We have been discussing the benefits of using artifacts as teaching tools across grade levels and disciplines. Artifacts work at every level and with every group. Artifacts engage students and increase student achievement. Exactly how does this occur? Why do artifacts work when other methods are less effective? Artifacts carry special qualities that other tools do not possess.
We have previously shown that objects fascinate people of all ages and abilities. They engross us because they capture our imagination. We know that every object “has a story” because things do not simply appear “out of thin air.” Artifacts have been fabricated, molded, used, saved or discarded before we encounter them. We humans are a curious lot. We want to know (or imagine) what happened to the object under our analysis before it appeared to us. Who possessed it before? What is it made of? Where is ti from? Who found it? Used it? How did it get here? Ah, this is the “stuff” of stories – not just histories – but scientific stories of composition, erosion, wear, application and obsolescence. These stories are also the “stuff” of mathematics. What is the size, the weight, the mass? Artifacts contain the “stuff” of physics as well. What forces shaped this object? How did resistance affect its size, or function, or vice versa? Objects carry geographical stories, economic stories and on, and on…. Objects are also part of the communication process. We have to tell their stories. Artifacts and stories are inextricably interconnected. This final point is probably the most important to your classroom practice.
Stories and storytelling have increased in importance over the last few years. Research has shown that students learn more and retain information longer when it is placed in context. Stories are the way we store information in the brain. Stories help us to remember information and link content pieces together.* We know also that students truly do not engage in an activity unless they think it will “further the purposes of their own lives.”** Artifacts generate emotional responses and memories. We relate to artifacts through our experiences, thus their stories directly affect us. This relationship strengthens the fascination, the curiosity and the engagement. Introducing artifacts into your classroom practice reinforces every phase of the learning process. Artifacts teach in other ways as well.
We are all familiar with the statement, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” The same is true for objects. Artifacts can serve as important springboards for generating questions, conversation and for sharing content. Students who may not normally participate can readily join in the discovery and explanation of objects, especially if students feel an attachment or attraction to the artifacts. In the process of discovery and analysis all hypotheses are valid. Artifacts provide a democratization of the intellectual field and an opportunity for greater participation through the stories they carry.
Artifacts facilitate engagement and increased student achievement. Because objects fascinate us, we readily engage with them. Because artifacts carry stories, they are effective in math, science, social studies and the Language Arts. Discovering and telling the stories of objects helps students assimilate data into an orderly pattern. Our minds recognize and remember patterns. Artifacts engage students in effective learning.In other words, artifacts teach.
*Caine, Renate Nummela and Caine, Geoffrey. Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain. Menlo Park, CA: Addison, Wesley, 1994.
**Cambourne, Brian. “Toward an Educationally Relevant Theory of Literacy Learning: Twenty Years of Research.” The Reading Teacher. Volume 49, No. 3, November, 1995.