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Digital natives are bombarded with vast volumes of information in today’s electronic society, which calls for an even greater emphasis on critical thinking and research skills …”
– Timothy Van Slyke


Today’s students are different than those who were in school at the beginning of the 21st century. Today’s students are “digital natives.” There are several characteristics that define this group differently than those who have come before them:

1. They are both familiar and comfortable with digital devices and digital information. They have grown up withDanger Will computers and iPads, tablets and digital phones. “Android” certainly means  something very different to them than it did to the “Danger, Will Robinson” generation.

2. They are accustomed to going online to find answers to their questions. Ask them something they do not know and they “Google-It” rather than refer to dictionaries, encyclopedias or textbooks. This makes good sense, since more information is available to this generation on line than has ever been available via other media at any time.

3. Through the evolution of gaming, they have learned to jump into an unfamiliar environment and try different solutions until one works. They see failure as a learning experience; as just another piece of knowledge gained. As my grandson says while playing Skylanders Giants, “Well, that didn’t work. Let’s try this!”

4. Gaming has also molded them in other ways. They are accustomed to solving problems, enjoy challenges and expect recognition for their successes. They receive instant rewards for completing tasks during a game. They rewardsgather jewels, objects, weapons, and special powers as they work their way through levels in a game. Most games provide positive reinforcement in the form of electronic hurrahs and applause combined with virtual fireworks and congratulations.

5. While it seems as if they are always working alone, they enjoy collaboration; another product of the digital world of Skype, FaceTime, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and other social media sites. They are not alone, they are “connected” with others differently than we were at their age.

6. Today’s teenagers spend approximately eight hours per day directly engaged with technology. Because they “multi-task” using several technologies at once, they cram almost eleven hours of media time into their daily regimen.

Each student carries most of these characteristics into your classroom each day. Are you employing the kind of technologies in your pedagogy that tap into these skills and characteristics? Digital natives respond to digital information, digital presentations, and digital challenges. CD’s, DVD’s, and PowerPoints are from another PPworld. They belong in the realm of the “Blackboard Jungle.”  They are passive, dull and lack the challenges that stimulate digital natives. If you want to engage the digital natives in your classroom, you need to do so with the tools that match their interests and their skills.

Digital artifacts engage digital natives immediately. When a student can manipulate an artifact in a 360 degree plane, examine it through magnification, measure its length and width, he/she is directly engaged in his/her own study. They are using the skills they have developed outside the classroom, to learn inside the classroom.


What digital natives lack is the ability to sort and categorize the vast amounts of information that they encounter daily. Studying digital artifacts teaches analysis, synthesis, communication, collaboration, and critical thinkingdecision-making. Employed correctly, digital artifacts teach students to base their conclusions on evidence and to evaluate others conclusions in the same fashion. In other words, digital artifacts teach the 21st century skills that today’s digital natives need in order to be successful throughout their lives.

Lead your students out of the “Blackboard Jungle” of ancient technologies and employ the 21st century technologies that teach 21st century skills. Employ digital artifacts 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,




“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




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“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn”   – Benjamin Franklin

Since the Sixth Century BCE, people have been learning about their world through the physical examination of objects. Museums of artifacts began as the private collections of wealthy individuals and families. Rare artifacts or curious natural objects were often displayed in “wonder rooms” or “cabinets of curiosities.”  Access to these items was restricted to collectors’ friends and family, but wonder roomhands-on inspection and analysis of the artifacts was encouraged. In the United States, portrait artist Charles Wilson Peale opened his collection of curiosities to the public and established the first museum in Philadelphia just after the American Revolution. Personal involvement with his collection was the norm until later in the 19th century when the increased traffic in museums required that items be protected behind glass.

At the same time that Peale was popularizing the modern idea of a museum, Louis Agassiz, a renowned Swiss scientist, arrived in the United States.  A prominent  naturalist  when he arrived (he was and accomplished ichthyologist and also the first to describe and explain the theory of repeating Ice Ages), Dr. Agassiz established the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard and chose his graduate students through a rigorous system of analysis. He presented each prospective student with a preserved fish, instructed the student to “look at the fish,” and then he left the room, sometimes not to return until the next day. When he did return, he asked the student, “What have you learned?” Regardless of the answer he received, Agassiz always responded with, “Look at your fish again!” This process continued until Agassiz felt that the student had conducted an exhaustive analysis and understood that graduate school at Harvard would be hands-on, through analysis of objects and artifacts. Louis Agassiz established that artifacts are “Instructionally Sound”:  the third “I” in artifacts.

Employing artifacts in the classroom introduces depth, rigor and critical thinking. Asking the simple question, “How is this item important to us right here, right now?”, demands that students draw on their personal experience, their background knowledge and their critical thinking skills. The application of prior knowledge in the acquisition of new knowledge is a valid definition of  adding depth to classroom lessons. Using old knowledge in new ways allows students to explore alternatives, nuances and complexities. At the same time, using artifacts adds rigor to your lessons. If we define rigor as the continuous engagement in increasingly i_heart_rigorchallenging tasks with decreasing instructional support, then introducing artifacts introduces rigor automatically. Asking the question, ,”How is this important to us right here, right now?” and requiring students to determine the answer themselves…. just like Louis Agassiz required of his students.. provides the kind of rigor that promotes problem-solving and decision-making skills in your students. Finally, artifact study  demands critical thinking. Analysis, synthesis, decision-making, problem-solving, and communication of results are the critical thinking skills that we are all challenged to teach. As we have demonstrated in Parts I and II of this series, artifacts naturally provide that opportunity.

Teaching with artifacts is an instructionally sound pedagogy. It introduces depth, rigor and critical thinking into your classroom practice.  Artifacts are interdisciplinary in their approach, intellectually engaging in their application, and instructionally sound in their presentation. Regardless of where you teach, what you teach, or at what level you 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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“As the pace of scientific discovery and innovation accelerates, there is an urgent cultural need to reflect thoughtfully about these epic changes and challenges. The challenges of the twenty-first century require new interdisciplinary collaborations, which place questions of meanings and values on the agenda.”                               William Grassie


As tools for teachers, artifacts possess characteristics that beg their use in the classroom. We should probably spell artifacts with three “I’s” because artifacts are inherently interdisciplinary, intellectually engaging, and instructionally sound.  Here’s what I mean.

Because humans created them, all artifacts contain “purpose.” They were made to do something: fix a drain, chop down a tree, carry water, stir soup, connect wires… This underlying cause for its existence connects every artifact to each of the major academic disciplines. Briefly, each artifact had to be designed (math, science, art), constructed (math, science, language arts), applied waywiser(sociology, language arts, history), evaluated for its effectiveness (math, science, sociology, history, language arts), modified (match, science, language arts) and stored for future use (anthropology, history). As an example, let’s use a fairly common item, a waywiser. This is a wheel attached to a rod with a forked end (like the front tube on a bicycle). Attached to the fork is an assembly that counts one full revolution of the wheel. A waywiser is used to measure distances. The circumference of the wheel is a standard measure, usually one yard or one meter. The waywiser counts the number of meters/yards in a straight line so that the operator knows immediately the distance covered. It is a simple device, yet it is a very important device. Here is how a teacher from each discipline might use a waywiser in a classroom, after having the students analyze  and determine what the object might be and how it might be used:

Math: a waywiser is a practical application of the principles of pi, diameter, and circumference. For younger students, a waywiser teaches circles, arcs, and measurements of size. Its applications apply to basic math, algebra and geometry.

Science: our waywiser provides accurate measurements of distance. Crime Scene Investigators (CSI’s) use waywisers to measure stopping distances in order to determine the speed and stopping time of vehicles. Physics instructors working in speed, velocity, and its gravitational effects require accurate straight-line distance measurements. Waywisers are used to obtain those measurements.

Language Arts: our waywiser can be used as the key element in creative short-stories, descriptive essays, and persuasive pieces that require conclusions based on evidence. Writing prompts might include, “Describe the use of a waywiser in law enforcement,” or “Write a persuasive essay  in which the accuracy of a waywiser measurement is the key element in your argument,” or “Write a creative short story in which the operator of a waywiser is the central character in solving a crime.” Providing a prompt as simple as, “Write clear, concise  instructions for using this waywiser so that any operator would be able to read your directions, pick up the waywiser and be successful in its operation,” provides an additional opportunity for young writers.

Social Sciences: for historians, an assignment might be to research how the design of the waywiser has changed over time, and why. Teachers might begin with the hint that a waywiser was used to measure and calculate the base of the Great Pyramids at Giza. What other applications might students find through historical research? Anthropology and sociology teaches can look at the application of the waywiser in building other sites, as well as the societal organization required to complete projects of monumental size.

Most certainly, introducing the waywiser as a problem to solve, “What is this?”, followed by discipline-specific questions, “How does this demonstrate the math principles we have been studying?”, “How is this object significant in our approach to the physics of An Apple composed by several fruitsvelocity and gravity?”, and so on, provides a new and engaging element in your repertoire of classroom practices. By now, you should be asking, where do I get one of these things, how big is it, and how much does it cost?  You can go out and purchase one of these items for $85 to $125, load it into your car, carry it to your classroom, use it,  store it somewhere and do it all again next time you teach the topic, OR you can go to, subscribe to their site, and get a waywiser and dozens of other interdisciplinary teaching tools for the same price. It would seem far more wise to do the latter rather than the former.

Next time, we will demonstrate how artifacts are intellectually engaging and instructionally sound. For now, remember that in every major discipline, ARTIFACTS TEACH.





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I have been reading the 2013 “Framework for Teaching Evaluation Instrument” from the Danielson Project lately. Full of “education-ImageOUSDTeacherEvaluation-copyeze”, it is not easy stuff, in many ways. The Danielson Project upgrades and revises this 85-page publication periodically so that administrators and teachers clearly understand the changes and trends in evaluating teacher and student performance.

There are several key points in the latest revision:

1. Teachers must acquire new skills in order to teach deep conceptual understanding, argumentation, and logical reasoning.

2. Teachers must create a learning environment that builds a community of learners in which students assume greater responsibility for the success of the lesson.

3. Teachers must engage students, not with “busy work,” not with “being on task,” but through intellectual activity.

4. Teachers must locate instructional materials to support “new learning”, i.e. analysis, synthesis, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making, and communication skills.

My argument is now, and has been for over 10 years that employing artifacts in your classroom ACCOMPLISHES ALL OF THESE requirements.

Presenting your students with an artifact and asking, “What is this and how is it important to us right here, right now?” immediately engages students in analysis, critical thinking and problem-solving. Students begin this kind of  lesson using higher-order thinkingguess the artifact objects 022
skills and move up the ladder of Bloom’s taxonomy in order to answer your question. When you place students in groups of two or more, both listening skills and positive argumentation are reinforced as students must persuade their peers that their analysis and decision-making has provided the best answer to your question.

Engaging students with artifacts is not “busy work,” it is intellectual exercise. If, however, you intervene in their process of analysis, synthesis and decision-making, it can become no more than “filling in the worksheet and handing it in.” Teachers must allow right wrongstudents to think through the problem and attempt to come up with the answer by applying proper analysis, logical thinking, and decision-making. What if they come up with the “wrong” answer? — Not really possible —. Their process can fail, and you can point out where they made a “left turn” in their analysis and decision-making, but an answer can’t be “wrong.” The last part of the question, “…how is it important to us right here, right now?” is an open-ended question. There are no “wrong” answers to open-ended questions. Engaging students with artifacts is intellectual exercise. Not engaging students intellectually is “risky business.”

Employing artifacts in your classroom helps you accomplish the first requirement – the acquisition of new skills to teach deep conceptual understanding, argumentation and logical thinking. As we have continually demonstrated, artifacts teach these skills naturally. Teaching with artifacts requires does require some adjustment in your teaching practice.  Firstly, you must ask the right questions and, then,  you must allow your students to discover the answers through hands-on analysis. This might be hard. Immediately, most teachers respond with, “I don’t want to turn control of my classroom over to my students.” The answer is that youconceptual understanding are not relinquishing control. I assure you that is truly “risky business.” It will surely get you fired. What you are doing is relinquishing the full responsibility for the learning incorporated into the lesson, and charging your students with that task. In order to accomplish that, you had better have the classroom management skills of a true professional. You will need to insure that procedures are followed, that  the opinions of others are respected, and that all voices are heard in the process. I really doubt that any of these are “new skills.” I would suggest that we remember the lessons of our student teaching experiences, and make better use of “proper questioning,” “wait time,” “discussion techniques,” and listening attentively. These are hardly “new skills,” but we might be rather rusty in their utilization. The time is now to make that change. Choosing not to change is “risky business.”

Lastly, teachers should locate instructional materials to support new learning. Most of us have not used artifacts in the classroom because it was risky. They were not available, they were too costly, or they were too fragile to last long in the hands of inquisitive students. Each of those problems has been solved in a new web-tool, At this site, you will find 3D images of artifacts that can be manipulated in a 360 degree plane. Further, the site gets you started with a set of standardized analysis ATquestions, provides suggestions for use in the classroom, and allows you to assign specific lessons to specific classes. You can create a lesson in less than 5 minutes that includes not only the artifact, but also context support documents consisting of background essays, and primary sources that demonstrate the use of the artifact or help explain its significance. Locating instructional materials for “new learning” has been made easy and comfortable. Teaching with artifacts is no longer “risky business.”

With new evaluation systems emerging that are based on a teacher’s ability to provide 21st century instruction that teaches students to think, solve problems, and communicate results, you are at great risk if you continue to be the “sage on the stage” while your students participate in passive learning. It is not teaching WITH artifacts that is risky;  it is teaching without artifacts that risks your future and that of your students. Teaching with artifacts is no longer “risky business.”