To Boost Higher-Order Thinking, Try Curation

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If no one has ever encouraged, pushed, or insisted that you build more higher-order thinking into your students’ learning, it’s possible you’ve been teaching in a cave.

Higher-level thinking has been a core value of educators for decades. We learned about it in college. We hear about it in PD. We’re even evaluated on whether we’re cultivating it in our classrooms: Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, a widely used instrument to measure teacher effectiveness, describes a distinguished teacher as one whose “lesson activities require high-level student thinking” (Domain 3, Component 3c).

All that aside, most teachers would say they want their students to be thinking on higher levels, that if our teaching kept students at the lowest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy—simply recalling information—we wouldn’t be doing a very good job as teachers.

And yet, when it’s time to plan the learning experiences that would have our students operating on higher levels, some of us come up short. We may not have a huge arsenal of ready-to-use, high-level tasks to give our students. Instead, we often default to having students identify and define terms, label things, or answer basic recall questions. It’s what we know. And we have so much content to cover, many of us might feel that there really isn’t time for the higher-level stuff anyway.

If this sounds anything like you, I have a suggestion: Try a curation assignment.

What is Curation?

When a museum director curates, she collects artifacts, organizes them into groups, sifts out everything but the most interesting or highest-quality items, and shares those collections with the world. When an editor curates poems for an anthology, he does the same thing.

The process can be applied to all kinds of content: A person could curate a collection of articles, images, videos, audio clips, essays, or a mixture of items that all share some common attribute or theme. When we are presented with a list of the “Top 10” anything or the “Best of” something else, what we’re looking at is a curated list. Those playlists we find on Spotify and Pandora? Curation. “Recommended for You” videos on Netflix? Curation. The news? Yep, it’s curated. In an age where information is ubiquitous and impossible to consume all at once, we rely on the curation skills of others to help us process it all.

In an educational setting, curation has a ton of potential as an academic task. Sure, we’re used to assigning research projects, where students have to gather resources, pull out information, and synthesize that information into a cohesive piece of informational or argumentative writing. This kind of work is challenging and important, and it should remain as a core assignment throughout school, but how often do we make the collection of resources itself a stand-alone assignment?

That’s what I’m proposing we do. Curation projects have the potential to put our students to work at three different levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy:

  • Understand, where we exemplify and classify information
  • Analyze, where we distinguish relevant from irrelevant information and organize it in a way that makes sense
  • Evaluate, where we judge the quality of an item based on a set of criteria

If we go beyond Bloom’s and consider the Framework for 21st Century Learning put out by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, we’ll see that critical thinking is one of the 4C’s listed as an essential skill for students in the modern age (along with communication, creativity, and collaboration) and a well-designed curation project requires a ton of critical thinking.

So what would a curation project look like?

A Sample Curation Task

Suppose you’re teaching U.S. history, and you want students to understand that our constitution is designed to be interpreted by the courts, and that many people interpret it differently. So you create a curation assignment that focuses on the first amendment.

The task: Students must choose ONE of the rights given to us by the first amendment. To illustrate the different ways people interpret that right, students must curate a collection of online articles, images, or videos that represent a range of beliefs about how far that right extends. For each example they include, they must summarize the point of view being presented and include a direct quote where the author or speaker’s biases or beliefs can be inferred.

Here is what one submission might look like, created on a platform called eLink (click here to view the whole thing).

Because they are finding examples of a given concept and doing some summarizing, students in this task are working at the Understand level of Bloom’s. But they are also identifying where the author or speaker is showing bias or purpose, which is on the Analyze level.

More Project Ideas

Ranked Collection: Students collect a set of articles, images, videos, or even whole websites based on a set of criteria (the most “literary” song lyrics of the year, or the world’s weirdest animal adaptations) and rank them in some kind of order, justifying their rankings with a written explanation or even a student-created scoring system. Each student could be tasked with creating their own collection or the whole class could be given a pre-selected collection to rank. This would be followed by a discussion where students could compare and justify their rankings with those of other students. (Bloom’s Level: Evaluate)

Shared Trait Collection: This would house items that have one thing in common. This kind of task would work in so many different subject areas. Students could collect articles where our government’s system of checks and balances are illustrated, images of paintings in the impressionist style, videos that play songs whose titles use metaphors. It could even be used as part of a lesson using the concept attainment strategy, where students develop an understanding of a complex idea by studying “yes” and “no” examples of it. By curating their own examples after studying the concept, they will further developing their understanding of it. (Bloom’s Level: Understand).

Literature Review: As the first step of a research project, students could collect relevant resources and provide a brief summary of each one, explaining how it contributes to the current understanding of their topic. As high school students prepare for college, having a basic understanding of what a literature review is and the purpose it serves—even if they are only doing it with articles written outside of academia—will help them take on the real thing with confidence when that time comes. (Bloom’s Levels: Understand for the summarization, Analyze for the sorting and selecting of relevant material)

Video Playlist: YouTube is bursting at the seams with videos, but how much of it is actually good? Have students take chunks of your content and curate the best videos out there to help other students understand those concepts. In the item’s description, have students explain why they chose it and what other students will get out of it. (Bloom’s Levels: Understand for summarization, Evaluate for judging the quality of the videos)

Museum Exhibit: Task students with curating a digital “exhibit” around a given theme. The more complex the theme, the more challenging the task. For example, they might be asked to assume the role of a museum owner who hates bees, and wants to create a museum exhibit that teaches visitors all about the dangers of bees. This kind of work would help students understand that even institutions that might not own up to any particular bias, like museums, news agencies, or tv stations, will still be influenced by their own biases in how they curate their material. (Bloom’s Level: Understand if it’s just a collection of representative elements, Create if they are truly creating a new “whole” with their collection, such as representing a particular point of view with their choices)

Real World Examples: Take any content you’re teaching (geometry principles, grammar errors, science or social studies concepts) and have students find images or articles that illustrate that concept in the real world. (Bloom’s level: Understand).

Favorites: Have students pull together a personal collection of favorite articles, videos, or other resources for a Genius Hour, advisory, or other more personalized project: A collection of items to cheer you up, stuff to boost your confidence, etc. Although this could easily slide outside the realm of academic work, it would make a nice activity to help students get to know each other at the start of a school year or give them practice with the process of curation before applying it to more content-related topics.

For Best Results, Add Writing

Most of the above activities would not be very academically challenging if students merely had to assemble the collection. Adding a thoughtfully designed written component is what will make students do their best thinking in a curation assignment.

The simplest way to do this is to require a written commentary with each item in the collection. Think about those little signs that accompany every item at a museum: Usually when you walk into an exhibit, you find a sign or display that explains the exhibit as a whole, then smaller individual placards that help visitors understand the significance of each piece in the collection. When students put their own collections together, they should do the same thing.

Be specific about what you’d like to see in these short writing pieces, and include those requirements in your rubric. Then go a step further and create a model of your own, so students have a very clear picture of how the final product should look. Because this is a genre they have probably not done any work in before, they will do much better with this kind of scaffolding. Doing the assignment yourself first—a practice I like to call dogfooding—will also help you identify flaws in the assignment that can be tweaked before you hand it over to students.

Digital Curation Tools

It’s certainly possible for students to collect resources through non-digital means, by reading books in the library or curating physical artifacts or objects, but doing a curation project digitally allows for media-rich collections that can be found and assembled in a fraction of the time. And if you have students curating in groups, using digital tools will allow them to collaborate from home without having to meet in person.

Here are a few curation tools that would work beautifully for this kind of project:

  • Elink is the tool featured in the sample project above. Of all the tools suggested here, this one is the simplest. You collect your links, write descriptions, and end up with a single unique web page that you can share with anyone.
  • Pinterest is probably the most popular curation tool out there. If your students are already using Pinterest, or you’re willing to get them started, you could have them create a Pinterest board as a curation assignment.
  • Symbaloo allows users to create “webmixes,” boards of icons that each lead to different URLs. Although it would be possible to create a curated collection with Symbaloo, it doesn’t allow for the same amount of writing that some other tools do, so you would need to have students do their writing on a separate document.
  • Diigo is a good choice for a more text-driven project, like a literature review or a general collection of resources at the beginning stages of a research project, where images aren’t necessarily required. Diigo offers lots of space to take notes about every item in a collection, but it doesn’t have user-friendly supports for images or other media.

Share Your Curation Ideas

I’m so excited about all the different ways we can use curation in the classroom, and I would love to hear your ideas as well. Please share them in the comments below. If you have links to student samples, share those, too! ♦

Want to learn digital curation?

Curation is just one of the modules in JumpStart, my new online technology course created especially for educators. I thought carefully about what specific skills teachers need to make the most of classroom tech, chose 9 of them, and designed hands-on projects that will show you exactly how to use them.

If you’re ready to take your tech skills from so-so to rock solid, this course will change everything for you.

Learn more about the course here.


There’s more where this came from.
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Jennifer Gonzalez

Editor-in-Chief at Cult of Pedagogy
Former middle-school language arts teacher and college-level teacher of teachers. NBCT. Mother of 3. All of these experiences have brought me to where I am now: Devoted full-time to helping teachers do their work better.

Latest posts by Jennifer Gonzalez (see all)

Jennifer Gonzalez

Former middle-school language arts teacher and college-level teacher of teachers. NBCT. Mother of 3. All of these experiences have brought me to where I am now: Devoted full-time to helping teachers do their work better.


  1. Take a look at my articles in IATEFL Business Issues Magazine titled *Mind Mapping Matters*, for another take on curation. This is great article and puts what can be a complicated teaching process into laymans terms. Thanks.

  2. The presentation tool Emaze has a museum exhibit template that I’ve used in the past with ESL and Migrant students to curate various media to describe their culture or native country. The presentations felt like walking through a museum room.

    • I’d be interested in finding out more about this as I have ESL students of my own in Grades K-12

    • Kyle – I would love to find out more about your use of Emaze with ESL and migrant students. Do you have a blog post where you talked about this?
      lisa [AT] coolcatteacher [DOT] com

  3. Love the idea! How do you apply to 2nd graders when they are limited to only programs the district has deemed appropriate?

    • Are they allowed to use Google Docs? Students could put together a collection with hyperlinked text there. It wouldn’t be as pretty as Elink, but it could definitely be done. They could also do it on a Google Slides presentation, with one slide per item.

      Honestly? They could even do this with a Microsoft Word document.

      • Remember there’s also OneNote in MS Office 365. Easy to use and, if you are using ClassNote, easy to grade.

  4. Thanks for a great article Jennifer! We have been creating Hyperdocs, using a modified 5-E model format to create a quasi-curated learning experience for personalized PD for our staff, where they can add their own classroom examples after they apply their new learning. I’m excited to check out Elink and consider how using this curation concept can extend into an alternative PD format for teachers, as well as for students. Thank you!

  5. The articles on your site are always great! I especially love this one. As a student and aspiring teacher, I always look forward to your new content. Please archive all your content for future reference!

  6. Kevin Hodgson, who I’ve met via the Connected Learning MOOC, pointed me to your article, via a Twitter message. I was pleased to find it. I’ve been curating a library of information for over 20 years, that anyone can use to help make richer learning opportunities and adult networks of support available to k-12 youth living in high poverty areas. In my conversations with members of the #clmooc community I’ve encouraged educators to lead youth to my web sites and encourage them to use this as an on-going resource for the types of curation and learning that you’ve suggested. Here’s one article that points to my library and shares this thinking. http://tutormentor.blogspot.com/2017/01/dig-deeper-into-tutormentor-ideas-and.html

    • I was thinking about this too! I wonder if in a music unit, students could get together a short list music videos and describe them, as well as evaluate their quality. (Maybe ranking favorites!) Higher-level students could even describe how they exemplify the target culture (during a specific time period, in reference to a specific issue, etc.)

      Students could gather articles (in the target language or not) about specific cultural topics, or opposing viewpoints on hot-button contemporary issues in the target culture. They could agree or disagree, then justify their opinions.

      You could gather delicious online recipes for a meal in the target culture! Then students could gallery walk and decide which meal they want to eat, and describe why. If students were divided up by mealtimes, you could get more coverage of typical mealtimes and foods, and then have a typical day laid out for discussion and comparison.

      In the lower levels, students could curate a bunch of images that they associate with the target culture that they’re about to start learning about, and then provide justifications for why they connect those images to the culture. (Maybe in English for level 1).

      What else do we think could work? I’m intrigued by this idea!

  7. I had my son use Padlet last year to curate images he wanted to use on a WWII display. You can write on the posts as well and share the boards so that others can collaborate (great for group projects).

  8. Evernote is also a perfect tool for this process. Google Keep might also work well for those of us who are heavily invested in G-Suite. Thanks for the good ieads, I’ll be sharing this with my colleagues on Monday.

  9. I use Storify with my students. In 9th grade they do assignment on the First Amendment, almost exactly the same as the one described here. With my Seniors they do “So, Basically…” presentations about one of the countries they are following – they have to bring in 5 key facts supported by websites, stories, images or videos and then the most important current event, also with supporting evidence. I also curate resources through Storify for my students to use for assignments and to prepare for class discussions. Storify has SO many great uses for the classroom!

  10. Thanks for the very helpful article, Jennifer! I’m a PE teacher working in Switzerland and one of my goals for the next year is to work on my assessment section. The curation project is definitely a task that incorporates different levels of thinking, can be associated to cooperative learning approach and leaves me with the sensation of “Oh, If I was my student I would have liked to be part of it!”

  11. Great article. I can’t wait to try this with my students. Would you please consider posting this article to Pinterest so that I can save it to one of my boards? I’d like to be able to retrieve it easily at a later time. Thanks!

  12. Thanks to you article, I gained an “aha” moment. For some time I’ve been using some of these techniques, more by accident than design, with good success. Your article provided me a better explanation of what I was doing and validates (to me) why it was worth the effort. Also, I checked out your link to dogfooding, and plan to build upon a couple of ideas to share with a group of faculty in an upcoming webinar PDT.
    Thanks for continuing to fire up my thinking to be more strategic in my teaching!

  13. What an outstanding article! Suggesting we “make the collection of resources itself a stand-alone assignment” is one that we teacher-librarians can really use for helping students understand the research process more deeply. Thank you for always having such wonderful ideas and for sharing them so freely with us, your loyal readers.

  14. Project Curation Idea, Field of Education
    Curate the “best of” all pedagogues old and NEW, Froebel, Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio, etc., etc. No easy task! Where is there agreement? Where can bridges be made?

  15. Thank you for sharing so many awesome student examples in this post! Curation has really been on my radar this year because of Gayle Allen’s book The New Pillars of Modern Teaching. (Curation is new pillar #2!) I work with teachers, and when sharing thoughts about curation, I have really focused on the processes involved for curation, so your sample tasks/projects really help take my ideas to the next level. 🙂 (If you want to see some examples of curation processes, here are ideas from a recent teacher book study: https://goo.gl/818V0O.) Thanks for your work and for supporting educators!

  16. I love this idea. I think I could focus it for my special education classes. We literally just finished reading Letter from Birmingham Jail. I could have students work in groups in order to curate quotes from the letter to use in their analysis essay.

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