Effective learning involves sensemaking
Associate Professor Stephen Smith, Sydney College of Divinity, Discipline Coordinator for Christian Life and Ministry, believes that educators who ignore the human need to “make sense” of their world lose an opportunity to take into account the learner’s motivation priorities, previous knowledge, work/life situation, professional needs, and desired areas of development. All are powerful internal drivers for learning.
Effective Learning Involves Individual and Group Sensemaking
Ultimately, useful learning will help students make sense of their world. Sensemaking is a well-established theoretical framework whereby people give meaning to experience. It is a way that we deal with ambiguity and uncertainty. In our personal lives, we all do it intuitively every day. To become an effective method for formal learning, it must be intentional and explicit. As Weick and Sutcliffe found, “to deal with ambiguity interdependent people search for meaning, settle for plausibility, and move on. These are moments of sensemaking.” Sensemaking occurs individually and in groups. Conversation is a powerful way of creating shared understanding because “sensemaking is a way station on the road to a consensually constructed, coordinated system of action”. In sensemaking, we talk mutual understanding into existence.
Effective sensemaking is built on certain foundations (inspired by Weick 1995):
- Always seeking plausibility. Sensemaking seeks plausibility more than accuracy—a workable, useful level of understanding to guide action rather than a search for an empirical universal truth. As Weick wrote, “in an equivocal, postmodern world, infused with the politics of interpretation and conflicting interests and inhabited by people with multiple shifting identities, an obsession with accuracy seems fruitless, and not of much practical help, either.”
- Grounded in self-identity and world view. Who people think they are (self-awareness) in their context shapes how they interpret events and choose to act. Their general orientation projects self into their environment. People notice and extract cues from the environment and interpret those cues in light of values, beliefs, experiences, narratives and mental models. My thoughts follow familiar patterns that shape what I notice to comply with my wider framework for understanding my world. Who I am is revealed in what and how I think—and what I think is revealed in who I am.
- Continuous dialogue and building on past assumptions. Individuals simultaneously shape, and are shaped by, the relational forces around them: My dialogue is ongoing, emerges over time, competes for attention, is reflected upon in hindsight and is subject to change. How we view the present is shaped by our past thoughts, feelings and experiences: To learn what we think, we look back on the patterns of thinking, feeling and acting in the past.
- Acquiring knowledge for action. The role of conversation, stories and social processes are vital to the process of discovery. Shared meaning is created through shared narrative based on shared experience. People weigh up, assess and give weight to their construction of reality through the use of recalled stories in dialogue. I select my narrative to reveal perceived reality as I construct it.
Educators who ignore the human need to “make sense” of their world lose an opportunity to take into account the learner’s motivation priorities, previous knowledge, work/life situation, professional needs, and desired areas of development. All are powerful internal drivers for learning.
 D. A. Gioia, and K. Chittipeddi, “Sensemaking and Sensegiving in Strategic Change Initiation,” Strategic Management Journal 12.4 (1991): 433–48; G. Patriotta, “Sensemaking on the Shop Floor: Narratives of Knowledge in Organizations,” Journal of Management Studies 40.2 (2003): 349–76; J. Taylor and E. Van Every, The Emergent Organization (New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000); K. Weick, Sensemaking in Organizations (London: Sage, 1995); K. Weick and K. Sutcliffe (Managing the Unexpected. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001).
 Weick and Sutcliffe, Managing the Unexpected , 419.
 J. Taylor and E. Van Every, The Emergent Organization (New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000), 275.
 Weick, Sensemaking in Organizations, 61.