A Learning Trajectory for Sensemaking in Science

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) offer teachers the opportunity to consider teaching science in a new way. We help students engage with, wonder about, and make sense of natural phenomena, which closely resembles how scientists perceive the world and do their work. By observing phenomena, scientists generate questions, predict outcomes, and generalize results to develop shared knowledge. Using NGSS, and with the teacher’s help, students also work to build shared knowledge.

But the NGSS present another opportunity that is nested within shared knowledge-building: the opportunity to teach sensemaking. Because shared knowledge-building is a collaborative effort, it requires students to interact with one another and make sense of one another’s ideas. To productively engage with other students’ ideas for understanding phenomena, students must do three things: Make their own idea clear and comprehensible, understand their classmates’ ideas, and figure out how to compare their ideas.

These tasks are harder than they seem; even adults find them challenging! When a colleague processes a shared experience very differently than you do, consider how hard it can be to regard his or her viewpoint as equally credible as your own.

Our understanding of what others say is heavily influenced by both our expectations and prior knowledge. When students have ideas that are very different from what is expected and what is already known, teachers must provide support so the ideas can be comprehended and considered potentially valid and sensible. Collective sensemaking is particularly challenging for ideas contributed by English language learners (ELLs), or by students with social or cultural perspectives that diverge from the rest of the classroom community. Their ideas may be differently constructed or developed from resources unfamiliar to students accustomed to mainstream white middle-class norms promoted in the classroom. In these situations, teacher supports require more thoughtful and purposeful preparation.

I recommend three processes to help prepare for these sensemaking opportunities:

  1. Send home a science content or phenomenon interview for family
  2. Use Equitable Discourse Tools
  3. Prepare to Dig Into Discourse

Using these processes leads us along a new trajectory for developing increasingly sophisticated sensemaking skills: 1) Seeing others’ very different perspectives as valid, 2) learning how to make use of others’ ideas, and 3) developing sustained and rich discourse stamina.

Send home a science content or phenomenon interview for family (translated if necessary)

As the teacher in the ELL case study in Appendix D of the NGSS, I included the homework assignment to interview a family member about the driving question of the unit, “Is all soil the same?” As an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, I have found these family interviews useful in revealing the high-level thinking that students use but are unable to express in English. They also provide access to the intellectual resources for sensemaking that ELLs will draw from and offer to the rest of the classroom community.

Ever since Luis Moll and colleagues generated the Funds of Knowledge concept to describe the intellectual resources students bring to school from home and community, content-area ESL teachers have been developing ways to access those resources. If a scientific phenomenon is accessible and occurs in daily life, students can engage in high-level discourse with their families in their home language and then share those resources in science class.  

The opportunity and benefits are not just for individual ELL student; they extend to all students in the classroom. When the teacher shares the interviews and ensures they are viewed as valid, the entire class gains access to increasingly diverse resources. In science, however, it can be challenging to ensure these resources from home and community are considered relevant by other students. My solution has been to write the experiences, ideas, and stories shared from home on sentence strips and present them as “evidence.” As a group, we can condense the stories into sentences, and highlight them alongside other evidence we’ve collected in class.

Returning to the example from Appendix D of NGSS, students shared information gathered from their family interviews about soils in different countries. Combined with other sources of evidence, this rich collection from diverse students helped our classroom community understand that soil varies across countries, has different colors and textures, and is made of different materials, and these factors influence what types of plants will grow.

Use Equitable Discourse Tools

As a content-area ESL teacher, I used the talk moves (traditional discourse moves) from TERC’s Talk Science Primer. But I found myself checking off different Talk Moves without using all the ideas to the fullest extent. This unintentionally introduced bias and led students to believe that some ideas were more useful for the community than others. Unfortunately, it was often the same students whose ideas were implied to be “less useful.” For example, if a student was presenting an idea that was unclear or didn’t make sense to me, I tended to emphasize it less because my perspective of success in discourse was based on whether I had satisfactorily delivered the prompt (e.g., Can someone build on that idea?), rather than on the idea’s usefulness to the community. There wasn’t an expectation that all ideas would be useful, but rather that all ideas would elicit a response.

What discourse moves—or what I propose we call Equitable Discourse—do is highlight the potential usefulness of every student idea. The concept of usefulness is an affordance. Each discourse move, in this framework, is a description of the work needed to capitalize on the affordance of a student’s idea. Talk can help clarify, strengthen reasoning, or apply “old” ideas to the new one. Every idea offers affordances for improving the sensemaking underway. By carefully considering how to use every idea, we advance sensemaking, and we begin to grasp how others perceive those science concepts, and how to shape and communicate those perspectives for a deeper and broader understanding of the phenomenon by everyone in the classroom.

Returning to the NGSS Appendix D example, an ELL student shared with the class the idea that black soil might mean that the soil has more water in it. His idea was not clearly understood, and it did not seem to particularly interest the rest of the class. The teachers, of course, thought that it deserved a response, and said, “Ah, yes, very interesting! Who agrees with Mohammad?” But initially, we did not substantially mine the idea.

The student persisted. He was trying to share that wetness could be an important identifiable characteristic of soil. If we had used the barometer of “idea successfully used by the class” as the measure of well-executed discourse, he would not have had to struggle to express himself. I consider this an excellent example of how equitable discourse moves can support class sensemaking, and enrich the knowledge building overall.

One of the equitable discourse moves is to “help student clarify their idea.” Mohammad’s idea—that soil can be wet and that wetness should be noted—didn’t make sense to most of the students because they were used to thinking of “wet vs. dry” as being a temporary characteristic, rather than a characteristic that varies across different types of soil. The discourse move helps us consider “whether or not the idea has been sufficiently clarified for use.” In this process, teachers model for the students the wherewithal and perseverance necessary for clarification, and at the same time, make explicit the skill of self-reflection for “how do I know that the idea is now clear?”

Examining and clarifying the student’s idea, especially because the idea didn’t make sense at first, turned out to be a valuable experience. At the end of the hour, the students remarked that soil as a characteristic of a habitat can be described in terms of wetness, and that this impacts what organisms the soil can support.

Prepare to Dig Into Discourse

Funds of Knowledge resources and the discourse moves are intended to support the teacher in creating an equitable space for conversation or “discourse.” This moves us away from the IRE model, in which —the teacher asks a question, the student answers, and the teacher evaluates——an approach perhaps best termed “guess what the teacher thinks.” We are aiming instead for a rich conversation in which teachers model the scientific practice of sensemaking: Ideas are being offered, considered valuable, evaluated, and then built on or discarded.

I have found that rich discourse happens when we allow sufficient time for thinking and reasoning to occur by and among many students. Most importantly, student ideas should represent a variety of ways to approach the phenomenon, incorporating the diverse intellectual resources that students bring from home and community, as well as classroom-based experiences. By digging deep into a conversation around questions with more than one right answer, students’ ideas can carry the conversation.

Teacher MovesWe are told that our aim with the NGSS is to mirror in the classroom many of the processes and practices that scientists use. But we can enhance some of those real-world practices by employing the processes I’ve described, and by viewing the classroom community and individual students as moving along a sensemaking trajectory in a way that is purposefully supported. Because the scientific community is extremely stratified and not very diverse, and current science may not be representative of broader and more diverse communities, we could be overlooking key questions and missing out on ideas that would foster deeper understanding and innovative solutions for the challenges science undertakes. By enabling our students—our future scientists and decision-makers—to acknowledge, evaluate, and incorporate diverse perspectives, we have an opportunity to build a world that expands and enriches who does science, how science is conducted, and how it is used in the real world.

Emily Miller

Emily Miller is an elementary teacher and was a lead writer for the NGSS Diversity and Equity Writing team. She has taught science as an ESL/Bilingual Resource science specialist at a Title I urban school for 16 years. Miller has used the NGSS in her own diverse classroom and continues to improve and refine teaching to the standards with her students. She is consulting with the Wisconsin Center for Educational Research to develop teacher tools to promote sensemaking and language learning for ELLs in science. E-mail her at emilycatherine329@gmail.com.

Additional Links

Discourse Moves

MacDonald, R.,  E. Miller, and S. Lord. 2017. Doing and Talking Science: Engaging ELs in the Discourse of the Science and Engineering Practices. In Science Teacher Preparation in Content-Based Second Language Acquisition. p. 179-197. Springer International Publishing.





Funds of Knowledge 

Moll, L. C., C. Amanti, D. Neff, and N. Gonzalez. 1992. Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into practice. 31(2), 132-141.


Appendix D


Lee, O., E. C. Miller, and R. Januszyk. 2014. Next generation science standards: All standards, all students. Journal of Science Teacher Education. 25(2), 223-233.

ELL Case Study ELL


Different perspective STEM TEACHING TOOL





This article was featured in the November issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction. Click here to access other articles from the November issue on assessing three-dimensional learning. Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

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One Comment

  1. Joe
    Posted November 29, 2017 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    I find pushing students into conversation around questions they find of value and that has more than one right answer, students’ ideas and thinking can carry the conversation that happens and help the learners develop explanations of how the world around them work an critical point that reflects what doing science is all about.

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