Doing History: Exploring evidence with artefacts

Artefacts 1Artefacts 2

“The process of writing history using primary sources involves a three-way interplay among the inquiry questions that propel the study, the close analysis of available sources, and knowledge of the context of the sources.” (Sexias & Morton, 2013, p.42).  Accordingly, historical evidence from primary sources is central to this process.

An often neglected category of primary sources is artefacts.  Too often in the history classroom we focus on written and visual accounts without giving students a hands-on experience with objects from the past.  There are many advantages of using artefacts:  they appeal to hands-on learners, they may spark enthusiasm and increased motivation and they can provide valuable evidence about what it might have been like to live in a previous era or be part of a particular historical event.  Last week my year 9 history class had the opportunity to ‘do history’ in the school library with some genuine artefacts from World War One supplied by the Queensland Museum.

The learning context is that students are learning the skills of analysing, evaluating and using historian sources as part of an inquiry task.  The inquiry task requires students to investigate the significance of Anzac Day from the perspective of a person involved in WW1.  I created this activity using artefacts to give them a hands-on activity that would deepen their understanding of the concept of evidence and the historical context of WW1.  I also hoped that the activity would assist the students to develop an empathic response to the key inquiry question.

The students examined a number of WW1 artefacts while recording their observations and inferences about the object and posing further questions about the artefact.  This part of the activity is quite important.  Two important factors regarding historical evidence are that firstly, history is interpretation based on inferences made from primary sources, and secondly, that asking good questions about a source can turn it into evidence (Sexias & Morton, 2013).  Accordingly, it is important that students have the opportunity to make inferences and pose questions about evidence.  The final piece to the puzzle is to ensure students corroborate their inferences with other evidence and follow up on their questions.

The activity proved to be a great hit.  The students were engaged with the task and produced some great inferential responses and insightful questions about the artefacts.  For example:

  • Re: the horseshoe – “Is that a drop of blood?  Maybe scientists could test the horse’s DNA and find out how it died.”
  • Re: the bayonet sheath – “Imagine all the things you would have to do with it!  Maybe you had to kill someone with it in the afternoon and then use it to cut up your dinner in the evening and then use it to fix up your trench at night!”

After our reflection students brainstormed how they could clarify their questions and corroborate their inferences with additional evidence.

The real proof that students loved this activity was the loud protest when I called a final halt to the activity!

A big thankyou needs to go to our teacher librarian, Helen Belfrage.  Helen ensures that we always have engaging and relevant displays and resources.

My instructions and equipment for this learning activity can be found here: General instructions – evidence with artefacts

Source: Sexias, P. & Morton, T. 2013. The Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts. Nelson Education: Toronto, Canada.

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