Our Students Need to Be Curators

John Spencer
Dec 7, 2017 · 7 min read

Content curation is a vital part of the creative process. In this blog post and podcast, we explore why curation matters and how we can help students learn how to engage in the curation process.

We Need Critical Consumers

When we think of creativity, it’s easy to picture a person coming up with something entirely new, pulling it from thin air and making it from scratch. But if you watch people engaged in creative work, they are often critical consumers of the same type of work they create. There’s this ongoing cycle of critical consuming, inspiration, and creative work. As they create more, it leads to a deeper ability to consume critically, where they find more inspiration, and the cycle continues.

Chefs enjoy great meals. Musicians listen to great music. Engineers make sense out of what other people have designed. The better they are at consuming, the more likely they are to be inspired to create something new.

So, if we want students to be makers, we need students to be critical consumers.

However, we live in a world of instant information, where ideas go viral without much thought regarding accuracy and validity. It’s a place where content is cheap. Cheap to make. Cheap to share. Cheap to consume. The traditional gatekeepers are gone, which is great for students. They can create and share their work in ways that were previously unimaginable.

But there’s a cost. The best stuff doesn’t always rise to the top and, if we’re not careful, we mistake the speed of consumption for the depth of knowledge. This is why we need students to learn the art of curation.

What Is Content Curation?

In recent years, we’ve seen the rise in popularity of a group of bloggers that specialize in content curation. Think of Brain Pickings, Farnam Street, or Open Culture. In a world of information saturation, curation has become a critical skill.

But curation goes beyond simply collecting items online. The best curators know how to find what is best by immersing themselves in a niche area while also making surprising connections between ideas in seemingly unrelated worlds. Curators find specific excerpts that are relevant at the moment but also timeless. They can explain the purpose, the context, and the necessity of what they are citing.

I’m drawn toward an archaic definition of the term. It originally had a much more earthy, even gritty, connotation. Some linguists tie it back to the Medieval Latin word curare, which meant “to cure an illness.” It had a connotation of providing loving attention and management. Other linguists tie the word “curator” goes back to the word curatus, which meant, “spiritual guide,”or “one responsible for the care of souls.”

Over time, this word morphed into a deep care and love for a particular subject, knowledge, or set of artistic works. Think of art curators who define the spaces of a museum. They know the works on a deep level and can explain the meaning and purpose in ways that make the work more relevant.

Some of the best curators are able to tap into that original sense of being “one responsible for the care of souls.” They care, not only about what the work means but about how it will make you a better person.

As teachers, this is what we do. We help students grow in wisdom. We’re curators.

But that’s also what we want with our students. We want them to have both an excited passion and a nuanced care for what they are learning. We want them to pay attention to context and purpose in the information they consume. We want them to make connections and provide their own lens.

What does curation typically look like?

Content curation begins with an intense love of the content. Think of gallery curators. They get giddy over the seemingly random (and yet almost impossible to replicate) approach of Jackson Pollock. However, they can engage in a two-hour discussion on the relationship between kitsch art and postmodern philosophy.

While there is an overlap with criticism, curators are more likely to geek out on the subject in a way that is explanatory instead of evaluative. This is often combined with a desire to make a work accessible to the public. On some level, both curators and critics are the gatekeepers of information (I know, I know, I mentioned earlier that the gatekeepers are gone). However, while critics are the ones shutting the gates, curators are often the ones who open the gates, convincing people to come inside.

If all of that seems too abstract, here are a few things that are a part of the curation process:

  • Searching for Content: The best curators are the ones who can find content that not everyone notices. This is what makes Maria Popova of Brain Pickings so amazing. She has this way of finding content that people are missing, looking in places we’ve overlooked.

Five Ways to Get Started with Content Curation

  1. Model content curation. Notice that few students walk into class with curation skills. We live in a consumer culture that values speed and amusement over slower, deliberate thought that is needed in curation. It’s not surprising then, that teachers often need to model the curation process.

You Are Already a Curator

People often say things like, “the teacher is no longer the source of information now that students can curate it themselves.” This is typically accompanied by the term “guide on the side” to describe a teacher’s role.

While I see some validity in this sentiment, I think it proves that now more than ever, teachers need to be curators. They need to be geeking out on their subjects. They need to help students figure out where to go. Yes, they might be “on the side,” but they are still guides, helping students navigate the terrain for the first time ever. And that’s precisely what a curator does. We curate so that we can help students learn the art of content curation.

Teachers are already curators. We piece together resources, research, and ideas as we develop lessons. We curate the content that we teach. This isn’t anything new or groundbreaking. It’s what happens when we find a great book or video and share it with our students.

But what if we take this art of curation and teach it to our students as well? What if we empowered students to curate their own content?

John Spencer

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My goal is simple. I want to make something new every day. Some days, I make stuff. Other days, I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.