Using Artifacts to Engage Students in Critical Thinking Activities

Creating learning centers with artifact-related activities are a great way to promote deductive reasoning and critical thinking skills.

By Ann Whittemore


Although I am now a teacher and have a Masters in Education, at one time, I had thought about specializing in archaeology. For this reason, I have a BA in anthropology. One of the most intriguing aspects of anthropology is that it is a study that requires people to use many of the skills we, as teachers, try to encourage our students to practice and master. An anthropologist extrapolates, correlates, and deduces cultural context from evidence found in material data. When I look at an artifact I am able to use all of the tools and prior knowledge I have to determine meaning; this means that I build on what I know through an interdisciplinary lens.

Learning Centers to Promote Critical Thinking

I have taken my enthusiasm for anthropology and brought it into the classroom by way of the learning center. Learning centers are great ways to encourage self-motivated exploration, and cooperative group learning. They have a built in bonus of making learning more fun. My favorite centers are ones focused on fostering critical thinking skills.

To build cultural awareness, while fostering critical thinking skills, I like to establish an artifact-based center in every classroom. For example, if we are studying Native Americans, I bring in several artifacts from a local tribe for the students to examine. I have task cards, crayons, music (with headphones), paper, and glue for the students to use. Each artifact can be displayed and each task card should have directions that prime students for using their thinking skills. If you have a tool such as an Atlatl or millstone have the students independently consider the object. The task card could say something like “You’ve found this object among several broken pots with blackened bottoms, broken and charred animal bones, and a fire pit; write down what you would do to figure out what this object is, and provide evidence.” This type of questioning engages students in critical thinking skills. They have to asses not only the tool but the context in which the tool was found. They have to use their prior knowledge, deductive reasoning, and creative thinking skills in order to come to a reasonable conclusion; I have students provide evidence for their assertions, and tell me why they came to the conclusion they did.

Using Art to Promote Learning

Centers are best when tempered with the types of activities we don’t always have time to engage in during large group instruction, like art-related projects. Perhaps students could draw or construct a tool of their own and write notes about what it’s for and how a Native American might use such a tool. They have to consider the environment, the materials available, and the time period such a tool would be used in. Have books and pictures available to inspire the students. Although this is a creative project, it requires students to use their prior knowledge, research skills, and critical thinking abilities. Below you will find some further lessons which utilize artifacts.

Anthropology and Artifact Lesson Plans:

Folk Music of Egypt:

This wonderful lesson allows your students to experience culture through music. Music and storytelling can assist a child in getting a deeper understanding of a different culture. Music can also be used to enhance any learning center.

Archaeological Inquiry:

This clever lesson uses an artifact as a mode for conducting a scientific inquiry. Students answer questions geared toward engaging them in higher-order thinking skills to determine what the artifact was used for.

Looking Into the Past:

This lesson would be a great place to start if you are a teacher who isn't very familiar with the wonders of archaeology. It includes a full description of what archaeology is, and how it is a wonderful tool for stimulating critical thinking.