What does “sensemaking” really mean in the context of learning about science? (Reading Odden & Russ, 2019)

I read the article “Defining sensemaking: Bringing clarity to a fragmented theoretical construct” by Odden and Russ (2019) and what I loved about the article are two main things: I realized that “sensemaking” is the name of an activity I immensely enjoy under certain conditions, and being able to put words to that activity made me really happy! And I found it super helpful that the differences between “sensemaking” and other concepts like “explaining” or “thinking” were pointed out, because that gave me an even clearer idea of what is meant by “sensemaking”.

What is sensemaking? The definition given in the Odden and Russ (2019) article is simple:

Sensemaking is a dynamic process of building or revising an explanation in order to “figure something out”—to ascertain the mechanism underlying a phenomenon in order to resolve a gap or inconsistency in one’s understanding.

Odden and Russ discuss that in the educational science literature, sensemaking has previously been used to mean three different things, that can all be reconceiled under this definition, but that have been discussed mostly independently before:

  1. An approach to learning: Sensemaking can mean really wanting to figure something out by yourself — making sense of an intriguing problem by bringing together what you know, asking yourself questions, building and testing hypotheses, but not asking other people for the correct solution. This is my approach to escape games, for example — I hate using the help cards! I know that it should be possible to figure the puzzles out, so I want to do it myself! This approach is obviously desirable in science learners, since they are not just relying on memorizing responses or assembling surface-level knowledge. They really want to make sense out of something that did not make sense before.
  2. A cognitive process: In this sense, sensemaking is really about how students bring together pieces of previous knowledge and experiences, and new knowledge, and how they integrate them to form a new and bigger coherent structure, for example by using analogies or metaphors.
  3. A way of communicating: Sensemaking then is the collaborative effort to make sense by bringing together different opinions or to construct an explanation, and than critiquing it in order to make sure the arguments are watertight. This can happen both using technical terms and everyday language.

And now how is “sensemaking” different from other, seemingly similar terms? (Or, as the authors say, how can we differentiate sensemaking “from other <good> things to do when learning science”?) This is my summary of the arguments from the article:

Thinking. Compared with sensemaking, thinking is a lot broader. One can do a lot of thinking without attempting to create any new sense. Thinking does not require the critical approach that is essential to sensemaking.

Learning. While sensemaking is a form of learning, there are a lot of other forms that don’t include sensemaking, for example memorization.

Explaining. Sensemaking requires the process of “making sense” of something that previously did not make sense, explanating does not necessarily require that. Depending on the context, explanations can sometimes well be generated out of previous knowledge without building new relationships or anything.

Argumentation. Argumentation is a much wider term than sensemaking — one can for example argue with the goal of persuading someone else rather than building a common understanding and making sense out of information.

Modeling. There is a great overlap between modeling and sensemaking, but sensemaking is typically more dynamic and short-term, whereas modeling is a more formal activity that can take place over days and weeks, sometimes with the purpose of communicating ideas.

I found reading this article enlightening because it is giving me a language to talk about sensemaking, to articulate nuances, that I previously did not have. By reflecting on situations where I really enjoy sensemaking (another example is wave watching: I am trying to make sense of what I see by running through questions in my head. Can I observe what causes the waves? Is their behavior consistent with what I would expect given what I can observe about the topography? If not, what does that tell me about the topogaphy in places where I can’t observe it?) and on others where I don’t (thinking of times in school when I did not see the point of trying to make sense out of something [as in make all the individual pieces of previous knowledge and new information fit together coherently without conflict] and just needed to go though the motions of it to pass a test or something), I find it intriguing to think about why I sometimes engage in the process and enjoy it, and sometimes I don’t even try to engage.

How does it work for you, do you know under what conditions you engage in sensemaking, and under which don’t you?

Odden, T. O. B., & Russ, R. S. (2019). Defining sensemaking: Bringing clarity to a fragmented theoretical construct. Science Education, 103(1), 187-205.

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