The Limits of Sensemaking

As I pondered this week’s task on design elements, I was drawn back to a post Jenny Mackness made last week on the science of teaching, or perhaps that should have been the science of teaching science.

Rather than my trying to summarize her summary of a conference presentation, I’ll give the x sentence tl;dr

  • Presenting/demonstrating is ineffective, especially when dealing with complex concepts.
  • Class time should instead be used for sense-making, where students are presented with situations and collaboratively create and discuss hypotheses about what will happen next.
  • Confusion is actually a good thing.

Eric Mazur, the Harvard physicist in question, describes the whole process as “teaching by questioning rather than by telling.” As I mentioned previously. I very much like the idea of a questioning centered classroom. However, Mazur’s work, which is centered around teaching science, raises another question. In a science lab (and here I’m talking about the lab component of an intro course as opposed to a research lab) what happens should be predictable. Whan you set up a scenario and ask a question, there is a right answer.

When you teach human systems (languages, arts, economics, etc.) you can create suce certainty by using very carefully chosen examples that “follow all the rules”. How well does that prepare students for the much less tidy real world?

On the other hand…..

Lisa linked to an Atlantic article, that served as the start point for a debate about teaching writing, contrasting the writer’s workshop approach with one that makes grammar and mechanics more explicit. My most interesting takeaway from this was a reminder of the importance of background knowledge. The students at New Dorp had internalized fewer rules of high-level language structure than had their peers, and teachers found more success when those rules were taught explicitly.

This is an issue that many of us who teach at community colleges face every day. Students don’t come to us with the background knowledge we hope they will have. If we are teaching a subject like art history or physics, which they may have never studied formally before, the gap between what they know and hat we wish they knew may be even larger. If these students are left to do much of their own sensemaking, they can become confused to a fault, not knowing what to do and suffering intellectual paralysis as they wait for someone to tell them. Sometimes they wait without asking or telling us they are lost.

Do we then go back to an instructional model full of explicit knowledge presentation? After all, it’s what many of our students are quite used to. How does that interface with the need for them to develop their own sense making skills, a goal which is probably more important that the material we strive to cover in our survey classes? Also, how does that sensemaking take place when the patterns you are trying to uncover are arbitrary by definition?

7 thoughts on “The Limits of Sensemaking

  1. Rachele DeMeo

    Greetings! I enjoyed reading your post. I like the idea of questioning versus telling in teaching. It involves letting students “teach themselves”.

  2. Walter Muryasz


    Your point about the “questioning centered classroom” and the science lab is well taken. The outcome in the intro lab is predictable, there is a right answer. But the objective here may not be arriving at the right answer. It may, more importantly, be how one gets to the answer. How did the scientist arrive at this particular conclusion and come up with a law? The learning experience here is in the journey not the destination.

    Just a thought,


  3. Cris Crissman (@Cris2B)

    First, I’ve got to say that you made my day, er, night, Jason. I’ve still high after completing a two-hour class online and it feels good to read Jennie’s notes from Mazur and be reminded of the value of confusion. There was much tonight so I tweeted: Mazur: “Confused students are twice as likely to be correct as students who do not think they are confused.”

    I like to think that what we do in class is sensemaking and that the pre-class and post-class assignments prepare students well for the sensemaking. We begin with a question for our “collaborative critical inquiry,” read,review resources and then blog and comment by weaving connections for our PreClass prep. Then class with small group work based on the question and blogging/commenting. And PostClass students complete a Critical Reflection post for the week.

    It seems to me that that sensemaking real-tme requires then a lot of individual prep pre and post.

    Do you think I’m on the right track?

    1. Jason Green Post author

      I think your point about preparation is an important one. Sensemaking is really a hypothesize-test-revise cycle about how new knowledge fits into your existing schemata, so the state of those pre-existing schemata is terribly important. Sensemaking works best when everyone is conscientious about their pre-reading and preparation. I guess one of their questions I still have in my mind is how to get a sensemaking model to work when students are less conscientious or come from a circumstance where their existing knowledge (or perhaps lack of it) makes it harder to integrate new knowledge.

  4. Norm Wright

    I think its an interesting question. While we talk a lot about teaching students to question and find their own answers and sense-making, it occurs to me that these are skills at the top of Blooms taxonomy. (Is that still considered a valid model?)
    But those skills all require a good foundation of knowledge, understanding and practice and we need courses for that too. Does every course have to span the full range of Bloom? Is it okay if the introductory courses you’re talking about emphasize the foundation without jumping straight to the top?

  5. Jenny Mackness

    Hi Jason

    Thanks for your post – I have been thinking about it since you made it.

    I just wanted to raise one or two things that struck me

    >In a science lab (and here I’m talking about the lab component of an intro course as opposed to a research lab) what happens should be predictable. When you set up a scenario and ask a question, there is a right answer.

    I’m wondering if this is accurate. Mazur’s comment in his talk was that in science we apply a known procedure to get an unknown answer – and yes he may have been talking about a research scientist’s work – but my understanding of science has always been that we work to ‘disprove’ things, not to prove them – and we keep disproving them until we can no longer do so, at which point we establish a fact. And a fact is only a fact until it is disproved!

    So for example, there is a story that Edison made 99 unsuccessful attempts to invent the light bulb before being successful. When asked why he didn’t give up when he failed so many times, his response was that he didn’t fail, he found 99 ways it didn’t work. I have often used this story with students to illustrate that making mistakes/failing is OK and part of the learning process.

    For me the power of prediction is not in trying to get to the right answer, but in helping students to surface their tacit and existing understanding and misconceptions. Prediction can be used in any subject, in the ‘what do you think?’ sense as well as the what do you think will happen sense, and it is one of the tools that can support the sense-making process.

    I think confusion is OK. I have always believed learning to be a messy business. As Wenger says – we all go through a ‘dark night of identity’ when we don’t feel that we know or understand anything. For me, as a teacher, I think that one of my roles is to support and encourage students as they go through these ‘dark nights’ and not let them evade them. Sense-making is what it’s all about and there is usually light at the end of the tunnel ☺ – but as Cris says – it might be a long tunnel!

  6. Scott Johnson

    Jason, we have students who have never been asked or expected to venture even a guess at answering a question. Or the questions are always rhetorical and never genuinely in search of an answer. My sense is these students have never gone beyond the apparent (what everyone around them can plainly see) to draw an explanation from themselves. They may have learned to remain silent by being “wrong” or simply ignored. Giving someone permission to contribute is difficult because they need to permit themselves first.

    From a drawing class I remember the instructor would hold something up like a soda pop can and ask the class what it was. “And what else could it be?” was repeated over and over and no answer was ever wrong. Things remembered would come up and stories emerge from places the can might find itself. What each person saw was different and didn’t need to be immediately seen by everyone to be valid because it could be made to be seen by telling its story.

    Where does it land on the Bloom continuum this choosing from inside yourself?


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