Objects and artifacts have the power to motivate and challenge students' learning across the curriculum, but seem to have a particular potential to do so in the social studies. As social studies educators in the 1990s reconceptualize curriculum, instruction, and learning in the light of the new social studies standards, we propose that artifact explorations will foster student inquiry and various modes of creative and critical thinking. Researchers and educators interested in the learning children do in school have noted that children are active constructors, not passive receivers, of meaning and will become motivated to learn material when they are physically involved, have hands-on experiences, and generate questions (Brooks and Brooks 1993; Oldfather 1994; Perkins 1994).
Artifacts are commonly referred to as manmade objects or realia. Cleaveland, Craven, and Danfelser (1992/93) refer to realia as objects from the material, educational, or artistic culture of a society. Material realia include food, clothing and adornment, tools and weapons, housing and shelter, transportation, personal possessions, and household items. Educational realia include objects used in the classroom, curriculum materials, and children's products. Artistic realia may include objects related to forms of the arts, play and recreation, folk and fine arts, standards of beauty and taste, and objects from everyday life.
Rickards (1983) refers to the everyday paper goods that were intended for short-term use as ephemera. Wedding invitations, stationery, dress labels, biscuit tin decorations, ticket stubs, and memorabilia are all "rescued fragments of history" (Rickards 1983, 13). Whether objects are called artifacts, realia, or ephemera, they can be authentic or representational. Historic or representational reproductions may be made in modern days and possibly with modern technology, but are intended to remind us of another time and place.
Using artifacts in the classroom sets the stage for inquiry and investigation. When presented with stimulating artifacts, children "may happily take responsibility for their own learning" (Dow 1993). Inquiry may take many forms, including the symbolic (use of language and symbol systems to express ideas and to direct explorations), imagic (use of movement, visual images, or sounds to express ideas and to direct explorations), or affective (use of emotions and evoked feelings to express ideas and to provide a powerful stimulus for explorations) (Martinello and Cook 1994). Inquiry of artifacts may also foster what Martinello and Cook refer to as habits of the mind, those approaches to learning that lead to passionate dedication to learning. These habits include providing a mental set for learning, attending and persevering, thinking flexibly and fluently, following hunches, creating metaphors, taking risks, working collaboratively, and "finding elegant solutions" (Martinello and Cook 1994, 26).
Object-centered learning has a time-honored connection with the social studies and with young children (Dewey 1990). However, the place of artifacts in the classroom has been tenuous at best. Artifacts have been associated more closely with museums in which they inform, captivate, and entertain museum goers through thematic, interpretive exhibits. Borrowing from museum exhibit design guidelines should inform educators about exciting new ways to design classroom inquiry that focuses on artifacts (Schroder 1976). These guidelines direct children's attention and guide them in thoughtful interpretations and insights into history and culture.
The American Association for State and Local History suggests several ways that artifacts may be used interpretively in museum settings (Schroder 1976). Three of these suggestions apply equally to classroom settings. First, children can consider the practical functions and personal values of an artifact in original settings. Second, children can make cross-cultural comparisons of similar objects. Third, children can investigate how objects change over time. In the next section we share practical examples of each of these powerful approaches to artifact investigations.
Exploring Practical Uses and Personal Values
A teacher invited children to closely examine the old 1930s Sears and Roebuck Catalog. Fascinated by dozens of unusual illustrations, children's curiosity tumbled forth. Could you really order an entire house through the catalog? Why did a stove cost only $40.00? How long did it take to get an order? Responding to the children's enthusiasm, the teacher asked the children what personal values the catalog might have had for its owner. For example, when a grandmother spoke of her "wish book," she was talking about more than a catalog. The book probably represented dreams of a young girl who, during the Depression, may have wanted a china doll but was lucky to get a homemade rag doll. Children wrote a story about what the wish book would have meant to them if they had lived during the Depression.
In this scenario, the children first considered the practical uses of the artifact. This focus allowed them to generate questions and to begin forming hunches about the use of the catalog in a historical era. Moreover, the teacher guided children to consider the metaphor of a wish book to extend their thinking. By writing an affective response that created empathetic feelings, children understood the personal value of the artifact.
Children's understanding about the practical and personal uses of artifacts may be provoked when teachers ask them to consider why things become obsolete. For example, great-grandmother's flat iron could still be used to iron clothes today, but is no longer used because newer, lighter electric irons took its place. It now serves as a door stop and a reminder of an era gone by. Young students' wonderment about the simple flat iron may help them form generalizations about other, everyday household items that have become obsolete.
Making Cross-Cultural Comparisons
An assortment of baby blankets from around the world was displayed in a learning center. The teacher asked her students to discover if the pieces of cloth had anything in common. The children searched for an elegant solution to the task. First, they arranged the blankets by size and concluded that they could have been used only for something small. A magnifying glass was produced, and the students excitedly discovered the intricacies of the various patterns and textures of cloth. Working in cooperative groups, the children used reference materials to identify each blanket's place of origin. A hypothesis was formulated-that all provided warmth and comfort for infants-but each also told a story of how color, design, and textiles are woven together in different ways to celebrate and pass on cultural traditions.
In the above scenario, the teacher helped to diminish stereotypes by comparing similar artifacts from several cultures. The children saw that cultures have much in common as well as much that is unique. Stereotypes may also be overcome by identifying a time period during which the artifacts might have been used, and by recognizing their use by a specific ethnic group in a geographic area inhabited by many ethnic groups. In the specific case of Native Americans, it is important to present the uniqueness of each ethnic group accurately rather than attribute certain objects to all indigenous groups (Harvey, Harjo, and Jackson 1990). Ethnocentric bias may be further checked by helping students to investigate and understand the meanings that the producers of the artifacts attributed to the objects in their original cultural context. Students should be given many opportunities to explore artifacts that are non-stereotypical and historically accurate.
Cross-cultural inquiry should be conducted sensitively because of language and cultural bias constraints. A major purpose of an inquiry activity that crosses cultures should be to challenge ethnocentrism or the belief that one culture is superior to another. Recognition of this bias may be brought about effectively by focusing the students' attention on the language they use in discussing artifacts from another culture.
Comparing Change Over Time
Children eagerly examined two picture postcards of the same site. One postcard from the late 1800s showed a photograph of a new three-story, red brick school house on Elm Street. Children looked for objects, people, and activities in the pictures. They noted that the school must have been important to the community because no people or activities were shown with it. A trolley car and a milk wagon stood out front. After studying the message that said, "Mother, this is our school house. I just dearly love this place, so I get every picture I can of it and somehow the school house touches a place in my hart [sic] that no place in town does," children discussed the excitement that the new building must have caused in the community. Turning their attention to the second card, from the mid 1900s, they noticed telephone poles, a yellow school bus parked in front, and groups of children going up the steps. The message on the back read, "To My Dear Husband, Johnny just started 2nd grade. The school is just around the corner from mother's house. We are trying to adjust to being here without you. Be safe over there in Europe. Love, Your Wife." The teacher asked the children to generate questions about their observations of the pictures and writing. Why weren't there telephone poles in the first picture? Why wasn't there a trolley in the second picture? What inferences could be made about how life had changed in the town between 1890 and 1945? Children thoughtfully made hypotheses and conducted research to answer questions.
Picture postcards have been ubiquitous elements of twentieth century America that often are visual representations of history and culture. No aspect of life, nor any geographic setting, was too mundane or too trivial to be the subject of a picture postcard. They can refer to themes of local, economic, rural, and school life, as well as geography and the lives of ordinary people. An examination of picture postcards can depict architectural and technological changes over time. Geographical regions also change over the decades and, as indicated in the above scenario, picture postcards help children gain insight into the cultural and historical events that influence the changes in a town or on a specific street.
As demonstrated above, analysis of the photographs and messages on picture postcards can take many forms. The South Carolina Department of Archives and History (1990) suggests a three-step approach to help children analyze photographs: (a) list people, objects, and activities; (b) draw inferences based on the observations; and (c) generate questions and research answers about why the details in the photographs have changed over time. Explorations may be led by teachers, conducted in small, collaborative groups, or be individual research projects.
Reflecting On The Promise
This article provided a rationale for the use of artifacts and suggested ways to enhance social studies instruction through the meaningful use of artifacts in the classroom. The ideas raised are in keeping with those of the Task Force on Standards for Teaching and Learning in the Social Studies, which offers five key features of powerful social studies teaching and learning. In its view, social studies instruction should be (1) meaningful, (2) integrative, (3) value based, (4) challenging, and (5) active.
Social studies content is not viewed as a series of separate facts to be memorized, but as part of a larger, meaningful framework of knowledge that has application in the real world. When educators engage children in social studies inquiry that focuses children's attention on artifacts that are representative of cultures, historical eras, and geographic location, social studies becomes meaningful because children have opportunities to construct understanding and build knowledge. Social studies becomes integrative through artifact inquiry because artifacts may be investigated across cultures and across the curriculum. Social studies becomes value based through artifact inquiry because children consider the practical use and personal value of objects over time and within particular cultures. Social studies becomes challenging because children are engaged in forms of inquiry, collaborative learning, risk taking, thinking fluently and flexibly, and finding elegant solutions (Martinello and Cook 1994). Finally, social studies becomes active because children are involved in hands-on explorations and because understandings of other cultures may result in social action or personal growth.
Brooks, J., and M. Brooks. In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1993.Cleaveland, Alice A., Jean Craven, and Maryanne Danfelser. Universals of Culture. Intercom. New York: Perspectives in Education, 1992/93.Dewey, John. The School and Society: The Child and the Curriculum. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990. Dow, Peter B. "Teaching With Objects: No Fault Learning?" The Social Studies 84, no. 5 (1993): 230-31. Harvey, Karen D., Lisa D. Harjo, and Jane K. Jackson. Teaching About Native Americans. Bulletin no. 84. Washington, D.C.: NCSS, 1990.Oldfather, Penny. Motivation In the Culturally Sensitive Classroom. Research Report. College Park, Maryland: National Reading Research Center, 1994.Martinello, Marian, and Gillian Cook. Interdisciplinary Inquiry in Teaching and Learning. New York: Macmillan, 1994. Perkins, David. "Learning Your Way Around Thinking." Educational Leadership 51, no. 7 (1994): 86-87.Rickards, M. Collecting Printed Ephemera. Oxford: Phaidon, 1988.Schroder, F. "Designing Your Exhibits: Seven Ways to Look At An Artifact." Technical Leaflet 91. History News 31, no. 11 (1976): 1-16.The Civilian Conservation Corps in South Carolina, 1933-1942. The South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Public Programs Document Packet No. 4, 1990.
Sherry L. Field is Assistant Professor of Social Science Education at The University of Georgia. Her research interests include children's thinking and learning in elementary social studies, teachers' practice in the classroom, and intercultural education.
Linda D. Labbo is Assistant Professor in Reading Education at The University of Georgia. Her research interests include young children's literacy development, implications for computer-based instruction, and interdisciplinary/intercultural processes of reading, writing, thinking, and social studies.
Ron W. Wilhelm is Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of North Texas. His research includes teacher education in Professional Development Schools, multicultural education, and qualitative research.
Alan W. Garrett is Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Eastern New Mexico University. His research includes foundations of education, guided inquiry, and history as an interdisciplinary school subject.