Curation on the iPad: Learning to appreciate beauty

Most museums and art galleries have a curator, whose job it is to curate, or collect and annotate, exhibits for viewing by the public. Most museums only have a fraction of their collection available for viewing in a gallery at any one time. It is the curator’s job to know about each of the various pieces in the collection, and to be able to categorize them in various ways. She might pull out only pieces that were created with stone tools for a pre-Iron Age exhibit, for example, or feature different pieces that depict man’s relationship with nature, for a differently themed exhibit.

The job of the curator is essential. She must have a broad range of knowledge about many different pieces and styles in order to create galleries for visitors. The curator does not have to be an expert practitioner in the area she is curating. After all, no one can be an expert in everything, and if she were truly an expert in archaeology, for example, she would probably be out in the field actually doing archaeology. Rather, a curator must be an expert in guiding the experience of the visitor in the museum gallery—she should know where he is likely to get lost, and understand how to convey the right amount of information at any given time.

As teachers, we should be curators of information about our subject. Many people erroneously believe that the highest qualification is that a teacher must be an expert in his field. While some content expertise is always good, it is much more important that a teacher is an expert in guiding the experience of the learner in the classroom by helping to select and curate resources that are personalized to that learner.

In his recent book Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed, Harvard Professor Howard Gardner argues for the importance of curation in learning to appreciate beauty. He states that the abundance of great art and literature, and our access to them, has destabilized the notion of a fixed set of canonical works.

“We’re no longer going to have a single canon where a central authority will be able to decide what’s great and what’s not….Everybody can make his or her judgments about beauty, and it doesn’t impinge on anybody else,” he writes.

To develop our own canons, to learn to appreciate beauty, he recommends maintaining portfolios or journals of art, music, writings, and experiences in order to better appreciate the distinctions among them–to make sense of which pieces are most beautiful.

What would a math class look like where students learn to compute, prove, derive, and intuit, as well as to discern and appreciate, mathematical beauty? What about a history class where students maintain a portfolio of beautiful artifacts and ideas from multiple periods?

How might efforts to curate benefit from the portability and ubiquity of mobile devices? What would a “relevance portfolio” look like, where students catalog their daily encounters with ideas or experiences? What other kinds of portfolios could students create over the course of their academic career?

In a world of informational abundance, we no longer face the ancient world’s challenge of finding scarce information. In a world of portable supercomputers and ubiquitous access, the task of the teacher is no longer to collect and distribute, but to empower students to curate their own collections of intellectual resources.

Tom Daccord is the director of EdTechTeacher, a professional learning organization.

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