How Simple Artifacts Can Promote Inquiry-Based Learning

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steveslaterwildlifeencountersby John Barell, morecuriousminds

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has an exciting department, the Artifact Lab,  that can serve as a model for inquiry and inquiry-based learning.

Among other examples, curators show us how they prepare mummies for exhibitions. One object that arouses my curiosity is called a “canopic box,” a wooden construction that held four jars, each of which had one of the four mummified parts of the deceased: the lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines.

Why did Egyptians remove these parts of the body. A sacred ritual? For bodily preservation? Only for royalty?

The Artifact Lab led me to consider every unit we teach as containing such a laboratory to foster inquiry. Here we bring in artifacts(1) that, like problematic scenarios, reflect major concepts within the unit of study.

One important approach we use is Observe, Think and Question. We observe objects very closely determining what is factual and verifiable. As we’re examining the artifact, we are thinking and invoking our prior knowledge.These observations/reflections lead to our questions.

For example, during professional development experiences with faculty I often use shells found along the Atlantic Ocean beaches of Long Island. Today, there are none left and my question is, Why? These shells reflect the major concepts of a unit on Effects of Human Action on Environments: nature of and changes to habitats, animal life cycles, species survival and human activity.

Close observations reveal the nature of inner/outer sides of the shells, their colors, ribs , sizes, shapes and the like. When somebody says, “A creature lived inside,” we ask, “How do you know?” and then “Is this an observation (verifiable by others) or an inference (from prior experience)?”

We note those concepts and experiences brought to the fore from our prior knowledge: life cycles, animal habitats, evidences of growth as in tree rings (analogous to the annuli–the ribs), and what might have lived within sea shells. Next, we elicit participants’ questions:

What lived inside?

How do it grow?

What role do the ribs play?  Why are they so symmetrical?

What’s the significance of the different colors, sizes and shapes?”

If we do not elicit any comparative questions, I share a question framework like the Three Story Intellect, and challenge participants to think of comparisons because one of the unit objectives is to compare animal habitats/life cycles and draw reasonable conclusions.

After listing and posting all questions around the room, we ask, “What might we do next?”  “Research,” is always one answer, so we have some information on scallop shells for reference and generate more complex questions, “How and when do they change sexes as `hermaphrodites’?”

We can then ask again, “Now what can we do with all our questions?

“Have students coordinate, prioritize and narrow them down to essentials for group investigations.”

Student-generated questions can be woven into our objectives and, thereby, result in higher levels of engagement because students now have a stake in their own successes. After such an experience, a very important question is, “What did you learn about your own questioning?”

“That group work fosters asking more complex questions.

Initially, we asked lower level questions. The result?

“I wasn’t too interested in shells to begin with, but bouncing ideas off each other generated more interest.”

If we aren’t learning about our own questioning strengths and areas to be developed, we are not deeply involved in the inquiry process.  Therefore, we all model our own inquisitiveness for students, all day, in every subject.

Which reminds me: Why are there no more scallop shells on Long Island beaches?

1–An artifact is any authentic object, photo, article, Discovery Channel video or any experience worth thinking about; featured image attribution flickr user steveslaterwildlifeencounters; How Simple Artifacts Can Promote Inquiry-Based Learning