Artifacts are important teaching tools. Using objects in your classroom helps students develop important intellectual skills. Working with tangible things helps students to “develop a capacity for careful, critical observation of their world.”* As the 21st century progresses it seems that our lives are becoming more fast-paced and increasingly complex. Technology has provided the means for instantaneous worldwide communication, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, year ’round. This is a good thing. However, technology is always a “double-edged sword.” We have less time away from work, shorter response times, and increased stress as we are expected to produce more with fewer resources.”** We have little time to stop and observe what is literally at our feet. Furthermore, our educational system simply does not train us to see many of the things in our world.
In the American educational system, there is a great deal of emphasis on helping students name and categorize the objects, items and artifacts they encounter. This process is helpful. It organizes our experiences and frees us from treating every encounter with our world as “entirely new.” Naming and numbering”are the foundation skills for language development and mathematics. Because we can name and number, we are free to play around with abstractions. But, it is just as important to see the world through “fresh eyes.” We need to develop the ability to look at the world in a careful and critical way. Critical observation is just as important as naming and numbering. The ability to see the world clearly and to ask good probing questions of that world is a vitally important intellectual skill. Employing artifacts in your classroom provides the opportunity for you to train your students to observe and analyze effectively.
If we were to ask, “Who was Louis Agassiz?” Most of you – dare I guess 90% – would not be able to answer correctly. However, if we had asked this question 100 years ago, 90% of the populace would have been able to identify him immediately. His name was as well-known then as Justin Bieber, Nikki Minaj, or Tom Brady today. He was the preeminent glaciologist, ichthyologist and natural scientist of the 19th century.Among his many professional duties was to teach at Harvard University where he trained the zoological elite of the 20th century. He had a very interesting entrance exam for his potential graduate students. He would lock each in a room with a fish or turtle or other preserved object and not release them until they had discovered “all the truth” about their object, or until they gave up in despair. (See David McCullough’s description of the Agassiz method in Brave Companions). He wanted to impress upon his students the critical nature of close observaton and analysis. His method worked. Now, we don’t recommend locking your students in a room filled with formaldehyde-soaked, prehistoric fish, but you can teach the same lesson – and more – by using artifacts regularly in your classroom.
When you place an artifact in front of students and ask, “What is this?”, you immediately engage them in higher order thinking. As they examine the object , they continue through the stages of critical thinking: analysis, discovery, identification, classification, and interpretation. As they work through this intellectual exercise, they naturally form learning groups, share information and develop leadership and communications skills.* Artifacts fascinate. Artifacts engage. Artifacts Teach.
*Shuh, John Hennigar. “Teaching Yourself to Teach with Objects.” Journal of Education. Volume 7, No. 4, 1992.
U.S. Department of Commerce. Washington D.C. The Effects of Communication on Job Productivity and Response. U.S. Government Printing Office, 2010.