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“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”  – Albert Einstein, Living Philosophies

My son-in-law is an electrician. While he is tolerant of my extended cause-and-effect explanations, history is not at the top of his list of interests. He is a voracious reader, and more importantly, he is an avid fan of documentaries and the Public Broadcasting System. At his birthday dinner last week, he suggested that I watch a series on our local PBS affiliate called,”How We Got To Now.” I will admit to being a bit of a snob How We Got To Nowabout historical documentaries on television. Unless they are Ken Burns’ films with Geoffrey Ward as the script writer, I usually find them shallow, lacking substantial arguments and more commercial than historical. However, a promise is a promise, and I told him at his birthday dinner that I would try the show the next time it was broadcast. I am glad that I did.

“How We Got To Now” is a 30-minute program that looks at six technological innovations and provides a short history of how they have changed human lives over time. The program I watched was called, “Glass.” It dealt with the discovery of how to make glass and then progressed rapidly from the making of mirrors through its application in telescopes and microscopes, to its application in fiber optics today. The host, Steven Johnson, does a nice job offlat_glass demonstrating that technology is a double-edged sword that often has unintended consequences. The program is only 30 minutes in length, so Johnson is rushed to make proper and appropriate connections. However, the material is engaging. For someone, like me, who believes that artifacts teach, “How We Got To Now” is proof of my hypothesis.

Each program is focused on some artifact. “Glass” is one episode. “Light” is another. “Clean” is yet another. Regardless of the topic, Johnson uses items/objects/artifacts to demonstrate the connections from their inception to their uses today. It is a rather quick history, but it is based on artifacts. It is also extremely galileos-telescope_bigengaging. I was fascinated with the development of glass, its many uses, and its contributions to creating the global economy of today. When I looked across the room at my eight-year-old grandson, I found that he was fascinated, too. He was engaged throughout the program and this is a kid who can barely sit still for 5 minutes, nevertheless 30!

The point here is that artifacts engage human beings. The age group, level of education, or professional expertise of people rarely makes a difference. We are a curious lot. When presented with something with which we are unfamiliar, we naturally try to relate it to our experience, match it to our knowledge base, and, thereby, fit it into our milieu. As teachers of all kinds of subjects, we must take advantage of that natural curiosity. We have shown over and over again in these pages that engagement is the key to Curious-quote-Dorothy-Parkermodern learning and that artifacts immediately engage students’ interest at the level of higher order thinking. The only question that remains is, “Why are we not incorporating artifacts into our pedagogical practice on a regular basis?”

I am not an advocate of “TV History.” I am an advocate of artifacts in the classroom. I recommend that you check out your local PBS station, find out when “How We Got To Now” is on, and watch an episode. If nothing else, Steve Johnson will demonstrate how you can use artifacts to teach “big ideas” in math, science and social studies. Artifact-centered pedagogy works on the air and in your classroom because:





To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires a creative imagination and marks the real advances in science.    – Albert Einstein

Einstein’s words apply not only to science, but also to math, Language Arts, Social Studies, avoiding traffic jams, and plumbing. He is talking about thinking creatively. We are not born with this skill. It must be learned. Administrators at both state and national levels have recognized the importance of critical thinking for the 21st century and have set “creating thinking” as a goal in all adopted classroom standards.  How better to learn a skill than from a professional teacher who can model creative thinking AND set up the conditions in which students can practice until proficient?

Teachers are trained to teach skills. Too often, we think those skills only include our “times tables,” how to Teacherscalculate the area of a triangle, or that “i” comes before “e” except after “c” (unless it really doesn’t). These skills are necessary. We cannot possibly function effectively in the world without knowing basic math, reading and writing skills. To grow, advance, and experience the world fully, we need to be able to think in new ways about our problems, the problems of society and those that plague the world. After all, it was “old thinking” that created the problems. Why would “old thinking” provide a solution? New thoughts, approaches, and actions are required. Creative thinking develops those thoughts, approaches and actions.

Creative thinking is a process. Betty Edwards, in her outstanding book Drawing from the Artist Within, outlines that process as including five steps. Those steps are:

1. First insight: seeking or discovering problems that need solving.

2. Saturation: gathering, sorting and categorizing information that might help in finding a solutionprocess

3. Incubation: searching for a solution (trial and error, brainstorming, group collaboration, etc.)

4. The “A-Ha Moment”: when the solution suddenly appears – often called “insight”

5. Verification:  testing the insight/solution.

As with every process, practice makes us more proficient. One of the best ways to practice critical thinking is to use an artifact. Let’s demonstrate how using an artifact matches the process:

1. Place an artifact in front of the class and ask, “What is this and why is it important to us, right here, right now?”  You have presented the class with a problem that needs to be solved. You have asked an open-ended question that allows for the process to proceed unimpeded. There is no “right answer” to this question.

2. Have students analyze the artifact. Have them record all the details: size, color, shape, nicks, cracks, wear and tear, and so on. No speculation about what the artifact is or how it might be used is permitted. This is the “Saturation” step. Students, alone or in groups, gather as much information as is available. Students should write a sentence here that fully describes the object and that includes all the details.

3. In groups, students should share all of their information and begin to speculate what the object might be, based upon the evidence they have gathered. This is the incubation step. Wild speculation, i.e. “The aliens did inkwellit,” is automatically excluded as all ideas must be based on the information they have gathered in Step 2. Teachers should pay close attention here, but should only intervene when suppositions are totally illogical, as in, “This crack was created when Captain America dropped it from a spaceship.” Interventions should only appear as questions that cause the students to think further into their evidence or re-evaluate their statements. At the end of this step, students should complete this statement, “I/We think the objects is a ____________.”

4. Communication among group participants will become more and more logical as the students proceed in Step 3. Some groups will discern what the object is and why it is important before others. It is best not to share between groups until the next step. Intervention is allowed, however, it must appear only as questions that cause the students to think more deeply about their statements.

5. Have each group share its decision about what the object is and why it is important with the rest of the class. Decisions must be accompanied by  the evidence used to draw the conclusion. (We think that the object is an axe because it has a long handle and the head has a very sharp end and a blunt end opposite the blade.) This is Step 5: Verification. Other groups should be free to ask questions about the conclusions and/or the evidence. The class can vote on what they feel the best answers are based on the evidence at hand.

Artifacts quickly and easily take students through the critical thinking process. Artifacts are engaging. Artifacts are challenging. Artifacts add rigor and depth to your classroom. Regardless of your discipline,




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I ran into a typical problem the other day. It occurred in a conversation with a curator. I had asked about his collection and had explained that I was interested in finding artifacts to post on the Artifacts Teach website ( so that K-12 teachers could better engage their students and improve both their retention and performance on standardized tests. His response Kit_Carson_photograph_restoredwas as follows, “I have just the object you need. It is Kit Carson’s pipe. They’ll love it.” I swallowed, took a deep breath and replied, “That is just the kind of artifact that we cannot use. It is not a ‘teachable object.’ The fact that Kit Carson possessed it makes it a novelty, not an object for the focus of a lesson.” The curator was upset. He did not understand the difference between an object that might be in a museum exhibition and a “teachable object” that can be used in a classroom to open the past to students in engaging and challenging ways.

So, what is a “teachable object”? There are several criteria, but the first, and most important, is that the object must contain the potential to raise important historical ideas (self-sufficiency, changing values, enduring traditions for example). Kit Carson’s pipe does not have that potential. At best, it shows us that Kit Carson was a smoker and that he preferred pipes. This is not earth-shattering stuff, nor does it contain much historical significance. Smoking was common in the 19th century. Pipes were preferred as neither cigarettes nor cigars were readily available. Kit Carson’s pipe doesn’t open any doors to the past for us. If not his pipe, then what object(s) that Kit Carson owned might meet our basic criterion?

Kit Carson was a fur trapper. One of his beaver traps would serve to open the door to the exploration of the beaver trade in the 183os and ’40s. In addition, like 40% of all fur trappers, he married Native American (Arapaho and Cheyenne) women, and one Hispanic woman. To Carson’s credit, he was only married to one woman at a time. Any gift given to Carson by any of his wives Beaver Trapopens the door to the multicultural nature of the American Southwest, a place where French, Spanish, Native Americans and Anglo Europeans mixed and mingled. Kit Carson’s military uniform allows students to explore the role of the US military in the settling of the West as well as the nature of “Indian Removal.” Unbeknownst to most teachers, nearly every Native American society experienced removal from their homeland to a remote and unfamiliar region. Carson led the Navajos to the Bosque Redondo as part of his role as Indian Agent, scout, and military leader.

The second criterion for a “teachable object” is that it should excite students’ interest in the topic at hand. It should draw them into the larger story. Certainly Carson’s uniform has that characteristic. “Kit Carson’s Coat,” currently part of the Colorado Historical carson-coatSociety’s collection at the Baca House in Trinidad, Colorado, also has the potential to grab students’ interest. It looks as if it were made by Native Americans, but it is machine stitched. It is decorated with Native American symbols, but was produced in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Finally, no one knows if Carson ever wore it. The traditional story is that he owned the coat and gave it to a friend, but there is no proof of ownership on either end of that transaction. So, what larger story does the “Kit Carson Coat” offer? The most valuable lesson today, I think, is that the American Southwest was a messy place where people of many cultures mixed and openly borrowed from each other. Kit Carson’s military uniform, Kit Carson’s “coat,” Kit Carson’s medicine pouch, Kit Carson’s beaver traps open the door to larger questions, and greater stories than the man himself. They are  teachable objects. Kit Carson’s Pipe is not.

To see more teachable objects, go to Artifacts Teach at



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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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There is no better way to get the attention of a student or an education professional than to bring up assessments and testing. Both of these terms have acquired significant baggage over the last few years. We are going to remove the pejorative connotations for assessments and discuss them as they should be discussed: as tools teachers can use to measure the progress of their students.

career-assessments-direct-changeWe all learned in education classes that there are six types of assessments: diagnostic, formative, summative, norm-referenced, criterion-referenced and interim/benchmark. Of these six, only three are applicable for artifacts: diagnostic, formative and summative. The others do not apply. Norm-referenced assessments are out because there are no “norms” for using artifacts in the classroom. Criterion-referenced assessment face the same problem. There is no goal, specific objective or standard that refers to the analysis and synthesis of artifacts. While a lesson plan might contain the objective of identifying the significant characteristics of a certain object, the assessment used will be of the formative or summative type. Finally, interim/benchmark assessments can be used with artifacts, however, they are really formative or summative in nature, so this category does not apply either.

Artifacts serve as excellent diagnostic, formative and summative assessments. As a Language Arts teacher, you can use an artifact in a diagnostic assessment of your students’ creative writing ability by placing an artifact in front of the class and asking, “Who found this and what was he/she looking for when they discovered it?” After some instruction on the five essential elements of good creative writing, the same artifact can be used in an interim/ formative assessment when the same question is presented. Checking for the Language Artsinclusion of the necessary elements and their improved presentation will provide an indication of improvement or areas that need attention. As a summative assessment, present the same artifact and provide the writing prompt, “What is this and how did it get to our classroom?” Your students should be able to provide all the elements of a good creative story, character, plot, point of view and time and place, in answering your question.

Artifacts provide the same kinds of assessment opportunities for math and science teachers. Analyzing any fossil will give science teachers some idea of students’ knowledge of physical science. Simply asking, “What is this?” will offer insights into the diagnostic skills of students and their knowledge of the scientific method. Presenting an ear trumpet to a class in the midst of studying sound can offer an excellent formative assessment of their Scienceunderstanding of wave distribution. Asking, “How does this artifact demonstrate the principles we have been studying?” should give any teacher a firm grasp of the progress of his/her students. As a summative assessment in science, presenting a sputum cup to a class that has just finished learning about viruses, bacteria and the spread of disease and asking, “How does this demonstrate the principles we have been studying?” can offer students a creative “final” exam over the material.

Math teachers will find artifacts excellent formative and summative assessments. By using an artifact to demonstrate the application of mathematical principles in “real life,” the formulas and calculations required in class have mathimportance and meaning outside the classroom. A Davis level shows the algebraic application involved in forestry, sailing, aeronautics and construction. Every artifact has a geometric form designed for specific purpose. Geometry is, then, central to every artifact and a candidate for all three types of assessments. For younger students, shapes, sizes, measuring, addition, subtraction, division and percentages can all be applied to artifacts. Employing artifacts of different sizes and shapes provides excellent compare and contrast opportunities for students of all ages.

For Social Studies teachers, artifacts are natural diagnostic, formative and summative assessments. “What is this and why is it significant ?” can serve as the prompt for all three. The first part of the question provides some insight into context (time and place) as well as analytical, problem-solving and decision-making abilities. When used as the Social Studiesformative assessment for the same topic, the same artifact will provide insight into the progressive understanding of the actors, the problems to be solved, and the methods used to resolve them during the period or place under study. “What is this and why is it significant?” is an outstanding summative assessment. After a unit of study, the emphasis here would be more on the “significance” of the object and less on the identification. Significance should incorporate the identification, the context, the problems addressed and the solutions attempted along with some evidence supported conclusion concerning the effectiveness of past action.

Artifacts provide the opportunity for a more complete assessment of students’ skills and abilities. They offer the student the freedom to answer the question using the principles under study. Rather than memorizing scientific names, mathematical formulas, times, dates, or elements of grammar, students can present their skills effectively and efficiently when artifacts are employed and simple questions are asked. A one question assessment that incorporates all the principles you have been teaching places the onus on the student to perform rather than on the teacher to create “an effective and fair exam.”

BonusAS A BONUS: using artifacts as assessment tools allows you to practice your students in the critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, decision-making and communications skills they need to have for that national test that comes each Spring. Not too, bad, eh?