HM - Mar. 2014 - Virden

Classroom Applications


Artifacts and Process:
Effective Classroom Practice

by Bill Virden, University of Northern Colorado and Artifacts Teach

Scientists disagree among themselves but they never fight over their disagreements. They argue about evidence or go out and seek new evidence. Much the same is true of philosophers, historians and literary critics.
?- Richard Dawkins[i]
All objects have a story. All objects carry part of their story with them. A piece of shrapnel from the Civil War can still smell like sulphur. A chamber pot is stamped with a “Maker’s Mark.” Cans have solder patterns. iPods have model numbers. Quilts contain specific stitches and fabric patterns. The list is as endless as are the possible artifacts.

Observation, analysis, and synthesis are critical to locating the clues that can reveal an object’s story. Because we are historians, we start this process with open-ended questions. The best essential questions to ask at the start of any artifact analysis are, “What is this?” and “Why is it important?” These two simple queries are magical in their effect.

Once the questions are posed, students immediately move to higher order thinking as they automatically attempt to incorporate the object into their personal experience: “What does it remind me of?” “Have I seen this before?” “ What looks like this?”  Students then move to a closer examination of the item, recording their observations as they go. Indication of wear, model numbers, signatures, material composition, dates, size, color and composition all offer initial insights into, or contextual clues about, the artifact. As their observations are recorded, they look for patterns or clues that can guide them to the story. After the analysis is complete, students synthesize the evidence, evaluate it, and come to a determination about a possible answer, either individually or in a group. The class then chooses the "best answer", from those presented based on the strength of the argument derived from direct evidence.

I recently observed this process in a third grade classroom. The instructor placed a hoop and stick game in front of his students and asked our favorite two questions. His students immediately began to place the objects within their frame of reference. "Does the hoop come from a barrel?" " Is the stick used to bang on the other thing?" "Is it a pointer?" "Did the hoop hold something together?" All of these were good questions and examples of the first stage of observation. Next, the students examined the items as individual pieces and attempted to resolve their problem with separate answers. Once their own ideas formed, they moved to the second step, and consulted each other for possible answers. Student hypotheses included “a ranch dinner bell,” “a musical instrument,” and “a blacksmith’s tool.” Each group arrived at a consensus answer that they could defend using their observations as evidence. Challenges to the assumptions of others came through the defense of their own ideas, or in the support of another's suggestions that were similar to, or the same as, their own. As none of the groups correctly identified the hoop and stick as a child’s toy, the teacher provided a newspaper advertisement, which featured the toy as a Christmas gift for children. Students then returned to their analysis to see what they might have overlooked that might have assisted them in their discovery process. Note that the teacher had them reexamine their process, not their answers.

We know that students will go through the process, but they will not always come up with what we might think are correct or logical storylines. Without some context within which to work, students can logically arrive at the dreaded answer, "The aliens did it.” Contextual support, however, allows you to go back through the student’s process and uncover where the student’s analysis went awry. “The aliens did it,” lets you know that additional context is required for student success.

What happened in this class? In the first steps of discovering the story, students gathered evidence, created a hypothesis based on that evidence and presented it to the group at large. The group, through individual evidence-based argument, chose the "best" answer based on the strength of the evidence at hand.  In other words, they became discerning recorders and listeners who questioned assumptions based on the soundness of an argument’s reasoning. I have personally observed students from first grade through AP high school classes go through this process. It is an amazing thing to watch, especially since it is repeated in essentially the same fashion, regardless of grade level.

Artifact analysis allows for the combination of what is known with what can be uncovered through observation. Teachers serve as guides, providing the context or suggesting where that context can be found. The artifact provides practice in the methods that teach how to question, evaluate, synthesize and come to a logical conclusion based on the evidence at hand. The process of artifact analysis provides the opportunity to teach the critical-thinking, decision-making, problem-solving, and interpersonal communications skills that all State Standards and the Common Core require.

About the author:
Bill Virden is Co-Founder of Artifacts Teach, a web-tool for teachers of Social Studies, Language Arts, math, and science. At the NCHE Annual Conference, he and his partner, Matt Arleth, will demonstrate the process of Teaching with Artifacts at a Common Core session on Saturday, at 1:00PM in Lobo B.

[i] Richard Dawkins, Salon Magazine interview, April 30, 2005. Dr. Dawkins is a noted archeologist, philosopher and scientist and University of Oxford Professor for the Public Understanding of Science.