Research skills branch out

tree octopus web

A tree octopus.

An unlikely creature is teaching students the importance of questioning the quality of websites and the information they contain. It has eight tentacles and can survive both in water and on land, prefers to live in trees, and has been poached into near-extinction to meet the demand of fashionable women in the 1920’s who thought it made a nice hat.

Maggie Mattson, a Year 5 and 6 teacher at St Joseph the Worker Catholic Primary Auburn, said students were highly disappointed to learn that the ‘tree octopus’ was not real. Each year she asks students new to her class to research the creature, to teach them to use more than one online source to find and verify information. “There is a point where you might think the tree octopus exists, and some of the students will give me pages of information about it because they’ve gone to the first link – a fake website that gives false information,” Miss Mattson said. “It breaks their heart because they’ve done a whole page of research.”

Miss Mattson heard of the website five years ago and has used it each year since. It is still the first website that a Google search for ‘tree octopus’ returns. “I’d say many teachers are using it because it is a good lesson to teach the students.”

The digitally illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.

– Alvin Toffler, Futurist

E-learning senior project officer at the Catholic Education Office Sydney, Greg Swanson, said it was essential that students learn to understand and use information in many formats and from a wide range of sources.

“Digital literacy is one of those skills that are becoming more and more pertinent,” he said. “In a world where students not only have a plethora of information accessible at their fingertips but are also bombarded by information day and night, the skills to decipher that information are vital. The concept of digital literacy goes well beyond the ability to read multimodal texts; it has always meant the ability to read with meaning and within a context.

“This is becoming more important as schools continue to integrate appropriate technology into the learning environment. Students are becoming content creators and not simply content consumers. As creators, they need to ensure that information and materials are verified and sourced from reputable sites.”

Mr Swanson suggests students  locate sites which end in .edu or have in the URL which can often designate an education, university, museum or gallery site.

“One would expect a better quality of academic research has gone into an article published on a university or museum site.”

Students share what they learned through the tree octopus task:

IMG_0037Isaac Shem, 10, Year 5:

“It was a good thing because it helped our researching skills. Before I knew it was fake I was fascinated that there was such a thing. I believed it because of the images. They looked so real. I thought every octopus had to be under water to breathe but it was hanging around in the trees like a monkey.”



IMG_0041Hanna Aboul- Hasn, 12, Year 6:

“I looked at only one website and thought it was actually true. I learned my lesson and now I use more than three websites, because two websites can be different so you need to check multiple websites so you’re not writing down wrong information. I look for the date it was put in because the information may have changed over the years.”



IMG_0048James Alchikh, 11, Year 6:

“We typed in tree octopus and got the first website and wrote a bunch of facts. The second website we went to said it had killed a bunch of people and we still didn’t know what was real. We looked on five websites so it was a bit annoying. I think the first website was believable because it was really interesting and had pictures of the tree octopus that looked real.”


IMG_0051Jasmine Huang, 11, Year 6:

“I did this task last year and at first I believed it because it was very convincing. There were images and factual information like on every website. I also thought it was real because Wikipedia said it was an internet hoax, and Wikipedia doesn’t have anyone to edit it. If there are lots of different accounts I go with the majority. If a lot of people use it, it’s more reliable I think.”


Websites to help students better evaluate information:

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