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Sensemaking Resources for This Year’s Challenges

By Marcy Buchanan

Posted on 2020-07-30

Making sense of our world has never been more challenging!

I am not placing any bets, but I am pretty certain that returning to home-based learning sometime during this upcoming year is on the peripheral of almost every conversation. 

In our district, elementary students participate in a STEM class one hour each week. They also receive 70 minutes of science instruction weekly, led by the classroom teachers, which supports their STEM learning. This combined effort allows students to be exposed to phenomena and real-life scenarios for collaborative sensemaking work with NGSS-designed units. When distance learning began last year, our district used activity choice boards to create a STEM experience from home. The choice boards offered some exposure to science concepts, but very little sensemaking and collaborative efforts. With our “new normal” now involving social distancing considerations and a possible return to distance learning, I am rethinking my instructional approach to start this year.

Now, I plan to use phenomena-driven instruction instead of activity choice boards. I may use choice boards later this year, but with some preparation and resources, I am convinced students can independently use familiar sensemaking strategies for explaining our world and solving problems. I think we can still accomplish the reforms called for by the Next Generation Science Standards and other three-dimensional standards based on A Framework for K-12 Science Education even with the current challenges. I use the word “independent” to describe this year’s planning, without risking our students feeling “isolated” in their learning.

What is non negotiable in this plan is to secure academically productive phenomena (anchoring phenomena) and real-life scenarios that can be depicted using pictures and videos. The website Phenomena for NGSS offers just that. In fact, TJ McKenna and Christopher Zieminski have created Virtual Science Cards on the Phenomena for NGSS website that serve as virtual units. Each unit starts with videos of phenomena and related activities, graphs, and data resources. As the unit unfolds, students use writing templates for “figuring out” an explanation or for tracking their learning.

The templates are a powerful sensemaking tool because they involve a consistent process for journaling and reflecting. Students using the templates first note their initial noticings, wonderings, and explanations. They write about connections of related activities to original phenomena and brainstorm possible tests they can use to help explain how or why the phenomena occurs. This format mirrors the sensemaking process that the NGSS recommends in our students’ learning.

And remember the science and engineering practices (SEPs) can engage students in sensemaking. Developing and using models, analyzing and interpreting data, and constructing explanations are practices in which students visualize and connect understandings as learning progresses. The Wonder of Science website offers downloadable graphic organizers for guiding the use of SEPs and crosscutting concepts (CCCs), allowing for independent sensemaking efforts.

Couple the graphic organizers with resources provided in McKenna and Zieminskis’ virtual units, and you’ve got a meaningful way for students to independently engage in SEPs. Both the writing templates and graphic organizers offer areas for visually depicting understandings using words or Google Draw.

Another sensemaking strategy and NGSS hallmark is the use of productive discussions. Prior to distance learning last year, we held whole-class productive discussions during STEM time. These discussions usually occurred after student work groups completed activities related to figuring out a phenomenon. Our discussions always had a clearly defined purpose, lasted approximately 5-10 minutes, and were considered “special times” when we listened and shared at a peer level. I facilitated the discussion to ensure students were verbalizing understandings of their findings and thoughts, receiving feedback, and making connections between shared thoughts.

We can still have this valuable discourse, even if teaching and learning remotely. Video conferencing and recording platforms such as Zoom, Google Meets, Padlet, Flipgrid, and Seesaw offer opportunities for an entire class to meet for discussion. Since last year’s distance learning, platforms have improved their support systems for explaining how to use the features they offer. If we use writing templates and graphic organizers that enable students to initially explore their ideas and wonderings, students will then have the confidence to carry out productive discourse with their classmates.

This upcoming year has many complexities that make instructional planning a challenge. As science educators, we have a responsibility to create an environment where student questions drive the learning and students make connections and brainstorm possible testing scenarios to provide data that will serve as the basis for evidence to support their ideas. Maybe relying solely on electronic resources will impede the ultimate environment we are trying to create. Maybe we need to pare down the writing templates and graphic organizers and have students physically write in a science notebook.

As stated before, students need time to discover their individual noticings and wonderings to build their confidence for collaborative sharing. I know writing in a notebook is not a new concept, but maybe it is the key to balancing screen time and toggling demands of the coming year. Maybe the notebook can serve as a scaffolded sensemaking tool for some students.

Empowering our students with independent sensemaking strategies is crucial for meeting this year’s challenges. With a little effort and creativity, we can still honor the reforms recommended by our new science standards and do so collaboratively to prevent our young students from feeling isolated.


Marcy Buchanan
Marcy Buchanan is an Inquiry Learning and Curriculum Area Specialist for Science at  Woodstock Community School District 200 in Woodstock, Illinois. She is part of a team for writing NGSS-aligned units and enjoys teaching the units during elementary students’ STEM time. She formerly taught middle school science and served as an Area Teacher Leader for the U.S. Department of Education STEM grant, facilitating reflection on NGSS with K-12 teacher and administrator groups across the state.

Note: This article is featured in the July 2020 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 sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

NGSS Teaching Strategies Three-Dimensional Learning Elementary

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