Are Artefacts Worth Their Weight in History Lessons?

Turner-Bisset (2005), speaks about the use of artefacts in the teaching of history in the primary classroom. It is stated that artefacts are a multi-sensory resource, making them useful in an early years classroom as a starting point for enquiry based learning.

Using common objects as an artefact can allow pupils to see immediate relevance to themselves. For example, using an old and chipped wooden bowl to link to Victorian diet. Children will already know the uses of a bowl and have their own relationship with the object, the learning around the Victorian diets can then been seen to have a level of relevance to the child. The topic becomes more than just facts for the child, there is a connection between the learning and learner. It may be as simple as a bowl but if there is something the child can refer to then the child may be able to use the artefact as an anchor point.

Visual images are a large part of the technological world in which we find ourselves. Television advertising is just one example, where images of burgers are created and presented in ways that trigger mental responses and cravings. This long lasting affinity for visual images is evidenced by the discovery of ancient cave drawing around the world. Turner-Bisset (2005) references Bruner’s work which states that the use of imagery is a vital step in the development in humans. McLeod (2012) states that Bruner’s work on cognitive development in 1966 involves three developmental steps which involves the storage of learning in a child’s memory: action based representation; image based representation, and language based representation. Turner-Bisset (2005), continues stating that the use of images and the discussion surrounding the artefacts can result in pupils seeing relevance in what they are learning about. Using a Victorian painting for example, discussion and analysis can the pupils to take the viewpoint of subjects of the painting. Simply asking children about what they can see: how the subjects are dressed?; where are they?; what are they doing? The pupils can gain information from what they are witnessing. Depending on how the children react to the paintings they may create connections with favourite subjects to give learning more meaning to them personally.

It is highlighted however that teachers must pay attention when using artefacts as a teaching resource. Turner-Bisset (2005), warns that as the curiosity of the object begins to fade the pupil may begin to dismiss any new learning that is presented. If the pupils’ curiosity is not continuously captured, they may decide they have learned enough about the artefact. An example is provided of a teacher who used an artefact to create effective questions for an early years class. Although the class were never guided towards focussing on the age of the object, because they possessed a developed understanding of time as a concept. The previously developed understanding dominated over the other learning that the teacher was pushing for. Hoodless (2008), also speaks of some of the issues that have been witnessed with the use of artefacts in the classroom. Finding appropriate artefacts is highlighted as being a cause for frustration, any official documentation uses language too complex for the classroom and can often contain too much information not related to the learning. Alternatively, it is stated that children’s books and historical resources written for primary school children are often full of inaccuracies and have been seen to trivialise true events. I do not believe that the trivialisation of history is a particular problem. I feel that books such as ‘Horrible Histories’ do a fantastic job of boosting interest in historical topics, if the children are interested then engagement and motivation is already an integral part of the lesson. It may be that any inaccuracies may need to be corrected in later lessons but if the class have positive attitudes towards the subject then altering information may be accepted and retained with relative ease.

Hoodless (2008) also mentions that the use of visual artefacts may present problems for primary classes. It is stated that in order to get effective use of the artefact the children require expertise in analysis and investigative skills before any meaning can be extracted. As previously mentioned however, Turner-Bisset (2005) suggests that simple questioning can be the analysis needed for pupils to gain meaning from stimuli. I agree with this point, moving back to the Victorian painting example, if the children are viewing a social scene with multiple subjects, asking pupils to pick their favourite subject and discussing why can invoke a connection to the painting before applying the focussed and planned learning. Hoodless (2008), does state that artefacts can be useful in early years classrooms. It is stated that using the artefacts as a context for learning  incorporating storytelling can be a way of continuing to pique the interest of the children. This is a point that I continue to find myself thinking about, I feel that allowing children to create personal connections with their learning will prove very effective. I feel that this can be done so through the likes of storytelling.

Turner-Bisset (2005) references Fines and Nichol (1997), who are seen to link to the storytelling approach of learning previously mentioned. They have suggested that artefacts need to be made to be compelling. Wrapping the artefact and having the class having to unwrap layer after layer (like pass the parcel) to build suspense around the object. It is here where the previous points made by Hoodless (2008) links in: the artefact can be delivered to the class by a mysterious figure and has postage stamps from a far away country or a date from years ago. It is warned to stay away from guessing games to determine what the object may be, a framework of guided questions should be provided instead. What is the object made of? What is it made of? Is it new or old? Who may use this? This approach may differ between the age groups within a school, should we let the early years fantasise and dream?

Overall, it is evident that the use of artefacts can be effective in connecting learning to the learner, making information relevant to the child to rid the need for abstract thinking to create links between themselves and to the topic. Another point made however is the fact that improper use of artefacts can lead to decreased motivation, and so any use must be facilitated.

Hoodless, P. (2008). Teaching History in Primary Schools. [Online]. Exeter: Learning Matters. Available at (Accessed: 17/10/18)

McLeod, S. (2012). Bruner in [Online] Available at: (Accessed: 17/10/18)

Turner-Bisset, R. (2005). Creative Teaching: History in the Primary Classroom. [Online]. Abingdon: David Fulton. Available at: (Accessed: 17/10/18)


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