Storyline Phase 3: Learning As Meaning-Making


Storyline Phase 3:  Sense-Making

Simply engaging students in exploration is time wasted if they aren’t actually making meaning from it. It’s vital we support our students in sense-making while they are initially exploring as well as afterward, as they synthesize their understanding and move into application.

Questioning is the primary method you are going to use to support student meaning-making. While you may provide some observations if students get stuck, limiting your interactions to questions allows the students to step into the meaning-maker role that is reserved for the teacher in most traditional science classrooms.

Phase One of Meaning-Making: Understanding

There are two phases to meaning-making. In the first phase, students are trying to understand new observations, information, or data.  Questions from the teacher are designed to help students focus on important aspects, identify patterns or other relationships (cause and effect, for example), and make connections between elements in the activity.  Teacher might ask, “What patterns do you see?” “What might be happening that you can’t see (the unobservable level)?” “What might happen if you changed this or that?”

If students get stuck, the teacher might make observations. “I noticed that this line is rising. What might that mean? What might be causing that?” “Let’s focus our attention on this part of the map.” “I wonder how this factor might affect your results.”

By the end of your phase one discussions, students should have a general understanding of the simple concept you have focused on. 



In my example from yesterday’s exploration, my students should understand that the light is more concentrated and brighter when it hits the basketball (aka Earth) directly.  It is more dispersed and fainter when it hits the basketball/Earth at an angle (due to the shape of the ball). 


Phase Two of Meaning-Making: Connection

In this phase, students are connecting their discoveries to bigger scientific ideas – and specifically, to their phenomenon.  Meaning-making here is a much riskier activity, and students may balk at the task. That said, it’s incredibly important that students are involved and active participants in these discussions. It can be really easy to slip back into our “teacher role” and step onto the stage. Do your best to keep your students’ ideas front and center.

[SIDE NOTE: In this lesson’s bonus training, I’ll share my best tips on structuring these discussions to encourage student involvement and therefore maximize student learning.]

That said, you are the facilitator, so your job is definitely to get the conversation flowing. You might begin with a review of what students discovered during their exploration.  I have found starting with the basics is best. Review the observations they made, patterns and connections they noticed, and the ideas they walked away with. Then, using their words, ask them to connect those ideas to your initial phenomenon.

For example, I would ask students to share what they discovered about the flashlight and our basketball Earth.  A student shares, “The light was more straight-on in the middle of the basketball.” 

At this point, I might ask, “Did anyone else notice this?” Work to bring others into the conversation — supporting, adding to, or even if necessary respectfully disagreeing with each other’s ideas. 

Perhaps another student adds, “Yes, and I noticed it was brighter there.  When it shined on the top or bottom areas of the basketball, the light was less bright and more spread out.” (Remember, we aren’t looking for scientific terminology yet!) 

In response, I might summarize, “So you noticed the light was hitting different parts of the basketball differently. Did anyone else notice this?” 

Once we have reached consensus on how the light hit the basketball differently, we are ready to connect these ideas to our initial phenomenon – our temperature map. “Ok, let’s consider what we learned and see if it helps us understand the temperature differences we saw on our map.” 

Discussion then turns to making connections between the modeling activity and the map (our data). As facilitators, we want to summarize student responses, encourage agreement and/or disagreement, and help students identify questions they still have. We don’t want to slip into “explanatory mode” and tell them how it all works.

When does that happen, you ask? Ideally, our students are doing the explaining across the board. But obviously, there comes a time to provide vocabulary and additional content information.  In general, when your students have reached consensus on a scientific idea or explanation of the phenomenon, this is when you can step in and give them the scientific vocabulary or the concise explanation.  It happens in bits and pieces throughout your unit — as you wrap up a discussion, when you move into reading a text or watching a short video. 

In our very basic storyline, once my students have discovered those big ideas I outlined on day one for themselves (and this might include more than one exploration!), I would likely provide my students a text that summarizes these concepts. Alternatively, I might do a short guided notes activity.  The purpose of these tasks is not to teach the ideas (students should already have a good idea of how it works!) but rather to present them in a concise way that supports review.  We all need to see and hear ideas more than once, and this is one tool to reiterate those ideas to students simply and succinctly. 



Your homework for today is to craft your questions to guide understanding. Complete the organizer linked in the lesson materials tab to document your ideas (prefer to go digital? Use the Google Doc instead). [NOTE: This is the same organizer you started in Lesson 2!]

  1. For the first stage of meaning-making, identify what your students must observe and the connections they must make. Then, craft questions that will help them do just that without giving any answers away. Keep your questions open-ended.  They are “nudges” in the right direction — not closed questions with obvious right or wrong answers.
  2. For the second stage of meaning-making, outline the connections you want students to make between their exploration and the storyline phenomenon. Develop a series of questions to guide students there, considering how they might answer each question and how you might respond.  Draft a few question stems to encourage discourse amongst students. Our goal is for students to talk to each other – not just you, the teacher. 
  3. Finally, consider how you will make these ideas visible.  It is always helpful for students to document their understandings, as they will change, evolve, and grow over time.  Documenting what has been discovered and learned creates a tool students can refer to later as the storylines become more complex and they are synthesizing evidence from many investigations to explain even larger phenomena. 

For the last day, let’s connect again in our Facebook group. For real, reach out if you’re struggling with this questioning process. While it does get easier, creating these open-ended guiding questions is a real challenge at first.  We tend to fall back on those closed, right/wrong approaches, which effectively shut down discussion for students.

If you’re feeling brave, share some of the questions you’ve created, add a hashtag your post #bootcampday3, and feel free to tack on any questions YOU are having so far with this process.