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Are You a Teacher or a Curator?


My favorite teacher was a man, prematurely gray at 35 years old, whom we called "Mr. John." This guy challenged me on everything, and I mean everything. He taught physics and our experiments were meant to enable us to follow a chain of reasoning to prove or disprove some theorem. Even when I nailed the reasoning and the data from the experiment he'd force me to look at it in another way, to apply perspective that had nothing to do with physics, and he could then get me to question whether the damn table was solid! 

Mr. John often brought in what he called "delicious devil's advocacy" articles that would question something written in the textbook or even what he taught (or seemingly believed). While I can't remember much of what I learned that year, I do remember that he was a man who knew physics, taught to its essence, made me think, while at the same time causing me to question every single aspect of the science. 

He did that by constantly seeking (and delivering to us) things that would inform our thoughts and our own seeking of new knowledge since, as it became quite clear as the year wore on, even Mr. John didn't believe that he had a corner on all physics knowledge nor did he believe the creators of the textbooks, curriculum or state or federal standards enjoyed it either. 

He described himself as a "curator of knowledge" and he always said, "I'll teach you the fundamentals of physics, but it will be up to you to find the truth." I was pretty clueless about what he meant then, but years later I began to have this visual of him with a white beard accompanying his white mane, sitting in some fabulous museum of science and smiling while telling me how his pal Socrates once said, "The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing" and "Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel." 

It finally sunk in that he was kindling our flames about physics so that WE would be constant seekers of knowledge and truth.

This is why I've been paying close attention to an accelerating internet meme that has begun shifting more and more people toward a term to describe what many of us once would've called experts (or even thought leaders) and that term is: curator.  

When I first wrapped my head around the term and its definition (def. "a keeper or custodian of a museum or other collection"), I realized that the shift away from being an expert, and toward becoming a curator of ones focus, passion, experience or knowledge base, was already well underway.

One of the drivers of this meme is the increase in online participation and the volume of watchful readers who are quick to point out differing viewpoints or bring up overlooked facts. When someone speaking with authority can put out an argument or position and have numerous others (i.e., others formerly known as experts also) weigh in on the essence of what they're saying -- or challenge some aspect of the argument -- I've seen again and again that the authority modifies his or her position or argument and the level of knowledge for all grows ever so slightly and with occasional leaps forward.

On particularly active blog posts or pages where commenting is enabled, I'm stunned by how often people weigh in with cogent and detailed analysis, links to other reference materials, and frequently shift the direction of the discourse. It's crowdsourcing in its finest form (provided the anonymous commenters don't ruin the discussion and why many leaders turn off anonymous commenting).

The curators in my world whom I follow online -- technology leaders, entrepreneurs, scientists and engineers -- almost never write in absolute terms or as the sole arbiter of an industry standard or direction. Instead, they see themselves in a collaborative role and increasingly defining themselves as curators (and yes, using that exact word) since they act as both holders of a "collection of knowledge" and a teacher of that knowledge area. 

To do otherwise invites spirited debate, unfortunate ad hominem attacks from anonymous commenters and if important enough of an issue, the emergence of curators from metaphorically bigger museums (i.e., an influential tech blogger being carefully put in his/her place by a leading computer scientist). 

The other recognition many of us have regarding the shift from expert to curator is the clarity we're gaining about how nebulous knowledge is and how often shades of gray come forth. As a curator, one realizes that knowledge is something we seek and isn't a static and rigid container in to which we stuff what we learn for later careful extraction (and without letting others peek inside) and view our value on how judiciously we hand out our knowledge.

So much is being learned so quickly in the world -- and our ability to communicate richly with each other, disseminate ideas and bits of knowledge which is now traveling globally at the speed of electrons -- that anything that can be called out as disingenuous is done so almost instantaneously.  

Good museum curators typically have significantly more artifacts in storage than they can put on view, and yet choose the most important, those with the highest popularity, and the ones that exhibit the intrinsic characteristics that define the essence of the theme on display. These same curators know that more artifacts will be discovered, new knowledge gained and different interpretations put forth, and that theories will be modified (or thrown out entirely) with new ones taking their place.

Why do our students not learn more about the level of ambiguity in the world during their K-12 years? Why are we not driving an opportunity to question what is being taught and have it at the core of our educational system? How can we teach the essence of a subject, test on it, while ensuring our kids also know that it's unlikely to be the final word on the subject nor is any kind of an absolute? (Note: when talking absolutes, this is usually when I get in to spirited dialogue with math teachers!).  

Perhaps the answer is to begin to view your role as an educator as more of a curator, rather than a teacher putting forth knowledge that is supposedly the "expert and authoritative" repository of knowledge on the subject since even a 12 year old knows enough already to question it. Instead, be clear with students that they're learning the curated essence of the subject and give them ample opportunity to question the truths you are bringing forth.  

Every day you teach to your curriculum but, at the same time, you should encourage a questioning within your student populace and demand from them a fierce desire to know more than what anything seems on the surface (it's one of the reasons why I think you need to give students the ability to blog on whatever they want to blog about). To do that -- especially in a day when "truth" is coming at us from all directions and spin is applied to it by pundits and "experts" by the thousands -- is an imperative if you hope to be the one that "kindles the flame" in your kids in the world they're about to enter. 


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Accelerating Change are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.