone’s skill set.

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Canadian Atheist Basically ordinary Library employee Avid book lover Ditto for movies Wanna-be writer Procrastinator
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