Tag Archives: sensemaking

Article just published: Collaborative Sketching to Support Sensemaking: If You Can Sketch It, You Can Explain It

What a lovely Birthday gift (and seriously impressively quick turn-around times at TOS Oceanography!): Kjersti‘s & my article “Collaborative Sketching to Support Sensemaking: If You Can Sketch It, You Can Explain It” (Daae & Glessmer, 2022) has just come out today!

In it, we describe Kjersti’s experiences with using portable whiteboards that students use to collaboratively draw on in order to make sense out of new concepts or generate hypotheses for outcomes of experiments. It’s a really neat practice, you should check out our article and consider it for your own classes!

Kjersti also wrote a supplemental material to the article with a lot of details how exactly she implements the whiteboards and how she formulates the tasks (find it here).

Daae, K., and M.S. Glessmer. 2022. Collaborative sketching to support sensemaking: If you can sketch it, you can explain it. Oceanography, https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2022.208.

Follow-up on the iEarth teaching conversation: Why cognitive apprenticeship?

One question came up after I had written up my one-pager on the iEarth “teaching conversation”: Why “cognitive apprenticeship”?

Over the years, I made a couple of observations across several universities in three countries:

  1. Students learn a lot of factual, conceptual and formalized procedural knowledge, working mainly on textbook data and problems. They often have difficulties transferring knowledge and skills to messy authentic tasks, and they are not given many opportunities to practice applying them to real-world contexts (at least not before their Bachelor/Master projects).
  2. There are not many opportunities for students to engage with teachers informally, meaning that there is a perceived artificial distance that creates a threshold for engagement, and students have little access to potential role models.
  3. Relationships between students and teachers are often confined to the duration of a course, therefore short-lived (unless students work for that specific teacher or write a thesis with them).
  4. Teachers often don’t share their thought processes explicitly for students to learn from, and similarly in a science communication setting, scientists don’t often make their thought processes transparent to their audience.
  5. For many people, the threshold to engage in sensemaking of the physics of a system, both by themselves and in conversation with others, seems very high.
  6. With courses being almost exclusively online since March 2020 where I am at, studying has become a lonely practice and it is difficult to build an identity if communities and role models are not easily available.

Personally, I enjoy deep exchange about what other people observe and how they interpret it, and my own observations and interpretations, leading to the shared construction of a common understanding. When I first started #WaveWatching, I was in a job in a non-oceanography context, and was missing such conversations on ocean topics. Due to the nature of my job, I could not as easily access them in the usual ways (office mates, coffee breaks, seminars, conferences) and thus had to create my own space and community. Now, I want to extend the invitation to join me in this, both to students and in a science outreach context, to share my fascination with water and the fun of a shared sensemaking process.

I retrospectively described the model I chose for #WaveWatching as “cognitive apprenticeship” as defined by Collins et al., 1988, which I summarize here and refer to my points above (in brackets): Cognitive apprenticeship places a strong focus on strategic knowledge, e.g. expert problem-solving and learning strategies (1.). This focus becomes evident in the attempt to give students “the opportunity to observe, engage in, and invent or discover expert strategies in context” (1., 2.), situated in the real world (1.), by using six teaching methods: modelling (4.), coaching (5.), scaffolding (5.), articulating, reflecting, exploring. These methods are used in sequences going towards more complex, more diverse, and from global towards more local skills, with students owning the problems they work on and choosing an appropriate level of difficulty (5.). All of this is embedded in the social context of “a learning environment in which the participants actively communicate about, and engage in, the skills involved in expertise, where expertise is understood as the practice of solving problems and carrying out tasks in a domain.”

The community of practice around #WaveWatching extends far beyond individual classes I teach. Many of it happens online on social media, welcoming everybody to engage with it (2., 3., 6.). Even though I was initially strongly involved in using, and thus gathering a community around, the hashtag, there are now many people engaged in the domain of the physics of surface waves, engaging in the shared practice of trying to understand what is going on, both in situ and on pictures shared within the community: A community of practice has formed. Due to its virtual nature, the threshold for engagement is as low as snapping a picture and pasting it with the hashtag, and people in the community will start discussing about what can and cannot be deduced from the photo.

What I did not consider witing all of this is that the term “apprenticeship” might evoke images of  strong hierarchies, of “the master being The Master”, even though I totally see it now, after it has been pointed out to me. To me, what the term brings to mind is a community of learners, that have a common interest (waves) engage in a shared practice (wave watching). In that way, the apprenticeship model is about “the master” (or teacher) making sure that new members are welcomed in the community and connected to everybody that can help them thrive, about creating a community of practice than about the apprenticeship model itself. Which is, coincidally, where the idea of a “community of practice” originated (Wenger, 2011).

Super interesting to ponder these questions and the implicit assumptions that come with using terminology and that can really confuse us if we don’t manage to catch them and make them explicit!

An iEarth teaching conversation with Kjersti Daae and Torgny Roxå on #WaveWatching

iEarth is currently establishing the new-to-me format of “teaching conversations”, where two or more people meet to discuss specific aspects of one person’s teaching in a “critical friend” setting. Obviously I volunteered to be grilled, and despite me trying to suggest other topics, too (like the active lunch break and the “nerd topic” intro in a workshop), we ended up talking about … #WaveWatching. Not that I’m complaining ;-)

After the conversation, I wrote up the main points as a one-pager, which I am sharing below. Thank you, Kjersti and Torgny, for an inspiring conversation!

I use #WaveWatching in introductory courses in oceanography and in science outreach both on social media and in in-person guided tours. #WaveWatching is the practice of looking at water and trying to make sense of why its surface came to look the way it does: What caused the waves (e.g. wind, ships, animals)? How did the coastline influence the waves (e.g. shelter it from wind in some places, or block entrance into a basin from certain directions, or cause reflection)? What processes must be involved that we cannot directly observe (e.g. interactions with a very shallow area or a current)? Kjersti Daae (pers. comm.) suggests an analogy to explain #WaveWatching: Many people enjoy a stir-fry for its taste, like we enjoy looking at water, glittering in the sun, without questioning what makes it special. But once we start focusing on noticing different ingredients and the ways they are prepared, it is a small change in perspective that changes our perception substantially, and leads to a new appreciation and deeper understanding of all future stir-fries (and possibly other dishes) we will encounter.

I teach #WaveWatching using a cognitive apprenticeship leaning (Collins et al., 1988) approach*: By drawing on photos of selected wave fields (in the field using a drawing app on a tablet), I model my own sensemaking (Odden & Russ, 2019). I coach students to engage in the process, and slowly fade myself out. Students then engage in #WaveWatching practice anywhere they find water – in the sink, a puddle in the street, a lake, the ocean. Since waves are universally accessible, this works perfectly as hyper-local “excursions” in virtual teaching: Students work “in the field” right outside their homes.

Waves are not an integral part of the general curriculum in physical oceanography. While some wave processes are relevant for specific research questions, for typical large-scale oceanography they are not. And the concepts used in #WaveWatching are not even new to students, they are just an application of high-school optics to a new context.

Nevertheless, #WaveWatching helps work towards several goals that are important to me:

  1. Using “authentic data” acts as motivation to engage with theory because the connection with the real world makes it feel more interesting and engaging (Kjelvik & Schultheis, 2019).
  2. Engaging in sensemaking and gaining experience on what can (and cannot!) be concluded from an observation are highly relevant skills and this is an opportunity for practice.
  3. Building an identity as oceanographer – seeing the world through a new lens, joining a community of practice (Wenger, 2011), but also being able to demonstrate newfound expertise and identity to friends and family outside of that new community by talking about this new lens – are otherwise rare in socially distant times.

After being exposed to #WaveWatching, people tell me that they can’t look at water in the same way they did before. They are now seeing pattern they never noticed, and they try to explain them or ask themselves what I would see. They often send me photos of their observation years after our last interaction, and ask if I agree with their interpretations. #WaveWatching might thus be a threshold concept, “a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something” and where “the change of perspective […] is unlikely to be forgotten” (Meyer & Land, 2003).


  • Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Newman, S. E. (1988). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the craft of reading, writing and mathematics. Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children8(1), 2-10.
  • Kjelvik, M. K., & Schultheis, E. H. (2019). Getting messy with authentic data: Exploring the potential of using data from scientific research to support student data literacy. CBE—Life Sciences Education18(2), es2.
  • Meyer, J. H. F., and Land, R. (2003) “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising” in Improving Student Learning: Ten Years On. C. Rust (Ed), OCSLD, Oxford.
  • Odden, T. O. B., & Russ, R. S. (2019). Defining sensemaking: Bringing clarity to a fragmented theoretical construct. Science Education103(1), 187-205.
  • Wenger, E. (2011). Communities of practice: A brief introduction.

*more on that in this post (that comes online on 21.5.2021).

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.