Teaching Is Not Content Distribution


Teaching Is Not Content Distribution

by Terry Heick

Schools, along with libraries and museums, are the original curators of culture. That is, they survey various landscapes, and separate the stuff the stuff worth saving from the rest.

This means that teachers are among the earliest curators of knowledge, taking a content area, deciding what’s worthy of further study, and distributing it for examination. This is not a minor responsibility, being asked to weave a simultaneous affection and lasting intellectual lust for what is by definition academic “stuff”—the Declaration of Independence, the Pythagorean Theorem, Homer’s Odyssey, etc.

Teaching In One Sentence

Historically, teaching could be reduced to two simple questions: What’s worth understanding, and how can I package it so that they (whoever they are) may understand?

Of course, this is all subjective. By deciding what stays and what goes—what’s worth understanding and what’s not—teachers have quite a bit of power, and like all power, it can be applied in various ways.

  1. The “teaching” can be a kind of social assimilation and conditioning where the teacher passes on both knowledge and bias.
  2. It can be knowledge distribution—clinical and matter-of-fact, modeling skills and issuing facts.
  3. Or, it can be based in an artful critique, where they “point where to look but don’t tell them what to see.”

Historically, as teachers have taken the world and shaped a curriculum out of it, they have done more numbers 1 and 2 than 3.

They’re knowledge curators, so they curated. Of course, in the modern era of outcomes and standards–based education systems where all content is indexed, catalogued, parsed, sequenced, aligned, assessed, and remediated, the learning process has taken on an industrial tone with work that mimics that of machines. The content is no longer up for debate, written in standards that, while more open-ended than they seem, aren’t up to the teacher to describe.

The original question of pedagogy– What’s worth understanding, and how can I package it so that they (whoever they are) may understand?—can now be reduced to How can I package these standards so that they may understand? That is a major difference, reducing the “curation” to mere distribution.

But there’s a problem with this. As teaching and learning becomes more universal, it becomes less authentic. As it becomes more global, it becomes less local. As it becomes more everyone, it becomes more no one at all.

Place Matters

Place matters, because that’s where students come from, and where the result of learning is “applied.”

A teacher in New York needs to understand what makes New York different than Mumbai or Jerusalem. The habits of the people and the shape of the place shape the content—what’s most important to know and how it is most ideally approached and understood isn’t the same everywhere.

As curriculum becomes an indexed lists of standards to be covered, and as literature becomes a suggested reading list that isn’t a “suggestion” at all, the potential for the teacher to artfully relate students and content is reduced. Without an elegant and agitating and fantastic connection between learner and content, the whole thing becomes about measurement and procedure—an industrial and dehumanizing process that amounts to an intellectual force-feeding.

The net effect here is important. Every “place”–every community, neighborhood, and family has its own history; every student has their own affections and needs. Every student is wonderfully asymmetrical. This requires care.

Teachers, as humans, are a kind of mix between Google, pinterest, and YouTube—searching the world, saving what fits, and distributing it in compelling ways. Great teachers are master curators, uniquely able to see the content, each learner, and their “place” in a way that literally no one else on earth can. What they save means everything.

Teaching Is Not Content Distribution; adapted image attribution flickr user nasagoddardspaceandlfightcenter



  • I read your post with great interest, as I have done quite a bit of thinking and writing about curating in education. (http://d20innovation.d20blogs.org/2012/07/27/developing-future-workskills-through-content-curation/) I have come to believe that it is students that should be doing the curating – to not only develop essential skills, but to take ownership of their learning. How can we allow “room” for this within the Common Core? I think it does require a shift in philosophy. The standards should be “the floor” – not the”ceiling.” This shift in philosophy would also allow room for teachers to incorporate learning opportunities that have a local focus. Indeed, if students are tasked with authentic problem based learning, they can be working towards finding solutions to local problems, applying the knowledge gained from the curriculum which is aligned to the standards. This way they get the best of both worlds. Students need opportunities for the application and transfer of knowledge and understanding which can be obtained through student curation as well as direct instruction. This is when powerful learning and enduring understanding occur.

  • I respectfully disagree. While I will concede the student directed learning has its advantages, it also has its several distinct disadvantages. Fundamental skills such as calculation, formal/technical grammar, sentence structure, image writing, variation in prose and clearly communicating oneself is at an all time low. If given the opportunity to shirk the pursuit of understanding difficult to discern concepts, who’s to say that students would voluntarily pursue the path of most resistance? If anything, the opposite would occur in most situations. Furthermore, recent “developments” in the quality of eductation (or lack thereof) have materialized in the wake of a long period of education where the philosophies of reconstructionism, and progressivism have been elevated above perennialism and essentialism.

    Prior to the implementation of Common Core, when gifted with nearly absolute freedom in curriculum design, educators by and large have forced students to focus the entirety of their K-12 education on concepts held “in social context,” delineating the importance of the grammatically/technically correct in light of post-modern insights which suggest that there are no absolute truths, and with everything being subjective its more important for students to opine on how they “feel” in reaction to subject matter presented to them.

    The results of this approach are abysmal at best, as academic performance in the United States continues on it’s death spiral from the once regaled position atop comparisons of advanced industrial nations in direct academic competition with the United States. This is a direct result of gravitating away from teaching with an essentialist philosophy. With that said, I agree that something needs to change, and that standards should be the “floor not the ceiling”. At the same time, I disagree with the premise that students are the best judge of what they deem to be important “stuff,” and “stuff they don’t need (or dare I say, don’t want to put the effort in)to know(ing).

Leave a Reply