Scientists disagree among themselves but they never fight over their disagreements. They argue about evidence or go out and seek new evidence. Much the same is true of philosophers, historians and literary critics.
– Richard Dawkins
All objects have a story. All objects carry part of their story with them. A piece of shrapnel from the Civil War can still smell like sulphur. A chamber pot contains the name of its creator and the date it was manufactured. Cans have solder patterns. iPods have model numbers. Cars and trucks have VIN numbers. Quilts have specific stitches and fabrics. Clothing has both decoration and a style that identifies it in place and time. The list is as endless as the number of artifacts available. Evidence unlocks the key to the story.
Observation provides the initial access to every object’s story. Becoming an acute observer and recorder (elements of the fourth characteristic of “college and work-ready” graduates) is critical to discovering how an object was used, where it was made, who used it and how it came to be in your classroom. The first step in any analysis of an object is to “describe what you see.” This is merely the recording of evidence. Indication of wear, model numbers, signatures, material composition, dates, differences in patterns, size, color, and composition all offer initial insight or contextual clues about the artifact at hand. This is the evidence that provokes further inquiry into the information we are seeking to determine.
Everything we can surmise or conclude about an artifact relies on evidence. As we record our observations, we look for patterns or direct clues (dates, names, locations) that can guide us to uncover the story. These patterns and clues can lead to further investigation beyond the specific artifact under consideration. This research will often provide context to assist us, or confirm a hypothesis about the nature of the object and the story of its existence. Once our story idea is confirmed, we can then present our ideas based on the evidence that we have uncovered and applied at each step and stage of the investigation. This is the case, regardless of the academic discipline in which we engage our students. Only the emphasis differs.
In a history class, students would be interested in who used the item, for what purpose and how it traveled to their classroom.. In a chemistry class, students would be more concerned with the composition of the item. In a math class, students may be more interested in how the object improved production or increased efficiency coefficients. Artifacts in an engineering class might provide the story of flow rates, or affected workloads. An art class might be concerned more with how the color, shape and design affected the users. The list is, once again, almost endless. What remains the same is that the gathering of data – observations of many kinds – forms the basis, not only for the classroom instruction, but also for solving the problem of “What is this?” and “Why is this important?”
Telling the story then becomes very easy because it depends upon the evidence at hand. We tell the chemistry story through the results obtained through experimentation. We tell the math story via the results retrieved from measurements and calculations applied. We tell the engineering story via the experimentation with models and applications. Stories about artifacts are evidence-based from the beginning. Discovery, synthesis, and evaluation (evidence) lead students to the conclusion (the story). Asking “What is this?” and “Why is it important?” provides a direct route for students to learn evidence-based communications skills. They have experienced the value of evidence in discovering the story, and the importance of using that evidence to solve the problem at hand.
Artifacts teach the value of evidence.