There was an idea that audience members at the Roane State Ed Tech Academy seemed to find intriguing that we never developed too deeply: the idea of the teacher as curator. It’s an intriguing idea. Let’s dig into it a little more here.

This is not a new idea. I think I first heard the term from my colleague Audrey Williams speaking at an academy for the Tennessee Regents Online Campus Collaborative. It immediately resonated with me as a great metaphor for teaching in the information age. Since then, I have come across lots of references to the idea, beginning most prominently with an article and related talk by George Siemens in 2007.

As we mentioned at the Roane State academy, if we as teachers believe our primary values lies in transmitting information, we are in trouble–there are cheaper, faster, more efficient ways of doing that. That’s never been our primary role anyway, but when getting information was difficult, it was an important part of the mix.

Now, the problem isn’t getting enough information; it’s processing the firehose of information.

When we think of ourselves primarily as conduits of information, we can easily fall into the trap of “covering” material. Even before the Internet made it easy to get tons of information, students often suffered at the hands of a teacher intent on shoveling as much information at a student as possible, whether it stuck or not.

Consider the curation model instead. When you go to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, they don’t take you down in the basement and say, “There ya go. Millions of things. It’s arranged so we can find it again, but otherwise you’ll just have to open the drawers. Better get at it, the place closes at 5!”

This is not the definitive guide to teaching as curation (that will be my next book!), but here are some notions about the metaphor that will help us help our students. (Note this applies whether you are a university professor or a professional speaker tasked with helping an audience understand some area of your expertise, though we’re focusing on college teaching.)

  1. There are some relatively permanent exhibits at a museum. The McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture on the campus of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has had an exhibit on archaeology and the native peoples of Tennessee for at least 25 years, if I remember correctly. Curation doesn’t mean you have to change everything constantly. There will be some basics you have chosen that every class needs to know about.
  2. There are exhibits you will change often. The McClung had an exhibit on Zen Buddhism and the Arts of Japan I really wanted to see, and never got time for. It’s gone now. There are a lot of reasons you change the exhibits. Sometimes, it’s simply to bring something fresh to bear. Sometimes it’s because you’ve found new information. Sometimes it’s because you have a ton of stuff in the basement, and you want to share it at some point.
  3. Information matters, but understanding it matters more. Museums have explanatory placards. They have docents. They have brochures, and guided tours, and audio guides. A few months ago my wife and I went through President Andrew Jackson’s home, The Hermitage. I went there as a boy, but a ton has changed in terms of archaeology on the grounds and historical research about Jackson. Each of us had an audio device that would tell us a little about what we stood in front of. It didn’t try to tell us everything about it, or random information about it. It helped us understand it.
  4. Inspiration may matter more than information or understanding. I was inspired to learn more about Jackson and his historical context when we came home. I spent a couple of days digging through information on the Internet, in fact, and the insights I gained from the museum helped me evaluate the sometimes contradictory information I found. I was not and still am not a fan of Jackson’s politics, but I’ve gone beyond the caricature I held about him, a much more complex individual in a much more complex time than most of us appreciate today.

The curation model fits nicely into a concept that drives a lot of what I do: that “out loud” is best suited for certain kinds of teaching (context, big pictures, framework, inspiration) and written is best for other kinds (mastery of detail, deep learning, organizing complexity). One of the keys, I think, is this: you can’t replace a curator with a computer. It’s not about job security, but rather recognizing the essential need of students and addressing that need.

What do you think? Could the model of teaching as curation help you serve your classes and audiences?

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