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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:





Objects are what matter. Only they carry the evidence that throughout the centuries something really happened among human beings.” — Claude Levi-Strauss

I was checking my “News Feed” on Facebook today. Someone had posted an interesting item, one of those pictures with pithy a pithy saying written across the top. This one showed a teacher at his desk with the wordscake bite, “Why do they want you to differentiate in your teaching when they standardize your testing?” I usually smile at these types of “railing against the wind” entries, but this one triggered a thought, “What if you could differentiate AND standardize at the same time?” Sort of like “Eating your cake and having it, too,” with better benefits………..

Artifacts naturally and immediately differentiate. This occurs because we are human. When a person is confronted with an object with which he/she is unfamiliar, the first thing that happens is to try and relate the object to something in one’s past. The mind immediately begins an analysis starting with, “What does this look like (that I have seen/used before)?” The natural response to an unfamiliar artifact is to reach out and touch it. This is also an attempt to relate to the object through examination. The mind attempts to resolve the problem of hand-drill“What is this?” through the senses: seeing, touching, smelling…. What this means for us as teachers is that, each student, when presented with an object he/she has not seen before, connects with it personally through his/her natural senses. Not only is this engagement at its best, but it is also differentiation at its finest. When we ask the questions, “What is this and why is it important to us right here, right now?”, we do not add the caveat(s), “Think about this only in English.”, or “Where is this found in a 5 bedroom house?”, or “Read the essay about this before you look at it.” Instead, we ask the open-ended question, and allow each student to begin his/her road to the answer through his/her level of experience. This first step, accession of prior knowledge, occurs at the level of “higher-order thinking.” It occurs in all languages and across all ethnicities. It contains no gender boundary, nor any reading or writing skill level. Yet, it reaches every student at a personal level. Artifacts naturally and immediately differentiate.

Artifacts lead directly to standardization. Every set of State Educational Standards contains the following goal, “the preparation of students for the 21st century through teaching them 21st century skills.” That set of skills most often is defined as, “analysis, synthesis, cooperative effort, decision-making and communication.” If our goal is truly the incorporation and refinement of these skills, then artifacts are the best, and easiest method to reach that goal successfully. Divide any class into groups (size of the group does not differentiationreally matter), and ask them our open-ended question, then step back and watch what happens. Students will examine the artifact. Each student will relate it to his/her own experience and communicate with the group his/her ideas. Discussion naturally occurs as differences of interpretation naturally arise from each individual’s personal experiences. Students create an argument (“I think it is….”) based on hands-on evidence (clues they have derived from their analysis). They begin to synthesize the evidence from all in the group (cooperative effort) and then make a decision based on a group consensus. The final step is to communicate their answer (decision) to the group, “We think this is “x”, because of “a, b, c.” The artifact-centered lesson has, in the simplest fashion, just practiced each student individually and collectively in the use of the very 21st century skills we all are required to teach. We have addressed our state standards and their goals. We have taught the standards without “teaching to the test.” We have prepared our students, regardless of grade level, reading, writing, or language ability, to think critically, make decisions based on evidence, and communicate those decisions effectively. Artifacts lead directly to improved performance in a “standardized environment.”

Artifact-centered lessons provide the opportunity to differentiate naturally and teach to standards effectively 21st depicteach and every time they are utilized. Artifacts are easily inserted into your current lesson plans in math, Language Arts, science, art, theatre, and Social Studies. You can quickly and easily create an artifact-centered lesson/exercise to introduce a unit/lesson, enhance an existing unit/lesson, or assess the information in a unit/lesson.The question, then, is, “Why are you not using artifacts in your classroom?” They are readily available at Artifacts differentiate and standardize simultaneously because




I had only one superstition. I made sure to touch all the bases when I hit a home run.”   – Babe Ruth

Since this is baseball playoff season, I though we might couch this blog post in baseball terms. If we consider baseball fieldthat engaging students is the first of the steps in improving both student retention and student performance, then “Engagement” is most surely “First Base.” The next step, “Higher Order Thinking,” would be “Second Base,” while “Decision Making” would be “Third.” “Communication,” the result of completing each of the previous steps successfully, would bring us “Home.” So, how do artifacts make you a “home run hitter”?

Maintaining our baseball analogy, the “game” is to get students to incorporate the information you have for them in such a way that they understand it more completely, and that they retain it for a longer period of time. Artifacts are the perfect strategy to insure that your students get a “hit” each time they are “at bat.” Artifacts engage students immediately. When a person is presented with an item with which he or she is not familiar,first-base-1 he/she immediately attempts to relate it to something in his or her personal experience. That is engagement. Using an artifact immediately involves your students in the lesson you have created on a personal level.  You, and they, are on “First Base.”

The next step is to take students from “lower order thinking,” simple answers to when, where, who, to “higher order thinking,” analysis and synthesis. This is achieved through presenting the artifact and asking an open-ended question. Some of those questions might be, “What do you think this might be?” “Why do you think this item might be important in our study today?” Who do you think might have used this item, and for what second basepurpose?” These kinds of questions move the student beyond his/her personal experience to an examination of the item for hints, clues, or information that can assist in solving the problem you have presented. Further, students must gather the information and order it in some fashion (synthesis) in order to provide reasonable, logical answers. Analysis and synthesis are the higher order thinking skills that our State Standards require each of us to teach to our students. We have arrived at “Second Base.”

To get to “Third,” we need to have students review the information they have acquired through analysis, and come to a decision that provides a reasonable response to your open-ended questions. They must make choices Third baseconcerning which of the pieces of information they have gathered (evidence) provides the solutions to the challenges you have presented. We have arrived at “Third Base.”

To get “home,” students need to communicate their decisions about the artifact based on the evidence they have gathered. They can arrive at home base by sharing with a group, writing a response, or discussing and comparing their results with others. Regardless of the method of communication, the route to home base comes through engagement, analysis, synthesis, and decision-making; or, in baseball terms, touching “First”, “Second”, and “Third” to reach “Home.” Using an artifact provides a simple, and effective method for achieving the goals and objectives your State Standards require, each and every time.

Using artifacts in your classroom allows each student to improve his/her “batting average” (performance) through home runpracticing the skills necessary to be successful in the 21st century. Artifacts engage, allow for immediate analysis, and synthesis, and provide the basis for solid decision making. Communicating the results of an artifact-based exercise completes the circuit of effective pedagogy. Using artifacts in your pedagogical practice makes you a “home-run hitter” each and every time, because:




When I was teaching at the University of Northern Colorado, the department chair established a policy of collecting electronic devices if students were found using them in class. I don’t know about anyone else at the acp5_logotime, but I never collected a single device, even when I knew that students were texting friends or playing games instead of listening attentively to my well-crafted lectures. It seemed a little presumptuous to take someone’s property – worth quite a bit of money – rather arbitrarily. Today, such a policy would never be discussed in a staff meeting nor implemented in the classroom. The difference between then and now is the proliferation of good, easy-to-use programs that assist in the learning process. Today’s world is one of technology-rich environments that support lessons, lectures, assignments and research.

The power and capability of hand-held devices is gradually changing the 21st century classroom. Today’s phones are capable of connecting with the internet from just about anywhere. The Internet contains an abundance of websites designed to assist students in researching topics from dinosaurs to dinner menus and ancient civilizations to algebra. There are even websites that vett other discipline-specific websites and offer links to the “best of the discipline.” E-books provide access to great literature for students of all grades. On-line Apple-iPhone-5steaching sites, Zahn Academy for instance, offer students a chance to practice and learn math, science, history and a variety of other subjects. On top of all of this, programs exist that allow students to create digital stories, add music to their presentations and draw material from across the world. PowerPoints are still important, but the variety of presentation programs allows students with skills in music, poetry, math and science to customize their presentations in order to demonstrate their understanding of lessons and assignments. There are “1 on 1” schools in which every student has an iPad or notebook assigned to them. There are “BYOD” (Bring Your Own Device) schools in which every student is required to bring a hand-held device they will use each day. We have gone from “Zero Tolerance” for hand-held devices to “How can I best use the Internet to help my students learn?”

In part, this question can only be answered by each teacher for each class. However, there are some items that everyone should consider before jumping into technology-centered learning. The first of those is that today’s students are “computer proficient” not “computer literate.” In other words, they can manipulate the literacytechnology very easily, are not afraid of blowing up the machine by making a mistake, and find the activity interesting. What they lack, and this is the most important part, is the ability to sort through all of the material that they encounter as they search. They know how to find “stuff,” they don’t know how to think critically about the material presented to them, or ask the appropriate questions, or determine the quality of the research that supports the information. They can find it. They don’t know how to deal with it. As teachers, we need to use technology to insure that our students are computer literate.

The second consideration for technology-centered teaching is that social media is not a teaching tool. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., are designed for connecting people not disseminating accurate information. Social media did not start the “Spring Revolutions” that brought down governments in the Middle East. Social media helped those in opposition organize groups and stay in touch when curfews were established and protest bans 20-social-media-iconswere in force. The seeds of those rebellions were sown over decades of inequality, corruption, and tyranny. Social media facilitated the spread of instructions, it did not cause anything. Mark Zucherberg’s technology facilitates connections, but it is not in and of itself content. Social media can be useful in your classroom when communicating with students about assignments, or in answering questions when school is not in session, but it teaches nothing.

Lastly, teachers should focus on the use of technology, not the technology itself. Use technology to expand your students’ world. Have them find information on both sides of issues regardless of your discipline. Utilize comparison and contrast as a standard pedagogy. Open the door to the entire world of thinkers, teachers, and ist2_2663047-scales-of-justiceother students and help them think critically about what they find. Create your assignments with open-ended questions such as, “Why do you think that scientists originally rejected the Theory of Evolution?”, or “In what ways does Dr. Zhivago symbolize the Russian Empire in Pasternak’s novel?”, and then provide your students vetted websites that offer opposing views. Allow them to expand their research on their own. Use the technology as it was intended, to expand the realm of ideas.

Artifacts open the door to critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, communications and decision-making. On-line artifacts that students can manipulate as if they were holding the item in their hands, are an excellent example of the proper use of technology in the classroom. Technology overcomes the historic difficulties of using artifacts: their fragile nature, the difficulty in locating them, the artsexpense of purchasing them, the cumbersome nature of carrying them from class to class, and then finally storing them. Artifacts Teach (, a new web tool for K-16 teachers, is the perfect example of making your classroom a technology rich environment. They provide the artifacts, the lesson planning tools, suggestions for use across four disciplines, and the initial questions to get students started. At Artifacts Teach, technology combines with pedagogy to create a truly 21st century learning environment.




“Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind.” – Albert Einstein 

It seems that “engagement” has become one of the most popular buzzwords in education today. This is because studies across the globe have shown that engaged students outperform their disengaged peers by 20 to 30 points group_3won year-end and standardized tests. As a result, educators are exploring methods that “engage” students. Over the next few entries here, we will examine the elements of engagement that seem to be most applicable and reasonable for the 21st century classroom. In the process, we will demonstrate how artifacts address each of the necessary elements individually, and how they naturally combine all of the elements into effective, engaging and productive lessons for K-12 classrooms.

“Engagement” is one of those words in the popular lexicon that everyone uses, but few can clearly define. A survey of attempts yields the following list of commonalities among all the definitions: ownership, concentration, investment, and commitment. Four our purposes, a synthesis of the many definitions provides the following: engagement is students’ active participation and conscious investment in and personal commitment to their own learning. Like most definitions, it is clear, but cold. It lacks the necessary context to engage us further.

In an article in Current Issues in Education, Leah Taylor and Jim Parson reviewed the literature surrounding student engagement. Their conclusion listed the elements that combine to create a “successful, student-engaged classroom”:

1. Relevance: learning must address real problems and be naturally interdisciplinary

2.Technology-rich environment: all types of technology not just computers and PowerPoints.

3. A positive, challenging and open learning climate that includes risk-taking and high expectations.

teacher quote

4. Peer-to-peer relationships between students and teachers (horizontal not vertical organization)

5. A culture of learning in which language, activities and resources focus on learning first and achievement              second

(Source: Taylor, L. and Parsons, J. (2011),”Improving Student Engagement.” Current Issues in Education, 14(1): 26. Accessed at Accessed on: 7/20/2014.)

In many ways, one or more of these elements exists in almost every classroom across the country, but it is the application of the combination of all  that draws 21st century students to engage in their studies. When artifacts are used as one element of a teacher’s  pedagogical approach, the elements combine naturally to make each lesson and engaging learning experience. Artifacts engage as…..




“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