HM - Jan. 2014 - Virden

Partners in History

Artifacts Teach
William Virden
Sources and Solutions, LLC.
History Department, University of Northern Colorado

“Engagement” is the principal buzzword in today’s educational world, probably because studies have linked positive student engagement with increased student achievement. Studies clearly demonstrate that students learn more and retain more information when they actively participate in the learning process. These same studies identify TEACHERS as the critical factor in both engagement and in improved achievement. So, we come back, yet again, to what all teachers have known forever – Teachers Matter!

While validation is nice, this “Teachers Matter” business cuts both ways. Teachers are crucial in improving student achievement, but they are also held responsible when students do not perform well, regardless of any extenuating factors or conditions. National, state and local administrations expect teachers to create collaborative, supportive environments with high, but achievable, standards. At the same time, scholars, administrators, politicians and bureaucrats at all levels recommend a wide variety of learning strategies to improve student learning. Condensing and synthesizing most of these suggestions, the common elements of effective student learning seem to be:
                          1. Creating and sustaining a supportive learning community.
                          2. Designing experiences that interest learners.
                          3. Making connections to students' lives.
                          4. Aligning learning experiences to important outcomes.
I can hear you thinking, “Here we go again. Here comes another ‘shiny new idea’ for solving a complex problem.
What Artifacts Teach suggests is not new. On the contrary, it is an approach that has been proven at all levels of education for nearly 100 years. It is teacher-directed, student-centered, standards-based and incorporates the Common Core. It engages students, is discipline-gender-age neutral and teaches students twenty-first century skills. We propose you use “stuff” in your classroom.
The stuff we are talking about is artifacts. The simple definition of an artifact is, “an object showing human workmanship or modification.” Stuff, then, could include items ranging from a hammer, a bobby pin or Da Vinci's The Last Supper, to the Declaration of Independence, table salt, or the Eiffel Tower. That's a lot of stuff! We need to be a little more realistic and pare the list of items to be effective in the classroom.
Artifacts Teach chooses to omit written documents, paintings, sculptures, photographs and other works of art from our stuff definition. All of these items are important and valuable, but they present serious limitations (the Eiffel Tower in your classroom?), the most important of which is that students must have attained a specific reading level or stage of conceptual development in order to analyze them or interpret their meaning. We want our stuff to be accessible at all grade levels, across all disciplines and with all students. Our definition of stuff, then, is, “those items commonly found in society and used by its members.”

Our definition of artifacts transcends the limitations of language, age, gender, and discipline. People of all ages engage almost immediately with objects. As babies - before the development of language or cognitive skills – we explore, examine and “discover” objects. “Educational” toys are artifacts – items modified by humans for a specific purpose. Babies engage immediately with objects, and those objects help them learn. Autistic children engage and interact with things more readily than with people or print. Elementary, middle school, high school, and college students are attracted to, and captivated by, things.

We gather our favorite stuff as we grow. We even carry our stuff from place to place, hence the need for backpacks, luggage, and, eventually, U-Haul trucks. Place an object in front of people of just about any age, and they will reach out and touch – physically engage with ­– it. Ask “What is this?” and they are immediately intellectually engaged. Our fascination with stuff, things, objects, or artifacts is a natural, cross-cultural, cross-generational phenomenon. We need to capitalize on this and use artifacts to engage our students.

Artifacts are very special teaching tools. They contain the characteristics that teach the twenty-first century skills that the Common Core and state standards across the nation require of each of us. Let’s take a quick look:
  • Artifacts immediately engage students. Placing an object in front of a student and asking “What is this, and why is it important?” immediately captures a student’s curiosity, while, at the same time, engaging him or her intellectually in higher order thinking (analysis, comparison, synthesis, problem solving, decision-making and drawing conclusions).
  • Artifacts are, by their very nature, interdisciplinary. The same object can be used in a variety of classes. An ordinary beaver top hat can be used to teach United States history, world history, geography, economics, math, science, art, and language arts. A common American axe can teach globalization, colonization, westward expansion, geography, economics, physics, science and math.
  • Artifacts naturally differentiate. Visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners are equally successful in the analysis, discovery and completion of object-centered assignments. Beyond the styles of learning, those whose oral skills are better than their written abilities benefit from contributing to the discussion. Language barriers are removed for ESL students. Students with learning challenges such as dyslexia or HDAD can participate fully as well.
  • Artifacts transcend grade-level. Our essential question, “What is this, and why is it important?” has no specific correct answer. The third grader’s answer will be as valid and appropriate as that of the senior in AP class. Answering the question teaches the process and reinforces evidence-based conclusions at all levels.
  • Artifacts have stories. Stories are the way we store information in the brain. Stories help us to remember information and link content pieces together. We know also that students truly do not engage in an activity unless they think it will further the purposes of their own lives. Artifacts generate emotional responses and memories. We relate to artifacts through our experiences, thus their stories directly affect us. Every object carries the story of its origin, composition, travels and ownership. Discovering and telling the story, regardless of discipline, is the goal of education.
Artifacts engage students physically, emotionally and intellectually. Artifacts require the application and practice of twenty-first century skills. Artifacts transcend the limitation of language, age, gender and discipline. Artifacts tell stories. Discovering and telling the stories of objects helps students assimilate data into an orderly pattern. Our minds recognize and remember patterns. Artifacts engage students in effective learning. In other words…Artifacts Teach.
 Studies utilized:
Akey, T.M. School Context, Student Attitudes and Behavior, and Academic Achievement: An Exploratory Analysis. NY: MDRC, 2003.
Caine, Renate Nummela and Caine, Geoffrey. Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain. Menlo Park, CA: Addison, Wesley, 1994.
Cambourne, Brian. "Toward an Educationally Relevant Theory of Literacy Learning: Twenty Years of Research." The Reading Teacher. Volume 49, No. 3, November, 1995.
Garcia-Reid, P., Reid, P., Peterson, N.A. School Engagement Among Latino Youth in an Urban Middle School Context. Valuing the Role of Social Support.  Education and Urban Society, May, 2005. Vol. 37, No. 3, pp. 257 - 275.
Heller, R., Calderon, S. and Medrich E, Academic Achievement in the Middle Grades: What Does Research Tell Us? Atlanta: South Regional Education Board, 2003.
Author Bio: 
Bill Virden is co-founder of Sources and Solutions, LLC the creators of Artifacts Teach, a web-tool for social studies teachers. He is a long-time educator and author. After several years as an adjunct professor at Front Range Community College, Aims Community College, and Columbia College, he taught for twenty years in the History Department at the University of Northern Colorado. He has mentored pre-service teachers in history and social studies, written three supplementary texts on using primary sources in the classroom, and written and directed five Teaching American History grants for Colorado teachers. Mr. Virden has been a member of the National Council for History Education since 2004 and has presented several sessions at NCHE annual meetings. You may contact Mr. Virden at or call him at 800-991-2897.
The URL for Artifacts Teach is