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