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Suppose you know a lot about a certain topic. For the sake of argument, let’s say that topic is sushi.

One evening you’re on social media somewhere and an acquaintance posts this: “Have never tried sushi. Any advice?”

Oh my gosh! You totally have advice!

You start by sending your friend a link. Then you find another one. Then, well…there’s just so much great stuff out there! She should know about it. So you send her over to this Google Doc you made that contains more links:

 

I hate to break it to you, but your friend? She went to that first link you sent and read most of the article. It gave her some useful information—stuff she probably could have looked up on her own, but still. It helped. The second link she meant to get to, but she got called away from her computer and never got back to it. And your Google Doc? She took one look at it, got overwhelmed, and left.

And it’s a shame, because you have some really good stuff on that list. Especially the one in the right-hand column, second to last on the list. This one. It’s funny. And practical. It’s like a real person helping the reader find a way to add sushi to her life.

But your friend never read that one, because there was no way to sift it out from the others, no way to know what made it special, and like everyone else, your friend only has so many hours in the day.

You just dumped too much on her at once. You were being a dumper.

And it’s unfortunate, because you have vast experience with sushi. You really are the ideal person to hand-select a few resources that would perfectly meet her needs. Imagine if you had looked over your list and picked out a smaller number of items, then shared them in a way that would preview each one before she even opened it.

Something like this:

 

If you’d sent this to her, you would have been curating, not dumping.

I have written about curation before, but last time, I was talking about curation as a class assignment, something students do. Now I want to focus on you, the educator. Whether you’re a teacher, an administrator, a librarian, a researcher—whatever you do, chances are you have information to share with other people, and developing your curation skills—both in terms of how much you offer and how you deliver it—is going make that sharing a lot more effective.

So let’s take a look at how the brain responds to dumping, some school-related situations when good curation skills would come in handy, a set of curation guidelines to follow, and a short list of tech tools that can help you curate digitally.

Why Dumping is Bad for Brains

When we dump a lot of information on a person at once, we are working against their brain. Cognitive load theory suggests that the brain can only take in so much at once. When we’re presented with a whole bunch of information, our brains have to ignore some in order to process the rest. Eventually, if too much keeps coming at us, we reach the point of cognitive overload, where we get more than we can handle. At that point, a lot of people just shut down, and even simple information can’t get in.

It’s a bit like this photo. Imagine being told to go learn something about history from the objects in this room.

bric-a-brac” by Kevin Utting is licensed CC BY 2.0

 

No doubt, there are plenty of items in the room that have historical significance, but they’re all just dumped in there. Our brains learn by grouping lots of pieces of information into groups and patterns—cognitive scientists call these patterns schemas—and connecting it to knowledge we already have in long-term memory. Someone with considerable knowledge of the time periods represented in that room would be able to make some sense of it.

But the rest of us would do better off with the help of curators. That’s what a good museum does for us: It takes piles and piles of artifacts and selects only a few to represent an idea, a moment, an event, or a phenomenon. Then it carefully arranges those artifacts, starting with an introduction, often something written by the curators themselves to introduce the collection and provide us with meaningful context.

 

Then it introduces the artifacts in groups—again, adding its own editorial comments and explanations along the way, guiding us through the experience so that we aren’t forced to take too much in at once. We’re given time and space to savor each artifact one at a time.

 

Instead of being crowded into one big heap, items are grouped together under a common theme, so we see them as parts of a larger whole.

 

It’s not only museums that pay attention to this stuff. The tech industry is also very concerned with cognitive overload. In fact, there’s a whole field in tech called user experience design (UX for short). UX designers spend all of their time looking at how to improve the way users interact with websites and other digital products. They look at the smallest details, like the shape of the buttons we click, whether serif or sans-serif fonts get better responses, and where exactly to place a menu on a page. This article from Smashing Magazine does a deep dive into the topic, if you want to read more.  Companies that invest in UX know that if they don’t bother with these details, you will eventually leave and go to another, better designed site. Even though educators don’t have the financial incentive to pay attention to this stuff, we should. Plenty of situations would give us better results if we did.

Sample Scenarios

Here are a few education-related scenarios where good curation could make a difference:

 

Curation Guidelines

In any of the above scenarios, keep the following guidelines in mind when deciding what to share and how to share it.

1. Keep the Best, Lose the Rest
Less is almost always more, so once you get to the point where you’re sharing multiple resources on the same topic, you should be able to get rid of some and keep only the very best. This is easier said than done, because you want to be helpful and every additional item probably does add something unique to the mix. Just keep reminding yourself that the goal is to have the person actually consume the thing you’re sharing, and too much will send them running for the hills, so keep paring it down until it’s a nice, manageable size.

2. Chunk It
If you are sharing more than just a few resources, break the collection into smaller sub-sets. Give each section some kind of title to help users find what they are interested in more quickly.

3. Add Your Own Introductions
Just like museum curators place an explanatory paragraph near most artifacts, you can do the same with your resources. Give your audience some context to help them know what the resource is and what they will learn from it. Another way to do this is to offer a brief preview or excerpt from the article itself.

4. Use Images as Anchors
Although this can take extra time, adding an image before each item, like I’ve done below for the list of tools, can help readers visually distinguish one item from another. It will also help them find items more quickly later on.

5. Polish your Hyperlinks
When your resource sharing includes a link to something, you can provide that link in one of two ways. Giving the person the raw “http” link will certainly work, but these links usually look cluttered and complicated. What’s more appealing to the human eye is text that tells us something about the thing they’re clicking over to. You can accomplish this by changing the link text.

So instead of saying here, watch this: https://www.ted.com/talks/susan_david_the_gift_and_power_of_emotional_courage

You could say here, watch this TED Talk about Emotional Courage.

Every program does this a little bit differently, but once you’ve learned how to do it in one place, you should be able to figure it out in other places. To get you started, here’s a quick tutorial for how to insert a link in a Google Doc.

6. Always, Always Build in White Space
I can’t emphasize this one enough. Creating space around your resources is essential for a good user experience. So whether you’re sending an email, creating a newsletter, or designing a bulletin board, avoid cramming items together. Instead, cut back on the number of items and give your audience’s eyes some rest.

Curation Tools

For times when you’re curating digitally, these tools can help:

elink
elink.io
This is probably the simplest of all: Just insert a link and the tool lets you add your own introduction paragraph and image. This is the one I used for the sushi example at the beginning of this post.

 

Pinterest
pinterest.com
Save links to resources on themed boards, then share those boards with others.

 

LiveBinders
livebinders.com
A LiveBinder is like an online notebook, where you can organize collected items under individual tabs. In a single LiveBinder, you can gather links to websites, videos, uploaded documents, and personal notes you type in yourself, making this an excellent tool for larger, more complex collections.

 

Sutori
sutori.com
Collections on this platform are organized as vertical timelines. This is an especially nice option if you want your audience to experience your collection in a specific order, almost in the same way that a museum creates a “path” for visitors.

 

Padlet
padlet.com
This virtual corkboard offers a nice space for posting notes, images, and links to online articles and videos. Because it has good features for collaboration, this is a nice option for curating a collection with other people.

 

HyperDocs
A HyperDoc is not a specific website or app: You make these yourself out of a Google Doc. The HyperDoc framework would be perfect for building and sharing collections of resources. Learn more about HyperDocs here.

Why Bother?

So what’s the point of all this? We’re not running a museum. We’re not designers. Our job isn’t necessarily to entertain and enthrall our students with graphic design and finely tuned UX. So why bother?

Apart from the fact that it just makes things work better, developing our curation skills is just another way to elevate our craft. We have machines to provide information, to dump it all in a pile in front of us. What really smart, intuitive humans can do for each other—as teachers, as colleagues, as administrators—is curate. If we aspire to call ourselves master teachers, we also should be clear on what that actually means. The essence of our work is taking vast swaths of information and helping our students make sense of it. As college instructor Norman Eng says, “Think of yourself less as a teacher and more as a designer of meaningful experiences.” We’re going to share the information anyway; we might as well do it with style. ♦

 

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28 Comments

  1. Barbara Lee says:

    All of the excellent points you make also apply to graphic design. Good graphic design delivers visual and textual content that is audience-aware, well curated, delivered in chunks, with sensivity to white space, and thoughtfully paced — all to avoid information dumping. That’s what is all about.

  2. Elizabeth Simmer says:

    I just wanted to share a Curator who I follow often. Hope you enjoy! He does a “BrainBlast” weekly with all other items. Even some jokes.

    http://www.todd-finley.com

  3. Brenda Stewart says:

    Thank you for this very timely reminder, there is just so much “stuff” out there in education today. I went to a presentation by Brian Cambourne a number of years ago, and he used a similar theme, and similar images of horders. It was very powerful as is your reminder. I often send teachers I coach articles and strategies, but I do sift through them first. I guess I am guilty at times of dumping. I love the suggestions you have, the sushi example is perfect. And the idea of white space. I am preparing for a workshop tomorrow and this morning decided to keep the resources I share to a minimum. Then I read your post and feel comfortable with my decision. Thank you again for your sharing.

  4. Such an important post. Makes me think about how many times I’ve seen this: on parents at Back to School Nights giving them way too much info and jargon; on teachers at tech PD showing 32 great tech tools that must be used now; on staff showing all the data from the last round of testing…Everyone, settle down! No one can get a drink from a fire hydrant.

  5. Wake up call and solid advice on how to curate a collection of ideas rather than throw everything into a bin. I’m going to weed and re-organize my collection of links using Padlet. Thanks!

  6. Maria says:

    I got a lot of good information I can use out of this issue. Don’t get me wrong- I love all your podcasts, but this just came at the right time. Thanks!

  7. Excited to ready this piece Jennifer. Most of my work with teachers involves curation, pretty jazzed about it based on what I have observed. Thought I would share:

    When you think of a museum curation it is a specific and strategic collection of pieces that convey a message, feeling or idea–the curation can transform the individual pieces.

    In my course, students submit a Learning Curation. I wanted this to be a curation instead of a journal or collection to encourage metacognition and transformative learning that is notoriously difficult to corral in our individual inquiries. The Learning Curation requires responding to readings via learning curation prompts but also including anything else students wish, crafted through their interests, choices and their essential question/inquiry. This then becomes a curation because they have a collection of things but they are uniquely shaped, by students into something new via their inquiry. Collection + Transformation = Curation

  8. Melissa Minjares says:

    Yet another timely post from Cult of Pedagogy! I am in the process of cleaning up my “dump” of a MOODLE page for one of my classes and was able to delete 7 page links and replace them with a single Padlet containing only the pertinent readings, and with enticing images to boot.

    Thanks again!

  9. Norkhalilie says:

    This is a good sharing. It is good to know how curate makes things organized and accessible to students. Indeed, we have so many things to share with them and often we ‘shared’ too many things at the same time. So, this sharing has opened up an idea for me.Thanks!

  10. Hi Jennifer!

    Great post! Have you tried Scoop.it as a curation tool! Super easy to use, visibily appealing and an easy part of your workflow.

    Thanks for sharing!

    John

  11. Phoebe Hillemann says:

    The Smithsonian Learning Lab is a great tool for curation. You can browse thematic collections of resources made by other teachers and Smithsonian staff, and create your own. You can also have students curate collections. https://learninglab.si.edu/

  12. Chris says:

    Hello!

    The American Association of School Librarians (AASL) released a new set of national standards in November. They include six shared foundations and key commitments; they are: Inquire, Include, Collaborate, CURATE, Explore, and Engage. The extended description for Curate is: “Make meaning for oneself and others by collecting, organizing, and sharing resources of personal relevance.” As a high school librarian, it is critical that students know how to curate resources. We teach them to do this through the effective use of domain specific vocabulary, critical evaluation of resources and the careful selection of information. No easy task for sure!

  13. Amy Schlueter says:

    Thank you for many helpful links! As a reading specialist I know I can be guilty of “dumping” on teachers when I get excited about helping them with a topic for which they are seeking assistance. This post will help me be more mindful in my communications, not only of the teachers with whom I collaborate but also the parents of the children I teach.

  14. Michi Bryant says:

    Hi Jennifer,

    Great podcast! I am definitely guilty of going down a rabbit whole when researching a topic and sometimes overwhelm myself! This article gave me a lot to think about. Thank you!

    I do have 1 suggestion. Is there a way you can make your links open in a new tab? I was listening to and reading your podcast at the same time. When I saw links that I wanted to visit and clicked on them, they didn’t open in a new tab. This meant I had to go back to your podcast page and hit play again and estimate how much to fast forward. This may be just my issue, but sharing just in case it’s an easy fix.

    Michi

    • Hi Michi,

      Great question! I work with Cult of Pedagogy — one thing you can do is right-click on any link, and you’ll have the option to open it in a new tab or new window. This will apply for any website. Jenn used to have links open up in new tabs, but her developer said that more websites are moving toward opening in the same window and letting the user make the decision for themselves.

  15. Amanda Bump says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this! I teach United States History and feel guilty frequently about the amount of content I have to leave out. Sometimes, this internal pressure gets to me and I “dump” info on students in poorly designed lectures or collections of sources in attempt to “cover” more. My best lessons, however, involve a small collection of documents selected to help students answer a focused question. Thinking of these lessons as “museum exhibits” will help me fight that internal pressure to teach it all.

    • Yes, I feel that pressure too! I think it’s common among teachers. I called my strategy for dealing with it “educational triage,” but I think “curation” sounds much more scholarly!

  16. What a great post! Thank you! I’ve added it to the resources on my wikipage on curation and curation tools!

    http://webtools4u2use.wikispaces.com/Curation+Tools

  17. You referenced some amazing district websites in your article. Any chance you know about WCAG 2.0? I know some districts that are worried about adhering to accessibility laws. Trying to brainstorm & get to the bottom of what they actually need to do/worry about.

    • Hi Kirt,

      I work with Cult of Pedagogy – thanks for raising this issue. We’re hoping someone else who knows about WCAG 2.0 can help us out here, and share what they know.

  18. As a researcher, author, and eager consultant to dozens of teachers each month, I have really had to tame my “dumper” tendencies. Careful curation is a must. I am reminded by this post that I need to help teachers curate for their students. Thanks, Jenn, as always. You never fail to clarify something for me – to bring it to the surface.

  19. Margo G. says:

    This was a great way to start my week! Our team works together to plan and often times we “dump” our ideas in one place hoping to find time to go back and cull through the materials.

    I especially appreciate the timeliness of this article because I teach a 5/6 combo class and I am trying to keep it all sorted and separated for grade specific items. I am looking forward to checking out the links and other ideas! And I love the reminder that it is okay to not to use everything that is passed on…sometimes we worry about offending others by not using their ideas and this is a reminder that it is okay.

    Thanks!

  20. Very interesting post. As the curator I attempt to be , I hope student voice , peer reviews and this post will let me be more qualified . I would suggest https://www.pearltrees.com & https://sqworl.com to add to the list of awesome tools as well as others in this board : https://spotlight.edmodo.com/product/bookmarking-curation-resources–393581/.

  21. So much great info here! My go-to curating tool is Bag the Web.

  22. This was so good! Hi, my name is Lynn and I’m a dumper! LOL

    In the past year or so I’ve been exploring the concept of minimalism in my home but I’d never found a way to think about the concept with my resources (both digital and what I share with people)…until now! This idea you’re sharing Jenn is like minimalism for ideas! Yes! Thanks for being awesome, as always!

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