“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 about 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 of 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 engaging. 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 modern 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: