Characteristic Number Four of a “college and work-prepared” graduate is that he/she comprehends as well as critiques information. More specifically, the standards state that our graduates need to be “open-minded, but discerning, recorders and listeners who question assumptions and assess the veracity of claims and the soundness of the reasoning involved.” Let’s put this into other terms. First and foremost, our graduates need to understand information presented to them, regardless of position or perspective. Once that understanding has occurred, they need to possess the ability to challenge the basic ideas that underlie the premise, and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the argument presented. How in the world can an artifact – an object that is not a written document – contribute to this characteristic? Again, we need to return to the process that occurs after an instructor places the artifact in front of the class and asks, “What is this and why is it important?”
Once the questions are posed, students begin to gather evidence based on their observations of the object in front of them. In an open classroom – one that encourages participation and welcomes all ideas based on evidence – students observe the item, discuss with each other the evidence obtained, and determine a possible answer, either individually or in a group. The class then chooses the “best answer”, from those presented based on the strength of the argument derived from direct evidence. I observed a third grade instructor who placed a hoop and stick game in front of his students and asked our favorite two questions. His students immediately began to place the objects within their frame of reference. “Does the hoop come from a barrel?” ” Is the stick used to stir?” “Is it a pointer?” “Did the hoop hold something together?” All of these were good questions and examples of the first stage of observation. Students examined the items as individual pieces and attempted to resolve their problem with separate answers. Once their own ideas formed, they moved to the second step, and consulted each other for possible answers. Challenges to the assumptions of others came through the defense of their own ideas, or in the support of another’s suggestions that were similar to or the same as their own. The final step, the resolution of the questions, came in the form of the class determining the best answer from all those presented.
What happened in this class? In the first steps of solving the problem before them, students almost naturally became “…discerning recorders and listeners who question assumptions based on the soundness of the reasoning” of the arguments.” They gathered evidence, created a hypothesis based on that evidence and presented it to the group at large. The group, through individual voting, chose the “best” answer based on the strength of the evidence at hand. I have personally observed students from first grade through AP high school classes go through this process. It is an amazing thing to watch, especially since it is repeated in essentially the same fashion, regardless of grade level. What if we all used artifacts consistently in our classrooms? Might students have an easier time achieving this fourth requirement?
Do not be fooled here. Students go through the process, but they do not always come up with what we might think are correct or logical answers. Without some context within which to work, students can logically arrive at the dreaded, “the aliens did it,” as the answer. The process allows for the combination of what is known with what can be uncovered through observation and further consultation of sources. You, the teacher, can guide them by providing the context or by suggesting where that context can be found. Background knowledge from previous lessons, or reading in advance offer a place to begin. The artifact provides practice in the methods that teach how to question, evaluate, synthesize and come to a logical conclusion based on the evidence at hand.
Artifacts Teach – Comprehension and Critique