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.
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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. It’s an idea I explored in the following sketch video:
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 when you interact with it.
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?
The best curators are the ultimate geeks. They nerd out on key ideas, movements, information, and artistic works. Whether it’s a painting or a mathematical process, they find joy in the process of discovery. 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 and convincing people to come inside. A true curator is someone who is both a fan and a critic. They are constantly celebrating but also critiquing work:
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.
- Geeking Out on Content: The best curators are able to collect and consume great content. It’s not mindless consumption. It is mindful and relaxed but also sharp and analytical. One of the things I’ve noticed about great curators is that they scribble notes all over the margins of books and yet they feel the complete freedom to skim and skip when necessary. They know how to find the information that actually matters.
- Organizing Content: Curation often involves placing content into categories or themes. Often, students will try and figure out the “right” way to organize the information, because schools typically teach students an external organizational system. However, with content curation, the classification process is deeply personal and should mirror the way that students think. It’s a chance to engage in tagging and categorizing in a way that feels meaningful to the students.
- Making Connections: The best curators are able to find connections between seemingly opposite artists, ideas, or disciplines in ways that make you think, “Man, I never considered that before.”
- Finding Trends: This aspect of curation is a little more analytical. Sometimes it even involves picking apart data or crunching numbers. It’s the idea of looking at information across several spaces and finding specific trends. This is often where someone arrives at a different, counterintuitive conclusion.
- Adding a Unique Lens: Curators rarely write in-depth explanations of the content. There’s typically a certain clarity and brevity in the commentary they add. When done well, a curator almost seems invisible, moving along the snippets of content. And yet, over time, you begin to appreciate the subtle personality and voice of a curator. If the critic and commentator sometimes falls victim to shouting their opinions, the curator is gently whispering a relevant idea to a distracted culture.
- Sharing the Content: Content curation has the end goal of getting great content into the hands of a larger audience. It is deliberately others-centered, even when the curator is introspective. Sometimes, the goal is to provide a set of practical information into the hands of readers. Others are more about offering something intriguing, even if it’s not inherently practical.
Five Ways to Get Started with Content Curation
The following are five ways to get started on the student content curation process.
#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. Others might use spreadsheets or shared documents. Still, others might have students organize key information in sketchnotes and elaborate on their ideas in journals. I love the idea of starting with a private journal as a way for students to discover their interests and geek out on new ideas:
However, as they get into the journaling process, they can then share their curations with a larger audience. It might be something a visual curation process similar to what you might find on Pinterest. Or it might be a series of podcast episodes that they do. When I taught middle school, students often created their Curiositycasts, where they would explore a question and share their answers with an audience as a series of podcast episodes. It might also be a short presentation or video that they create. Or they might go with a more literal example of a curation and have students create their own museums where they find primary and secondary sources and display the information in an interactive way. Students can then invite the community to visit their museums.
Note that this is where librarians play such a critical role. They can help students with the process of finding, organizing, and sharing critical information. They are the true curators of the school community and the experts in developing information literacy.
#2: Let students geek out.
Curators are natural geeks. They get excited about ideas and topics within their domain. They engage in research in a way that feels like an adventure. If we want students to engage in content curation, we need to let them geek out. Tap into their prior knowledge and let them run with it. A great starting place here is Geek Out Blog project, where students explore their geeky interests and share what they find with an authentic audience. This is an extension of the notion of a Genius Hour project
The key idea here is that we truly provide permission to let students geek out on whatever topic they want. It’s truly based on student choice. If they love fashion or Minecraft or TikTok videos, let them run with it. This builds on student’s prior knowledge and their sense of autonomy. Along the way, it can create more buy-in and improve engagement. As a teacher, you can encourage students to go deeper in their topics by asking critical thinking questions and encouraging them to see how their topics connect to various systems, ideas, and communities. This can actually be a great way to help students build empathy.
#3: Spend more time on it.
Content curation takes time. Take a look at any master curator and you’ll see this commitment to time. There’s no way around it. If you want to see students curate, you have to carve out specific time for it. However, we can integrate curation into the daily process of information consumption. This can feel challenging in certain subjects, where we feel the time crunch and the need to cover plenty of content. However, the curation process is often about how students organize and select information. They can engage in curation as they read secondary and primary sources in social studies or as they read informational texts about concepts and ideas in science. They can curate math strategies and compare and contrasts process. They can curate as they engage in research in an ELA class.
When I taught social studies, I would do 2-day curation projects where students could ask questions and gather resources based on their interests. We would often start with a Wonder Day activity, where students asked a question, found answers, and summarized their findings.
The next day, they would engage in a curation. Students might rank the best inventions of the 19th century or select key figures from a war. They might curate examples of modern art or create a curation timeline of fashion. There so many ways for them to explore history through curation in a way that still aligned to the topics and standards they were learning.
#4: Begin earlier.
Traditionally, teachers wait until the end of the year to have students do research. It’s usually part of a multi-week project. If you begin at the beginning of the year, they will slowly learn the art of curation as the year progresses. So, going back to this idea of the time crunch, you are essentially scrapping the big research project and instead integrating research, curation, and communication into multiple unit plans you design.
#5: Let students own the process.
They should choose the topics, the questions, and the sources they find interesting. This could connect to research, silent reading, blogging, or Genius Hour. It’s also important to let students choose the platform. Curation can happen in a journal or a notebook if they want to keep it private. Or it could happen in a blog, in a podcast, or in a video series. In some cases, visual curation sites like Pinterest can work for students who want to organize things in a spatial manner.
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? What if we helped them grow, not only into lifelong learners, but into lifelong curators?
Get Started with Content Curation
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