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Educator’s Guide for Analyzing Historical Objects

Applying historical thinking to an object means a student can: describe its physical qualities (Encounter), understand its unique story (Investigate), and interpret its purpose and how it reflects the time in which it was made or used (Build). Students need frequent experiences with examining objects to develop these historical thinking skills. 

The following framework guides all of the object examinations in this curriculum and can be used with any other objects. Not all questions need to be answered: choose appropriate ones for your object and activity. When answering Investigate and Build questions, encourage students to provide evidence for their answers. 
 

Encounter

Activate prior knowledge of objects of this type. Engage background knowledge and schema about objects in the world around them, how they can be used, and what they say about our own time.    

Become familiar with the object. Mostly likely, students will not be able to use senses other than sight to examine an object. Ask students to write, dictate, or draw a description of every detail that is accessible. At this stage, no detail is insignificant. Organize student thinking by categorizing descriptions by size and shape, color and material, and special markings or parts. 

Provide first impressions of the object. Students are encouraged to both look at it closely and later revise their views based on further investigation. Explain that going through the investigation will help them find evidence to support their thinking or prompt them to consider an enhanced or completely different conclusion.
 

Investigate 

Support close observation of the object. Practice locating and thinking about these essential features of objects. 
 
  • Label. If an object has a label, what information is shared on it? This may also present an opportunity to discuss the purpose of labeling and who would create a label.   

  • Date and locate the object. If this essential information is not on the label, students must use their detective skills to see if they can establish the date and location the object was made or used.  

Purpose and Audience. How did the object work, and how would it have been used? Discuss the importance we attach to objects based on whether they are everyday objects (i.e., a spoon or a piece of clothing) or objects with great historical significance (e.g., Lincoln’s hat). 

Details. Continue using close-looking techniques to discover more details of the object, which will help students understand the object and the time it represents. 
 

Build 

Explore life then and now. Is this object, or some version of it, still used today? How has it changed? How has it stayed the same? These questions help students understand continuity and change over time, as they explore facets of life that seem to be universal (e.g., various tools  used to pick up dirt inside) and facets of life that seem to be products of their time (e.g., vacuum cleaners that use electricity to pick up dirt). 

Place the object in time. Expand students’ comprehension of how the object reflects the time in which it was created or used by combining everything learned previously in the activity. What does the object teach us about the time in which it was used? How would your life have changed if you had to use this object instead of the version you use today? Use focus questions for the unit or new questions developed by students to drive inquiry to connect the object specifically to the objectives of the activity. 

Add to the story. Provide students with an opportunity to exercise their imaginations in regards to the object, which will help them connect their own lives to the people of the past. This activity also allows students to place themselves in history, leading to greater engagement.