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“The key to success is to risk thinking unconventional thoughts. Convention is the enemy of progress. If you go down just one corridor of thought you never get to see what’s in the rooms leading off it. ”                      — Trevor Bayliss, British Inventor

In our previous blog entry, we mentioned that we often get questions about the number or type of artifacts in the Teacher’s Closet on the Artifacts Teach website. These questions come in the form of, “What Civil War artifacts do you have?” or “What Revolutionary War artifacts do you have?”, or “What do you have that is 20th Century?” These questions, while well-meaning, miss the mark. To pigeon-hole an artifact is to limit its applicability. Let me give you some examples.

Let us begin with a drop spindle. This item (pictured at the right)  is used to spin thread from cotton, wool or flax. The drop spindle has been around for over 6,000 years. So, this one artifact can be used to teach both the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution in Western Civilization. It can be used to teach World History as it appears in all of the Ancient Civilizations at approximately the same time. National Geographic Magazine recently featured a story about finding the hidden tomb of a Mayan princess. Wrapped in a leather bag drop spindlealong with jewelry and precious stones was a drop spindle. It can be used to teach the Revolutionary War. American Colonial women began the “Homespun Movement” in an attempt to cripple the British Imperial economy in the 1770s. It can be used to discuss Native American culture. Men in the pueblos of the Southwest spun clothing and rugs while women worked in the fields. After the Spanish conquest, the advent of European ideas and religion changed pueblo society completely and women became the spinners, while men worked the fields. During the Great Depression, the WPA taught home spinning to unemployed men and women as a means of making ends meet. A drop spindle can be used to teach post-World War II anti-colonialism as well.  Ghandi used home spinning as a tool to break the back of the British economy in India and achieve independence.

The drop spindle also teaches math, science and Language Arts. The construction of a drop spindle contains circles, cones, and cylinders. Math principles involved include circumference, radius, and diameter. (math) The amount of weight added to the spindle determines the tightness of the thread that is spun.(physics) The elements that are used to construct the spindle and the attached the weight reflect the environmental and geographical conditions at the time. (science) The design of the drop spindle reveals status and cultural development. ( Sociology, Anthropology) Words associated with spinning have defined women’s roles throughout history. (Language Arts) So, how would you classify a drop spindle? What “kind” of artifact is it? To what era does it belong?

Another example is the simple American Woodsman’s Axe. It is designed specifically to remove bark and fell trees. The design of the head of the axe contains both basic math lessons (size, shape) and geometry and physics lessons (shape of the wedge, angles, relationship of head to handle, curvature of the handle and its impact on efficiency). The axe is also a Language Arts lesson. Think about the story of Paul Bunyan. If I am not mistaken,  he used an axeAmerican Woodsman’s axe. The original Anglo colonists brought axes with them. They quickly discovered that the large, flat blades of a board axe did not work well to clear trees for the planting of crops. They modified it to meet their needs. Those modifications continued as Anglo-Europeans moved westward in the 18th and 19th centuries. That is surely history, but it is also science and math. Is it Colonial history, or Westward Movement, or Environmental history? How would you classify the American Woodsman’s axe?

We can go on and on here. The Teacher’s Closet at contains candle molds (math, science, history, Language Arts), Minie Balls (Civil War, Economics, Globalization, science and math), a beaver hat (economics, history, art, globalization, Language Arts, environmental science and math) a toy bank (Industrialization, cultural history, math, science), a miner’s candlestick (math, science, economics, An Apple composed by several fruitshistory, Language Arts) and so on, for some forty-odd artifacts. Each of these has multiple applications over a wide range of space, time, and disciplines. Artifacts Teach has the artifacts that can help you engage your students and teach them critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, decision-making, problem-solving and communications skills? Artifacts Teach has assembled a series of artifacts on-line that students can manipulate as if they were holding them in class. We continually add to that cache, provide hints and help for students, and context support for teachers. We suggest ways in which teachers can use them in existing lesson plans. Why? Because thirty years of teaching has proven to us that





“Give pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.”     – John Dewey

Employing artifacts in the classroom provides many benefits for both teachers and students. We have discussed and reviewed those in previous entries here. Today, let’s look at introducing artifacts into your pedagogical practice from a slightly different perspective.

When we attend national and regional education conferences, many educators are fascinated with the idea of using 3D artifacts in their classrooms. Most, however, think of applying artifacts in terms of their curriculum rather than how artifacts influence students, regardless of discipline. Our Many People Thinking of Questionsmost often-asked question goes something like this, “I teach (enter any discipline and subject here). What objects do you have for me?” Our answer is “All the artifacts in the teacher’s closet on-line work for you. You are the person who knows your curriculum and your students. You need to decide HOW you will use the artifacts to teach your subject.” Initially, this response frustrates teachers/administrators. It is, however, the only meaningful response.

Introducing artifacts into your lessons is a “semi-constructivist approach” to education. Piaget and others who enunciated constructivist theory would have students discover the necessary information without instructor interference. At Artifacts Teach, we  favor a “guided practice” approach in which the teacher Jean-Piaget-9439915-1-402monitors and assists students – especially very young learners – in their analysis, synthesis and decision-making processes. In today’s educational environment, teachers are charged with teaching critical thinking skills. So, what question should you – the science, art, math, Language Arts, or Social Studies teacher – be asking of the artifacts at in order to teach those 21st century skills?

The most effective questions to ask of any artifact are, “How can I use this to achieve my goals and objectives in class today?” “Do I want to use it to stimulate interest or curiosity about the lesson/unit?” “How can I use it to help students discover important skills, or clarify important concepts?” “In what ways will this artifact allow students to discover and understand the important points of this lesson/unit?” “How will this artifact help my students relate their newfound knowledge to their everyday lives so that they retain it longer and apply it more effectively?”



Let me give you an example. One of our first grade teachers used a 12 pound  cannon ball and a Union Minie ball to teach her students about height, diameter and radius. Using the measuring tool on the Artifacts Teach website, her students measured the diameter of both items and recorded those measurements on a chart. They divided the diameter in half to obtain the radius and recorded that measurement. They also measured the height of each of the

12 pounder

items and recorded their findings on another chart.  As a final step, the students compared the size of the Minie ball with the size of the 12-pounder according to each of the measurements. This teacher taught math and vocabulary (Language Arts) to her students using Civil War artifacts, while never teaching a lesson about the Civil War. She knew her goals and objectives were to teach math and vocabulary, but she engaged her students using artifacts that would demonstrate the principles through hands-on learning. She asked the right questions of the artifacts MM357-782015she had available.

Thinking only in terms of curriculum topics as in, “Is this a math artifact?…a Civil War artifact…a science artifact?” only limits you as a teacher and your students as effective learners. Your job, regardless of discipline, is to teach 21st century skills. That is the end-goal of every set of State Standards and the Common Core. Your job is to determine how best to achieve it. We have shown again and again over the last year that artifacts automatically teach analysis, synthesis, decision-making and communications skills. Determine where and how to insert an artifact into your existing lesson plans, guide your students in the critical thinking process and watch how





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Research has shown that two factors not only improve student attention and retention, but also increase student performance. Those two items are use of appropriate technology and positive student engagement. Let’s define “technology” as “cyber learning.” That is the use of networked computing and communications technologies to support learning. This could be employing the Internet as a research tool, or using a SMART board to deliver information, or delivering feedback to students via social media. Regardless of the form, the application of technology in today’s classrooms appeals to the current school-age generation. This group has been called online_learning“digital natives” because they have been “connected” to computers, notepad readers and cell phones since they were born. What we older folks see as a “tool” they see as a natural part of their daily lives. Appealing to today’s students through technologies with which they are familiar, engages them more quickly and more completely than using PowerPoints, overhead projectors and/or classroom materials on CD’s. Cyber learning opens your classroom to a myriad of topics, teachers and resources around the world. Learning is no longer centered in your local classroom. Via cyber learning, education now extends across the globe. Scholars do warn, however, that the technology must be used in the right place at the right time. Like most pedagogical approaches, cyber learning is not a “one size fits all” approach.

Engagement is the second key factor in improving student attendance, attention, and performance. Veteran educators already know that engagement is a key to learning. Research over the last 20 years has demonstrated that establishing connections with students at the level of THEIR LIVES engages students in the lesson at hand. Students today want to see some connection with their PCY-2-5-2014experience, their community or their dreams in just about everything  they study. In order to make that happen, educators must think differently about HOW they teach. As Sir Kenneth Robinson has been preaching for over two decades, we no longer need to deliver information to our students. They already have more access to more information via their cellphones than they can absorb. Our focus should be teaching our students how to sort through, validate and utilize the information they have readily at their fingertips. In other words, we need to teach them how to think critically, how to evaluate (read) a variety of sources, how to solve problems, work collectively, make sound decisions, and communicate their thoughts, ideas and results effectively. None of this is news to any professional educator. What is new is how we can achieve these goals.

Using artifacts – objects made by humans – in the classroom offers the simplest and most effective approach to teaching our students these 21st century skills. Students immediately identify with artifacts at a higher-level of thinking. Placing an artifact in front of a class and asking, “What is this?” immediately forces the students to access prior knowledge in an attempt to answer the question (solve the problem presented). Further it requires analysis in order to gain the evidence necessary, synthesis to evaluate the evidenceinkwell at hand, decision-making to determine which of the evidence applies, and communication skills to relay the evidence-based answer to the teacher and the rest of the class. Using artifacts in the classroom automatically teaches the skill sets that administrators, Boards of Education, colleges and industry demand in our times. Combining artifacts and technology in one approach captures the imagination and intellectual curiosity of students. It also eliminates the problems of expense, wear and tear, breakage, and storage that artifacts have presented in the past.

There is only one place on the Internet where technology and artifacts combine in a teaching format that has been tested and proven effective in the classroom: When you go to this website you will find a teacher’s closet full of teachable artifacts combined with supporting background essays, and primary sources that can be used across the K-12 curriculum. In addition, the website provides the technology to build, save, assign, modify and reuse every lesson. Why not employ the one pedagogy that combines the two most important factors in improving student performance? Why not use Artifacts Teach?



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“The centerpiece of effective teaching is student engagement, which is defined not as ‘busywork”‘or ‘being on task,”‘ but as being ‘intellectually active’ … as being ‘minds on.'”                      Charlotte Danielson

Our earliest experiences teach us that artifacts are intellectually engaging. From birth we learn through the examination and analysis of objects. Think about babies and how they learn. If your children or grandchildren are anything like mine, the first thing they did from the time they were six weeks old was to put things in their baby chewingmouths. They stuck fingers and toes in there first, then, as they grew older, examined their toys, their clothes or any other object that came within their reach. They looked at it. Touched it. Placed it in their mouths. Regardless, these babies learned through engagement with the objects in their environment. As we grow older, we tend to move away from that physical examination to a more “intellectual” approach. Since the Enlightenment, educators have relied more on the written word than any other method to teach about our world. However, times are changing.

The increased emphasis on student achievement has brought with it an increased understanding of the different ways in which students learn. In general, students fall into one or more of the following categories of learning styles: visual learners, aural learners, physical learners, verbal learners or logical learners. Our challenge is to engage our students, regardless of learning style, or level of expertise in the subject matter at hand. Artifacts accomplish that task, and they do so immediately.

Let’s examine what occurs when a teacher divides his/her class into groups of two or three, places an artifact in front of them and offers the following prompt, “What is this? How is it important to us, right here, right now?” In order to respond, students must engage immediately with the artifact, and do so at a level of higher order thinking. “What is this?” begins a process of inspection and analysis that involves comparison and contrast. Students’ minds will take them, almost involuntarily, into asking important intellectual engagementquestions, “What have I seen, experienced, or used before that looks like this?” (visual learning). They begin to relate to the object through personal experience(physical learning), and  incorporate the experiences and ideas of others in their group (aural/verbal learning) in order to answer the challenge. They measure the object, examine it closely (physical learning), and exchange ideas about its size, shape, construction, and possible use(verbal, logical and physical learning). They base their answers (conclusions) on the evidence they have obtained (visual,physical learning), their exchange of ideas(aural,verbal learning), and their decisions arrived at through logical reasoning. From the beginning, artifacts have students operating at the “minds engaged” level in the task at hand.

So let’s look at what happened here. Using artifacts in the classroom addressed each of the different styles of learning and accommodated students at different levels of expertise. One did not need to be able to read at the highest levels in order to contribute successfully. One did not need to speak English very well in order to participate fully and effectively in the process. One did not need to have an extensive repertoire of background knowledge in order to add positively to the group’s decisions. Yet, from the beginning, students were engaged in critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, communication and decision-making regardless of their learning style. For teachers and students alike, artifacts are language and reading neutral, yet they open the door to effective learning. ARTIFACTS ARE INTELLECTUALLY ENGAGING…..





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“Strength lies in differences, not in similarities”

-Stephen R. Covey

The last characteristic of the “college and work-ready graduate” is that he/she “comes to understand other perspectives and cultures.” Artifacts automatically introduce students to cultural differences. Every artifact is a product of the culture in which it was made. We transfer our cultural ideas, norms, traditions and beliefs into the objects we make and use. Compare for instance, a mixing bowl from Polish mixing bowlPoland with one from France. Look at eating utensils from China and compare them with those from the United States. What could we decipher about culture from looking at a British board axe and a hand-axe from Washington State? How could an Easter egg from the Czech Republic reveal something about tradition and commitment in Eastern Europe? How would the patterns of a Navajo rug communicate ideas and beliefs of Southwestern culture? What would Czecha chemical analysis of concrete from a Roman aqueduct tell us about that culture? What might a painting from Saudi Arabia tell us about Islam and the relationship of man to his world? Objects are ideal tools for students to learn about other cultures.

By far, the easiest objects to place before students of any age are pieces of clothing. Textiles contain lessons for stuChinesedents in all disciplines. Mathematicians can calculate standard sizes (heights and weights) of the population  from samples of clothing. Chemists can determine the elements used in making the item, including the dyes used for color and the sources of the thread employed to construct it. Sociologists can speculate on the status of the person based on materials, design and wear. Historians can examine how an item has changed over time. Engineers might consider how objects used for the same purpose differ in composition and application. Geographers would be interested in the pattern of disbursement across the society. Artists and designers would be interested in the different applications of design, construction and color. And so it goes. By their very nature, objects provide an introduction to cultural diversity and an opportunity to develop cultural empathy.

Even within the same society, take the United States for example, objects provide for greater cultural understanding. Think of food as an object. Try placing grits in front of your students – food is an object after all. What understanding might we have of another, regional culture in our own nation if we examined grits in terms of composition, function, usage and popularity? At the same time, we corn tortillacould use the corn tortilla for the same purpose. Why not start a class with a corn tortilla? Ask, “What is this and why is it important?” and you have fodder (sorry, I could not help myself) for discussion that includes chemistry, industry, transportation, agriculture, geography and economics. The same holds true for any regional or national specialty, be it food or clothing or tools, or containers, or the structure and composition of houses. Objects take students immediately into the higher order thinking skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation, not only with the object under consideration but also with similar objects in their own experience.

Objects reveal the ideas, beliefs, practices and traditions of the societies in which they were made. That transference is inherent. We cannot avoid it. Using objects in the classroom allows students to discover and appreciate the ideas, skills, traditions and lives of others outside the walls of their schools and the limits of their neighborhoods.

Artifacts teach cultural appreciation and perspective.


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What happens in your classroom when you ask a question for which no one has an immediate answer? If your classroom is anything cell phonelike mine have been, students go immediately to their iPhones and search key words on Google or Yahoo. We are all aware that today’s students know perfectly well how to search for information on the Internet. For most students, the problem is not using technology to find information, it is sorting through the overwhelming amount of information that using technology provides. Here is where artifacts help create the “college and work-ready graduate” who can “use technology and digital media strategically and capably.”

Artifacts provide a starting point and a guide for digital research. Our first question is always, “What is this?” The immediate analysis that follows describes the object fully and completely. This information provides the basis for the key words used in all search engines. A youthful description of Native American moccasins might read, “leather, beaded, footwear.” Enter those words into an “image” Mescalerosearch and a wide array of beaded shoes appears. Students then must move further down the list of words used to describe our moccasins. Enter the word, “Indian,” and the images produce an unlimited number of beautiful slippers and shoes from India. Students might then go back to the descriptive words and enter, “Native American.” When that occurs, the search engine produces images that are more like our object under consideration, and an answer to our question emerges.

Let’s review the process. We ask the question. Students analyze the object, describe the item fully and completely, and use the description as the source of key words for an Internet search. Based on the results of this process, they refine the search using more specific words from the description until they come to a reasonable conclusion based on the visual evidence they have found. This Searchsimple method takes students through the same process as a research scientist, historian, engineer, mathematician, or economist would utilize to answer their questions. Asking “What is this?” allows students to begin with broader descriptions and definitions and gradually narrow their searches using more specific terms, eliminating those descriptions and definitions that prove to be inconclusive or inaccurate along the way. As they narrow their searches based on their returns, they are using evidence to refine their research. Questions drive the research. Results refine the parameters. Evidence-based solutions to the problem are the end result. Fortunately for all of us, this method works at all levels of inquiry.

Objects are grade-level neutral. Questions about the object  add sophistication, depth, and complexity to the inquiry. For students whose reading, writing, and communications skills are not yet well-developed, “What is this?” may be the only question asked. For students with greater background knowledge, or more life experience, “Why is it important?” or “Who might have used this?” or “How was this made?” or “What elements comprise its structure?”…. can follow. These guided essential questions lead to further inquiry, but  the discovery process remains the same. Refinement of the answer comes from evidence that matches the initial analysis of the object at hand. The refinement process continues along the same path until the question driving the research is answered. Artifacts provide the starting point and the key terms and descriptions that drive effective Internet research.

Artifacts teach strategic use of technology.


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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 itObservation 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 feature-2-figure-1hypothesis 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.