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The Age of Curation: Where "Woke" Comes to Die

Disseminator. Facilitator. Curator.

If you look back over the last century across public and higher education, this is the path of evolution (or revolution) that you might see. Educators and teachers were expected to possess knowledge and skills they "disseminated" to largely passive learners for centuries. Sure, there were exceptions from time to time. However, not until a pragmatist from Burlington, Vermont in the person of John Dewey began his long and fruitful journey in challenging education systems did we as a profession begin to challenge our own assumptions about teaching and learning. You see, Dewey promoted a harmony between democracy and the scientific method (recall the influence of the works of John Locke, Rosseau, Charles Darwin, Charles Babbage, and so many others). Among his many contributions is the promotion of self-critical communities of inquiry and constant revision of practice. Let's think about just that for a moment.

When I began teaching in the 1990s, facilitation was the all the rage. Educational models grounded in deeper psychological and philosophical beliefs challenged even basic assumptions about reality. Neisser, Piaget, and Skinner grounded the triad of powers in cognitivism, constructivism, and behaviorism. Vygotsky stressed the importance of social learning and the role of community in making meaning. Bloom's taxonomy offered us a model to pursue and assess cognitive, affective, and psychomotor domains. Gagne, Bruner, Maslow, Gardner, Erikson, Kolb, Laird, all lent their influence as education became increasingly politicized. Among these, Carl Rogers was influential in a shift to "facilitation," where the very role of the teacher/educator was questioned and altered from "the sage on the stage."

Much of my professional training as an educator at both the K-12 and higher education levels was driven by the creation of learning environments that encourage facilitation. Argument-driven Inquiry, Problem-based Learning, Project-based Learning, Learning Communities, and Authentic Assessment are but a few models that point back to facilitation. My personal journey led to over 20 years in leading faculty development for thousands of teachers and faculty in such models. As the internet emerged and expanded, Learning Management Systems (LMS) emerged to add further levels of complexity in modality and challenge even the most sacred of assumptions in classrooms. Into this maelstrom came school choice, home schooling, reemergent discussions on creationism, and a string of "hot topics" associated with varying values across the United States and other nations at the turn of the millennia.

As more and more learning experiences went online and hybrid (particularly during the pandemic) another very powerful force across education spread almost as fast as the virus. Work on artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning from previous decades of research reached deeper and deeper into our curriculum and every single learning object. Today, those learning objects and experiences are the new battlefield of educators and politicians, far more so than even the classroom. The Age of Curation began to take hold as individuals created and consumed social media via smartphones, tablets, and a wealth of digital devices now pervasive across every culture on the planet. You see, the real power today is in who is "curating" these learning objects.

Today, we analyze every object, for every learner, every day...even every moment. Why would educational systems be any different? They're not. Textbook companies and state legislators are only two of the "influencers" on object creation and curation outside the classroom and educational community. Each of these objects reflects culture. Culture is nothing more than assumptions, values, and celebrations. If we can control those objects, in an increasingly "black box," we can drive values. This is the heart of the Age of Curation...control.

Content scarcity is gone. Textbook companies know this all too well. Curation moves out of the hands of a few to the realm of the many. Supply and demand for information and education and training continues to shift, as does "ownership." Once the realm of faculty committees on "general education outcomes," curriculum bodies linked to accreditation and subsequent funding, teacher groups by content and grade level, state and federal education committees and representatives, the collection of learning objects is being curated by a much wider audience of a new generation of "influencers."

Recently, the Governor of Florida addressed teacher recruitment for the state and unleashed the phrase, “Florida is the place where woke goes to die.” Like many conservative politicians, Governor DeSantis is deeply concerned about curation. In his mind, and the minds of many politicians and some educators, the values represented in all those learning objects is counterintuitive to a self-empowering experience and more an indoctrination. In particular, he points to Schools of Education within colleges and universities where “left-learning” constructs result in the curation of objects that support a value system associated with a “Woke” agenda.

Whether you align with the Governor of Florida or not, you must concede that he is likely quite accurate in the power of curation. Let’s not debate whether or not these collections of learning objects, experiences, curriculums, and even assessments reflect left, right, or center. We are only beginning to acknowledge “decolonizing” a curriculum, addressing systemic inequities, and a wide range of conflicts in this curation. The Age of Curation is here. It has been for some years now. That “black box” I referred to earlier is increasingly driven by AI. It is filled with billions of learning objects…and growing.

John Dewey dreamed of an educational system that prepared socially conscious graduates across constantly adjusting self-critical communities. As odd as it may sound, I think he would be pleased in the conflicts we see today. Whenever any dominant influence takes over curation, those degrees of freedom begin to erode. I applaud the Governor of Florida for his courage and focus on minimizing indoctrination. I applaud the leaders of the Woke community in their pursuit of equity and systemic justice. If we encourage a continuum of human influencers, we are more likely to produce an educated and free society, something Dewey envisioned so many decades ago.

I am far more comfortable with a healthy degree of debate across human beings of varying values than I am of an AI engine driving that massive "black box" of learning objects. I'll concede that the AI construct is created by humans...but all AI it learns and adapts...on its own. Hmmmmm...What values will it use to curate all those learning objects? We might need to look back to Darwin and the core value of survival for a possible answer. But, that's a different article.

“Skepticism: the mark and even the pose of the educated mind.”

John Dewey

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