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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:





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:




“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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“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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In the simplest fashion, there are three principal uses of artifacts in the classroom.: as the introduction to a unit or a lesson, as the focus of the unit or lesson, or as the assessment for the unit or lesson. These three approaches remain the same regardless of your location, subject matter, or adherence to a set of common standards. Artifacts are the most accommodating of the outside sources you might use to teach.

want to succeedBecause each artifact was created for a purpose, it bears an important relationship to humanity. It would not exist without human activity. Because it was human-created, it remains the construct of human thought, intention and form. As a result, we can use artifacts to teach any subject that deals with thoughts, ideas, forms, goals, objectives, success, failure and on and on. Every classroom teacher can use artifacts to teach his/her class. You simply have to want to do so.

Let’s look at using an artifact as the introduction to a unit or a lesson. Let’s say that you are an elementary teacher and your next lesson is about circles, squares, rectangles and triangles. Why not use an artifact? I am a historian, so my artifacts are always from the past. I have access via to a six pound mortar round from the Civil War that has been cut in half. I would use this item in the following fashion:Screenshot 2014-05-29 14.21.35

FIRST: I would bring it up on the monitors in the computer lab, or on a Smart Board in the classroom, and ask the students to observe the object and to write a description of the artifact. (The object is round. It contains other round objects, some conical objects and some triangular pieces.)

SECOND: I would have the students share their answers either in pairs or in groups of three or four. They would be asked to combine all of their answers to form one common description of the object. Each group would then be asked to share their description with the rest of the class.Students in Group

THIRD: As the descriptions emerged, I would write them on the board. When all the descriptions had been presented, as a class we would find the common words among the descriptions. The common words that have emerged in the past have been “round,” “big,” “little,” “boxes” and “tents.” This leads directly into your lesson on shapes. The students have already discovered them, described them in their own words, and attached meaning to them. Your job has just become easier. All you need to do is to attach the accepted terms to their descriptions and your lesson is complete. You have taught shapes to elementary students and much more.

When you look at the pedagogy here, you have not only taught geometric patterns, but also creative thinking, analysis, synthesis, Keys to 21st century skillscommunication, cooperative decision-making, and drawing conclusions. Not bad for a lesson that took less than 5 minutes to prepare!!! Further, you have set up your class for even more learning with math and vocabulary involving circumference, radius, and diameter. You can compare the size of items. You can compare the shape of items. You can count items. You can measure them. All of this occurs within one lesson plan that takes less than five minutes to prepare!!! Artifacts are like that.

Artifacts give you the edge in the classroom. They allow you to teach the important skills while engaging students at the same time. It doesn’t matter what grade level you teach, either. The same half-shell can be used in a Middle School history class to teach the Civil War, a High School chemistry class to discuss compounds and chemical reactions, or a High School math class to teach the geometry, algebra or calculus of trajectories, force and mass. Language Arts teachers at all levels can use the half-shell as the introduction to creative story-telling or descriptive writing. ARTIFACTS GIVE YOU THE EDGE IN THE CLASSROOM.

Regardless of your grade level, your subject matter, or your required standards: ARTIFACTS TEACH.


We live in the Age of Information and Technology. Our access to knowledge seems to accelerate every few months. What was the quickest avenue to look up facts, or background material or context six or twelve months ago has given way to faster, technology-agedifferent paths to locate the information we seek. Only we “old folks”  “Google It” anymore. Young people find their information on “You Tube,” where they can instantly view multiple videos that provide them what they need. Computers, the Internet, iPads, Kindles, etc. offer ready access to vast amounts of information. Long before our students reach us, highly competitive parents have introduced our students to sites like,, and Older students are even more practiced at locating necessary information. It is time for us to catch up. We must realize that our students are already well-experienced at finding information.

As educators, we must come to grips with our new reality. We no longer “deliver” information to empty minds. Our job is to help our students learn to sift through the vast stores of facts available to them, help them organize that information into an age-appropriate whole, and be able to apply that information effectively in their personal environment. Study, after study, after overwhelmed teacherstudy emphasizes the principle that critical thinking – observation, analysis, synthesis and communication – is the essential tool that all students, regardless of age, need in order to be successful. I can hear you saying to yourself, “He’s wrong… He’s out of touch… I have to teach the fundamentals (counting, integers, negative numbers, coefficients, irrational numbers, differentials, factoids)… I have standards to meet and improvement to demonstrate…I have a principal who wants more math practice so that our yearly scores go up, not down.” Let me tell you that I know and I understand. I am NOT attempting to change what you need to do. I AM trying to change the way you get it done.

For years, the standard rule in math has been “practice and repetition;” introduce the principle, then practice over and over until “mastery” has been achieved. Nice theory. My question for you is, “How’s that working out for you?” My reading of the results Bad-Mathfrom standardized tests throughout the US indicates that the “Old Methods” are not working well. Students’ math scores have not significantly improved at any level since the NCLB mandated them. So, why do we continue to “practice and repeat” a system that by all empirical measures, does not work? (See The Cato Handbook for Education, 7th ed., 2009; Tim Walker, “PISA 2009..”, NEA Today, December, 2010, and National Research Council Report, “Standardized Testing and Education Improvement” 2011)

I am here to recommend that we “Engage to Change.” Specifically, I am advocating the use of artifacts – real objects from the present or the past – to teach math. Studies have demonstrated that students engage most in learning when they perceive that the lesson affects their daily lives.(See the work of Dr. Constance Steinkuehler on Adolescent Online Games and Reading, and the work of the Wisconsin Institute of Discovery). Early Childhood educators know this principle well, and have applied it for years. engagementThey have used “everyday things” to teach comparison, sorting and classifying, pattern recognition, meaningful counting, measurement, fractions, and on and on. “Promoting an attitude of delight and fascination with numbers encourages children to embrace rather than fear math, creating life-long math learners.”(Gretchen Damon, “Using Everyday Materials to Teach Math.”, Early Childhood News, 2007). These same principles can be applied beyond the K-5 classroom.

Why not employ Native American pottery to teach geometry? Why not use that same pottery to create algebra problems? “If the volume of this jug is 3 quarts and each person in a pueblo of 250 people uses 2 gallons of water each day,how many jugs of water jugwater are necessary to provide for the town?” “If the river is 1/2 mile from the pueblo, how many trips must be made each day to make sure that all the people have enough water?” “How many miles are traveled in a day? A week? A year?” What if Native American pottery does not engage your students? Well, then, how about “poop”? What student doesn’t like to say “poop” in class? Just change the basis of the equation and use a chamber pot.

Here is how you can accomplish the same end with a different artifact. Be sure that students understand the purpose of a chamber pot. Have them calculate the volume of the pot. Provide for them the number of chamber pots that a fChamber potamily of four would require. Place the pots at different levels of a 3-story house with 16 stairs between each floor. Now, create your math problems concerning time, distance, quantity, effort, etc. “But,” you say, “that is just another story problem.” The difference, and it is an important difference, is that the pot is in the room, in front of the students. They can see it, touch, lift it. Gauge its weight. Imagine using it. You have engaged them with the artifact, which also engages them in the problem solving.

Pick an artifact, place it in front of the students and turn them loose! How about using a compass or an egg beater to teach red marblestrigonometry? What could you do with a 12-candle, candle mold? Why not try a garden hose to teach algebra, and a set of marbles to teach everything from counting to calculus? I cannot provide you with an example for each and every math principle or math lesson. But, I can assure you that everyday objects – artifacts – contain the potential to engage your students. Stop and think. What can you trip over on the way to work that you can use to engage your students and make math enjoyable? These everyday things are artifacts and