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Making It Personal: Using Material Culture to Engage Students

Teachers today face a great challenge in keeping students' attention in a media-saturated world in which these students are immersed in fast-moving imagery, multitasking, and instant gratification. As history educators increasingly view the traditional textbook as a limited instruction tool, many are exploring methods of teaching that develop essential historical research and analysis skills while also making history interesting and fun.

The Louisiana State Museum actively encourages educators to use our exhibits and collections for studying material culture, as we embrace a mission where the museum provides a hands-on extension of the classroom. The museum's collection, which focuses on the history and culture of Louisiana, provides a diverse array of objects for studying history from the past 4,000 years.

First, the process of studying material culture engages students to think and ask questions, not just passively accept the teacher's view of history.

From pre-contact Native American artifacts to those recovered from Hurricane Katrina, the museum's collection offers a window into the past and also a mirror of the present for the 30,000 students who visit the museum system annually. And because many educators are not able to visit the museum in person, we also provide access to significant artifacts and images through our website.

As educators strive to move beyond the textbook to stimulate and engage students, the prospect of studying material culture appears attractive to teachers for several reasons. First, the process of studying material culture engages students to think and ask questions, not just passively accept the teacher's view of history. As the students examine the artifacts, they become historians themselves in terms of learning to ask the appropriate questions about historical context, and by comparing and contrasting relevant historical periods. This process of learning to ask questions develops greater thinking and analytical skills.

Second, this process of studying material culture encourages greater intellectual independence among students.

Second, this process of studying material culture encourages greater intellectual independence among students. By asking students to work in teams, and analyze an historical object from the perspective of studying material culture, they can formulate their own questions and reach their own conclusions about the significance of an object and its historical relevance. The focus on an object, or group of artifacts, allows the student to take ownership of history, and not rely on the teacher to provide the answers. This fostering of independence can provide students with a sense of accomplishment and self-reliance that cannot be achieved through simple lecture and testing format.

Third, studying material culture is a great tool for bringing history to life and making it relevant to students' lives.

Third, studying material culture is a great tool for bringing history to life and making it relevant to students' lives. Many students do not relate to history, because they find it irrelevant to their own interest or concerns. But by studying historical artifacts, the possibilities are greater for students making a personal and meaningful connection.

For example, in our Cabildo Museum in the French Quarter, the Battle of New Orleans exhibit features a field drum used by Jordan Noble, who was an enslaved teenage musician in 1815. The history of Jordan Noble provides a window into the role of both enslaved and free persons in defending New Orleans from the British invasion of 1814–1815.

However, students from the New Orleans area relate to the music connection in the story. In a society where parades and music processions are part of the cultural fabric, the Noble drum provides a relevant touchstone or hook that then allows them to learn the personal history of an individual within the context of the larger event. While the drum is a fun and engaging artifact for this region, educators should always try to find artifacts of material culture that will engage students in their relevant cultural context.

No set method to study material culture exists, and this lack of set pedagogy can be daunting to any teacher who wants to incorporate the process into their curriculum. But at the same time, the method is wide open to adaptation by teachers to make it relevant to their students.

Teachers interested in adapting material-culture-based ideas into their lessons are encouraged to seek museums and websites that promote this method, and also to network with other teachers who have used it in the past, and who may have valuable ideas on the most effective methods for different subjects or grade levels.

 
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