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Sense-Making Discussions—Take Your Teaching Practice to the Next Level

Erica Beck Spencer, FOSS Curriculum Specialist, and Brian Campbell, FOSS Curriculum Developer, Lawrence Hall of Science
September 05, 2019 | Sense-Making

Sense-making discussions are a critical part of effective science teaching. A sense-making discussion has two purposes. First, it helps students review and confirm information accrued from the active investigation, and to organize information for processing. It is more than just sharing what they did or observed; more importantly, it is analysis—finding connections and relationships in the data in an effort to construct conceptual knowledge. Second, this discussion helps students organize and communicate their thinking in collaboration with their peers. The sense-making discussion allows all students to develop conceptual models about phenomena and the natural and designed world.

Implementing sense-making discussions into science instruction requires thoughtful planning and a good deal of patience as there are a number of variables in play. Two tools, the FOSS Investigations Guide and the Sense-Making Discussions for Three-Dimensional Learning chapter provide guidance for teachers planning guiding questions and planning how to support communication during the sense-making discussion. Like other shifts in instructional practice, this change requires reasonable expectations and regular monitoring of both teacher and student progress. In other words, reflection and adjustment over time is needed.

[Introduction to chapter on Sense-Making Discussions for Three-Dimensional Learning

This grade-specific chapter is found on FOSSweb, under the NGSS Three-Dimensional Learning subsection of each module. To view, you must be logged in to a module you have applied an access code to.

Brian Campbell spoke with expert educator, Erica Beck Spencer, about how she strengthened her teaching practice by consistently working to improve her effectiveness at leading sense-making discussions.

Brian: Tell us a little about yourself as an educator.

Erica: I have been in the teaching profession for over twenty years. One strength of mine is I always reflect upon what I could have done better following every teaching session. I pride myself on being a great teacher, and yet, I know there is always room for improvement.

Brian: When did you start digging into sense-making discussions?

Erica: There have been game-changing moments during my tenure when a new technique transformed my practice. The first came at the beginning of my career when studying The Skillful Teacher by Jon Saphier. My favorite strategy in the book was the tried and true "Wait Time," simply giving all kids more time to think of their answers before calling on someone. Several years ago you (gently) told me it was time to move away from a call-and-response teaching method (even if "Wait Time" is used) towards digging deeper to start incorporating proven talk moves into discussions. (Check out the Talk Science Primer by Sarah Michaels and Cathy O'Connor for more techniques and details about talk moves.)

I was clunky at first, but over the course of a few years, I got significantly better, and now I use these techniques regularly and with ease. Reflecting back, I remember not believing this would be effective with kindergarten students. I needed to try it out. I worked with five-and six-year-olds in a local school. After the investigation, we left our seats and gathered at the rug near the word wall and low easel with the class notebook propped on the marker ledge. I had them sitting in a circle on the rug. I posted and reviewed a few sentence starters, such as, "I noticed that..." and "I think...because..." After I asked students to "turn and talk" to their neighbors about a question. I rotated from group to group listening and supporting their discussions. When I heard key points raised by students, I'd ask them to share with the whole group when we came back together. It wasn't perfect, but I knew that if we could keep working together, the students would learn the routines and become even more engaged.

In the beginning I would hold my FOSS Investigations Guide in the crook of my arm, covered in sticky notes with the questions I wanted to ask that weren't already in the guide, I tried to ask the right questions at the right time to drive the discussion. I plugged in my talk moves and worked my way through. I'm sure I was not terrible, but I wasn't great, and needed to improve.

Brian: Were there other keys to improving your sense making discussions?

Erica: To improve my practice with teachers and students I did many things. First, I always get feedback from colleagues after a session. I observed videos of teachers doing this with students. Despite this in-depth study of the process and regular practice, I still got a little nervous before leading these because you never know if someone is going to take a conversation in a challenging direction. What if nobody will talk? if one person will dominate? if incorrect ideas come forward?

The key to building my confidence came after the FOSS team created what we call the "Sense-Making Discussion Planning Guide." The first time I used this guide, it transformed my practice.

Thumbnail: Sense-Making Planning Guide form

The Sense-Making Planning Guide described in detail here. Click on image to open PDF in a new tab.

Here's what works for me: It is important that I hand-write this, rather than using one that someone else created for me, because it is really helpful to process ahead of the discussion. I use what is already in the Investigations Guide to help fill in the form. I identify the three dimensions—DCI, SEP, and CC—emphasized with this part. The "What to Ask" section is usually in the IG and responses to those questions help me to determine "What to listen for." I work on these two sections together. Essentially, I'm listening for misconceptions, partial information, and correct ideas. As teachers we all instinctively come up with "Scaffolding questions" but thinking ahead of time, considering what students might need support with if they are confused, is really beneficial. The application questions are ways to think about the fact that if students truly understand the content, they will be able to answer questions about how this concept applies in the real world.

The process of filling in the form is what has transformed my practice, not the form itself. Taking the time to study the Investigations Guide, to think and anticipate, and write key ideas on this form is what made me better. It's the preparation process, not the form, that advanced my confidence with sense making.

Erica's honest reflection about her personal journey represents a high-level of critical reflection but also represents a realistic way to approach a change in practice. Three different aspects of sense-making discussions come forward in this journey, the physical arrangement of students in the classroom during the discussion, the introduction of content questions, and the facilitation of communication between students. Instead of tackling all three of these at once, teachers can begin by making gradual, but purposeful shifts, such as designating a specific location and talk partner for all their students. Next, teachers might choose to continue using the questions in the Investigations Guide for content questions while they focus attention on building communication between students or, if their students communicate well, they focus on developing more open-ended questions to drive conceptual thinking. Finally, enjoy the intellectual struggle. This is the part where you never know what ideas students may trot out. Some discussions will be rich and rewarding, others might not go well, but it's important to reflect on your practice and make incremental adjustments as needed to keep students striving to understand.

As you get started conducting sense-making discussions, refer to the Sense-Making Discussions for Three-Dimensional Learning chapter. This chapter can be found under "NGSS Three-Dimensional Learning" in the "Teacher Resources" section of each module or course. Included in the chapter are suggestions for planning sense-making discussions as well as sample discussion guides for each grade.