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“23 Exabytes of information was recorded and replicated in 2002. We now record and transfer that much information every 7 days.”    Robert J. Moore, RJMetrics

In today’s world, more new information comes online in a week than had been previously produced in a year. This information – data, facts, opinions, ideas and images, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Tumblr posts – has shaped every student’s perception of his/her world and changed the 21st century classroom.

Today’s students have different expectations when they enter a classroom. First, they already possess access to more information than you can give them. They don’t seek your sage insights from behind the podium. They can go online and get all the sage advice that they need from “experts.”

They expect a learning experience that is “relevant” to them. “Relevance” means something very different to relevance_imagethem than it did/does to older generations. For those in school during the final decades of the 20th century, “relevance” was a negative term. it connoted “sameness,” “blandness,” and “lacking specific defining characteristics.” Relevancy was equated with absurdity, as in “making everything equally important.” Ironically, “relevance” relegated a person or an idea irrelevant for consideration. Today, the word carries much more weight.

For students today, ideas, information, problems, or studies are relevant if they affect the students’ lives. Today, relevance equates with “real,” as opposed to theoretical. For instance, a person in math class would consider an algebra problem that pertains to the production and transportation of grain to 3rd World countries to the more standard, “A train left the station traveling at 30 mph. Four hours later another train left the station traveling 20% faster than the first. How long….” While most 7th and 8th grade algebra students are not directly involved in ending world hunger, they recognize the problem as important to them individually and to their generation environmentalscias a whole. In history class, studying ancient empires as attempts to organize solutions to problems created in the competition for resources carries more relevance than studying leaders, memorizing dates, and listing their cultural characteristics and contributions to society. In Language Arts, an argumentative piece about “fracking” would engage students more readily than one about the effectiveness of UN policies. Third and Fourth grade students are more engaged when addressing problems of community in their school than they are with state politics. Topics that touch students’ lives engage students immediately because they meet students’ definition of “relevance.”

Artifacts are probably the easiest method of establishing relevance in the classroom. If you want to talk about community, have your students analyze a sign restricting access to a park, or a neighborhood. If you want to are-you-ready-1talk about the environment, bring in lawn fertilizer and determine where all of the contents go after they are dispersed over thousands of lawns on the weekend. If you would like to engage students in math class, have them work on the population rates in their city and state. Might that engage them more than the odd percentages problem from the math book? A couple of words of advice, however, BE READY for their answers and allow them to engage in solutions you might never have thought about. If you are going to open your classroom to artifacts, you must be open to the discussions they generate, because, above all





“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…..




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




“Unless a man starts afresh about things, he will certainly do nothing effective.”

– G. K. Chesterton

It is the beginning of August. At this time of year, teachers and students are inundated with the “Back To School” advertisements for the latest fashions and the required classroom supplies. I don’t know about you, but as the days become shorter and the mornings a little more crisp, I begin to feel refreshed. Now, I know that most people look to Spring as the “new beginning” in the calendar year, datecard-aug-1but I have always thought of Fall and the start of school as the time to begin anew. This could be because my mother was a teacher and she involved all of us in cleaning and decorating her 1st grade classroom. It might also be the result of so many years of “starting again” with new shoes, new shirts and pants, or a new teacher and new classmates. Regardless, the coming of August and the hint of Fall makes my heart beat a little faster in anticipation of “things new.”

I would suggest that, for teachers, the coming of August also means adjusting to the return to the classroom, but in a much different way. August brings a time for self-reflection and self-assessment. Those lesson plans that didn’t quite reach their goals and objectives, the supplementary materials that didn’t add to the learning process, and the desire, “at least this year,” to connect more directly, more quickly and more permanently with your students still 13894709-he-is-thinking-about-his-identity-looking-at-himself-in-the-mirror-this-is-a-computer-generated-imagawait your attention. Now is the time to shake off all that summer sand, drop the late-night movie habit, and trade the flip-flops for shoes that can withstand 8 hours of constant wear and tear. Now is also the time to reevaluate your pedagogy and replace what does not work with new, engaging approaches that have proven to teach 21st century skills to students from Kindergarten through High School. I suggest you try teaching with artifacts. You will be surprised at the effectiveness of this approach.

I have used artifacts as the introduction to lessons and units, as the focus of individual lessons, and as a summative assessment for lessons and units. There are several advantages to the use of artifacts in your classroom:

1. You do not have to rewrite lesson plans, merely plug in the artifact where the lesson needs improvement.

2. If you use artifacts correctly, the students will take responsibility for their own learning and teach themselves.

3. Artifacts engage your students from the first day. Students will retain the information longer when artifacts are used.

4. Because they teach critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making and communication skills, students perform better on those springtime standardized tests.

In order to take advantage of these benefits, you must employ artifacts in your classroom. You can’t do it everyday. That is ludicrous. However, you can employ them “once-a-unit.” Give them an artifact to assess and allow them to discover its lessons, as you secretly build the 21st century skills they will need to be successful in your classroom and all the learning situations they will encounter for the rest of their lives. Where do you get the artifacts to do this? Go to the Artifacts Teach website (, and sign up for FREE. Use it FREE for 30 days. It’s the time of year to start anew. Start it right.