Our Octopus Teacher

Collaborative learning and interpersonal bonds are explored in My Octopus Teacher. Courtesy of Netflix

It is a rare treat when a mainstream movie reflects so many relevant pedagogical and pragmatic perspectives, which is the case for the documentary film My Octopus Teacher. The film employs a very engaging narrative, which is beneficial for teaching viewers of all backgrounds about ecology and humanity’s complex and complicated role with other species and the natural world. My Octopus Teacher‘s enduring success comes from its ability to be captivating and relevant to both the general population and individuals with specialized interests, such as marine biologists (see: Heathcote, 2020). The fact that the film has been lauded by diversified viewers with a wide range of knowledge and interests, speaks to the power of creative storytelling and art’s ability to work in tandem with science (and other disciplines) to enhance emotional responses to research-based insights.

The premise of the film is the heartwarming and informative relationship that South African free diver and filmmaker, Craig Foster, developed with a young female octopus who lived inside a kelp forest nearby his coastal home off the Western Cape. He visited his cephalopod neighbor each day over the course of her life (common octopi live for about a year). The footage that makes up the movie is intimate, offering us a unique glimpse into the habitat and behavior of an animal that is extremely illusive and intelligent. Foster’s added commentary, including matter of fact observations, discoveries and emotional responses communicate the importance of learning and loving via the natural world. He documents certain aspects of octopi that had little cultural exposure outside of the realm of marine biology, such as the octopus’ use of found shells as a shield from predators (an example of how aesthetics play a role in survival). Foster learns through observation and experience, and is driven by his thirst for inquiry. The octopus is also learning. We see her cautious, yet inquiry-based approach when Foster leaves his camera on the ocean floor. Eventually, she warms up to his presence and it is a mutual sense of awe and trust that makes their relationship possible, purposeful and productive. Foster’s experiential visits to his underwater neighbor helped him find new value and meaning in his own life, while also building empathy for others (both human and non-human creatures). When the film begins he is looking for more meaningful sociocultural connections, but by the end of the film he finds a special way to share profound experiences with his son and ultimately all of us. Perhaps, best of all, the film provides a sentimental look into how vulnerable all living species are, and how our innate and developed skills and knowledge help us to survive.

Since the extent of My Octopus Teacher revolves around the duration of the octopus’ mortality, the cycle of life is a major theme. Another related theme is the idea of nature and nurture, two congruent theories in developmental psychology that explain how our humanity is shaped by heredity and experiential learning. The octopus’ ability to outwit its prey and avoid detection (just long enough to mate), brings up two additional life lessons that we learn through cultural immersion: flexible purposing and resistance to closure. Because modern day octopi have shed the hard shell their ancestors once had, they have had to reconfigure the way they protect their exposed soft-body from predators. In the film, we see examples, which include the octopus’ ability to change its physical color, size and shape, as well as utilizing objects like rocks and shells to form a powerful protective barrier. Even when the octopus seemed down and out, its outside the box thinking and resistance to closure helped it to carry on and even heal itself.

The octopus’ living sculpture. Part art, part survival. Courtesy of Netflix.

As humans, we supplement our naturally inherited abilities with the desire to grow and thrive in the world. The propensity to communicate artfully is an example of nature and nurture working in tandem (see: Burton, 2000). Through sharing experiences that are learned via culture, we inspire additional creativity and continue to innovate and adapt to the influx of events and changing surroundings.

The tale of Foster and the octopus’ collaborative learning relationship opens up possibilities for all of us to become both students and stewards of the Earth and all of its natural resources. We are all vulnerable to significant changes in our world, whether they are social, political or environmental. Through thinking critically, applying creativity and resisting closure we might be able to address issues that threaten our existence. In doing so, we will create a more beautiful world shaped by love and mutual respect for human and non-human beings.


Note: I have previously written about artists and educators who incorporate the living environment into their creative and pedagogical process (see: Nature’s Classroom).


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Burton, Judith. (2000). “The Configuration of Meaning: Learner-Centered Art Education Revisited.” Studies in Art Education, 17-32.

Heathcote, Angela. “Octopus scientists love ‘My Octopus Teacher’ just as much as you do.” Australian Geographic, 25 September 2020. https://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/wildlife/2020/09/octopus-scientists-love-my-octopus-teacher-just-as-much-as-you-do/

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