Sense-Making Practices in Science:

Case Study of an ESL Teacher

Warren, Beth, Gillian M. Puttick, Faith Conant, and Ann S. Rosebery. Hands On! vol. 15 no. 2, pp. 4-5, 19, Fall 1992.

Implementing a sense-making approach to science can be challenging for teachers. Scientific sense-making is driven by students' questions rather than by textbooks or curricula. Scientific ideas stem from students' thoughts and activity; they are constructed jointly by the classroom community (students and teacher) through scientific argument rather than received from an outside authority. As a result, teachers find themselves charting new territory in the classroom; taking on roles of fellow scientist, model, critic, and occasionally even lab assistant; and, of equal importance, helping to structure new roles for students.

In an earlier Hands 0n! article,* we discussed how language minority students in one classroom used a sensemaking approach to science to learn scientific ways, of thinking, talking, and knowing. This class of 7th and 8th grade Haitian students conducted the Water Taste Test to explore their belief that the water from one fountain was superior to the water from the other fountains in the school. In the process, they designed their own studies; collected, analyzed and interpreted data; built and argued theories; and evaluated evidence.

Here, we discuss the implications of scientific sense-making for teacher development through a case study of one teacher. What do teachers need to know and understand in order to create and sustain sense-making communities in the classroom? What are some of the problems they encounter? Although this case study portrays a teacher of language minority students, we have found the approach to be equally successful with teachers and students in English-speaking classes (K-8). We believe the approach is successful with a diverse population because it allows learners to investigate their own questions and, under the teacher's guidance, to acquire scientific practices similar to those of professional scientists.

In the project Studies of Sense-Making in Biology in Language Minority Classrooms, TERC staff are collaborating with teachers of Haitian and Latino students from the Cambridge and Boston Public Schools to explore scientific sense-making and ways to engender it in the classroom. Currently, we are working with eight teachers (grades 4 to 8): six bilingual teachers, one English as a Second Language teacher, and a science specialist. The teachers, with the exception of the science specialist, have no formal background in science and typically have not taught science before.

The backbone of the project is a seminar in which teachers and TERC researchers collaborate to analyze and reflect on scientific sense-making and its relationship to teaching and learning. In the seminar we do science. We puzzle over dilemmas, pose questions, develop evidence, frame theories, design investigations, interpret data, and evaluate observations. As part of our practice, we also explore what science is; how scientific knowledge is constructed; where theories come from; what constitutes evidence; and the relationships among observations, theory, and evidence. Thus, a major goal of the seminar is for teachers to experience sense-making from the inside out. We believe that this kind of reflective scientific practice forms the basis for a critical rethinking of classroom practice.

During the 1991-92 school year the seminar explored aquatic ecosystems. Teachers and researchers spent several weeks observing water samples; making notes and drawings; identifying organisms; and noting questions, conjectures, and things that piqued their curiosity. Initially, the teachers had difficulty thinking about themselves as learners or as scientists. For example, they were perplexed in posing questions for investigation. Instead, they talked about their own science in the context of the classroom, worrying about the availability of appropriate background reading or science equipment.

A turning point in the seminar occurred when the group decided to study snails together in order to increase the depth and rigor of its science practice. We decided to investigate several questions in snail biology: How do snails develop? How do they reproduce? What do they eat? How do they move? Each member took home a snail aquarium and kept notes of observations and questions. We regularly shared our data and thinking with one another in the seminar.

During this time a shift began to take place in the teachers' stance toward science. They became engaged in sensemaking: in doing, thinking, and talking science. To illustrate this shift, we present two snapshots from the seminar experience of one teacher, Pat. In particular, we look at Pat's talk in the seminar at two different times for evidence of how her sense-making practices developed.

Pat is an English as a Second Language teacher with 25 years of experience. She co-teaches a combined bilingual class of 5th and 6th grade Haitian students with Sylvio, a bilingual teacher, and teaches ESL to a combined 7th and 8th grade. Pat took a few science courses in college to meet degree requirements and occasionally taught science as an elementary classroom teacher. Despite this, she was reluctant to join the project because she was unsure of her science knowledge and of her ability to teach science.

We begin by looking at a transcript of Pat's talk from a seminar meeting that took place January 9, 1992. The group had met six times before this and, prior to this meeting, the teachers observed snails at home. As the meeting opened, Pat shared her observations:

Pat: I would like to know if any one identified, or how ... people identified the snails that we have. I had thought it was a Helisoma from the pictures in here, did anyone else?

Beth (a researcher): What, Pat, made you particularly interested in identifying the kind of snail?

Pat:...there are so many different types and from the reading it said you can make it if you look at the snail's, ... if the opening is on the left side it is one kind of snail and if it's on the right side it's another kind of snail. And, ...I was trying to, and it just, it was identified. I would like to identify it. It's like naming somebody, you know, giving a name to something. I like doing that.... and also the reading was interesting to me. You know, I was able to look for the beating heart and the teeth and so forth....It just, it helped to guide me as far as... looking at it, and trying to find out something and seeing how it worked.

Gilly (a researcher): Could you see the teeth?

Pat: Yes, the little red thing....There are lots, you know. There are thousands of teeth and the teeth break off and then they grow more teeth. They're back and forth, I think. I guess I have to look again (referring to her notebook)... the radula....It moves back and forth very rapidly and grinds the food to clean it in the roof of this... buccal cavity. I reamed all sorts of vocabulary words. (Laughs.) That means stomach. (Laughs.) There are so many words I didn't know that I had my dictionary next to me looking up words.

Beth: Did you ever see a snail eating?

Pat: Sure...You could actually see it with the hand lens.... It was kind of munching and that's what it even says, it's munching. And then with all those teeth, there are thou...(reading in notebook), "The teeth may number in the thousands!" ... Pretty interesting. Who knows? (Laughs.)

This episode is striking in the way that Pat revealed her initial stance toward science and her perception of herself as a learner. She reported only those things for which she had found authoritative validation in an external scientific source, for example, quoting a passage about snails from a scientific manual and using technical words (radula, buccal cavity). In contrast, she reported just two things she herself had seen (e.g., "the little red thing," referring to the snail's mouth; and "it was kind of munching," referring to the snail's chewing action). These were her comments even though she had filled nine pages of her notebook with personal observations of snail anatomy and behavior. In her report, Pat emphasized what she had reamed from books because, at this point, she placed more value on what the books presented than on what she herself had seen. Pat called attention to her own uncertainty about herself as a doer of science and about the validity of the knowledge she constructed when, at the end of her report, she asked rhetorically, "Who knows?"

The next snapshot is from the meeting of February 13,1992. Since January, seminar members had been investigating reproduction, development, and feeding habits of various pond creatures. Pat had observed a leech with many babies attached to its stomach. In the following transcript, Pat reported her observations. interesting thing is that I had those same leeches in a petri dish for a few weeks.... The mother, the mother must have had, I don't know how many, she must have had more than 15 babies attached to her underbelly because we kept seeing them drop off. If it were put into heat, if I held them up to the light to look at them on the slide, a few would come off. We saw them come off here but none were living in the petri dish and I actually saw ---twice --- the large leech with a baby leech in its mouth. It was going in and out and then finally it was sucked in.... And I could find no baby leeches living in the petri dish. So I think that the parent, you know, the adults, were eating the small ones, which made me think they must be hungry. So I fed them. I took a larger snail but I killed the snail because they couldn't. The snail was able to knock the leech off so that it couldn't get into it to eat. Also the snail was so smart that it would go, the leech would be attached, the snail would go above e the water line so the leech had to drop off. So you know they knew they were after them. In fact, Sylvio [Pat's teaching partner] was asking. "Why are those snails up on the top of the jar lid so much?," and I wondered why) . Well, they were smart. They tried, they didn't want to be eaten. But once we put them into the larger, ... the deeper water and, ... I gave them to Sylvio to keep, ...the babies are growing now. So, they ate snail and now they don't have to eat the babies apparently!. But that's a question. I want to take, you all say you have some more leeches? So the question is, I'll keep some in a petri dish with ... adults, without food. Well. with the snails to eat, to see it they eat them then.

Pat's talk is markedly different from that of January . In February, she intertwined observational, conjectural, and experimental modes in one unbroken string of reflection. She was clearly thinking as she talked, ending her turn by spontaneously formulating an experiment--- the goal of which was to deepen her understanding of the conditions under which adult leeches eat their young. Perhaps the most striking change was that Pat now spoke as an authority. She was not talking through the texts she had read. Rather, she spoke distinctly as the author of her own observations, discoveries, conjectures, and experiments. Pat now had an answer to her earlier query, Who knows?

Interestingly, Pat did not simply report her observations as a set of events; rather she explained how her observations led her to particular hypotheses and beliefs about how the organisms interact. She immediately recognized one and possibly two questions implicit in her account (the conditions under which leeches eat their young; the conditions under which baby leeches can survive). Finally, she proposed an experiment to evaluate her tentative explanation ("But that's a question. I want to take...").

In March, Pat and the other teachers began to experiment with scientific sense-making in their classrooms. The seminar was clearly having a profound influence on the way Pat and her teaching partner, Sylvio, thought about science and science education. This was apparent from their classroom practice and reflection, which paralleled the seminar in many ways. For example, their students started an investigation by looking at various samples of pond water. They kept science notebooks in which they noted the organisms they saw, drew their structure, and described their movements and eating behaviors. As their observations deepened, the students began asking questions. Pat was delighted and impressed to find that her students' questions were similar to her own. They too asked questions about reproduction, sexuality, physical structure, development, and life cycle. With support from the other seminar members, Pat and Sylvio gradually helped their students shape their questions into scientific investigations. The class, for instance, had many questions about snail reproduction. One, in particular, became the focus of a year-end inquiry: At what size do snails make babies? The students designed their investigation so that each student had snails of a particular size (ranging from 1mm to 9mm) in a petri dish. They observed the snails daily to see if they had produced egg masses. In the end, the students concluded from their study that snails 7mm to 9mm in length were capable of reproduction.

In sum, we would like to reflect on how the science that Pat and the other teachers are doing in the seminar influences their classroom practice. We believe that the teachers are appropriating an "insider's view" of scientific practice, that is, firsthand knowledge of the ''ways that scientists think, act, and talk. We call it an insider's view because the teachers are directly experiencing and analyzing the kinds of problems scientists tackle, the methods and strategies they use, the frustrations they run into, and the thinking in which they engage. The knowledge the teachers construct is deeply personal; it is connected to their conceptions of what science is as well as their own identities as teachers and learners of science. This knowledge then becomes the foundation on which they begin to build classroom communities of scientific sense-making. We leave the final word to Pat, who expressed her vision of sensemaking this way in June 1992:

"It seems to me're teaching a certain, or they're learning, or you're learning together a certain way of being, of making sense. or of learning how to be scientific, that children never did before, that none of us probably did before in class.... You have microscopes and you have pond water and you have all these things that you've never seen before, all this wonderment around you. And you pick and choose, to ask questions, not have them answered but to go looking for evidence, setting up investigations....At least maybe in our classrooms they've learned a way of asking know, ...a certain way of being in the world."

* "Cheche Konnen: Scientific Sense-Making; in Bilingual Education," Hands 0n!, Spring 1992.


Selected Readings

Ashton-Warner, S. (1963). Teacher. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Brandt, R.S., & Meek, A. (Eds.). (1990). Creating a culture for change. Special Issue. Educational Leadership, 47(8).

Broderick, M., Chazan, D.I., Lawrence, S.M., Naso, P.A., & Starnes, B.A. (Eds.). (1988). For teachers about teaching. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Educational Review. (Reprint Series No. 20)

Duckworth, E. (1986). Teaching as research. Harvard Educational Review, 56(4), 481- 495.

Eisner, E. (Ed.). (1985). Learning and teaching the ways of knowing. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Fullan, M. (1982). The meaning of educational change. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hord, S.M., Rutherford, W.L., Huling-Austin, L., & Hall, G.E. (1987). Taking charge of change. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Joyce, B. & Weil, M. (1986). Models of teaching. (3rd ed.). Englewood, Cliffs, NJ: Prentice - Hall.

Moll, L. (1992). Bilingual classroom studies and community analysis: Some recent trends. Educational Researcher, 21(2), 20-24.

Okazawa-Rey, M., Anderson, J., & Traver, R. (Eds.). (1987). Teachers, teaching, and teacher education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Educational Review. (Reprint Series No. 19)

Paley, V.G. (1981). Wally's stories. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rosebery, AS., Warren, B., & Conant, F.R. (1991). Appropriating scientific discourse: Findings from language minority classrooms. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 2(1), 61-94. Also available as TERC Working Paper #1-92, January 1992.

Schon, D.A. (1983). The reflective practitioner. New York: Basic Books.

Schon, D.A. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


The authors wish to acknowledge all the teachers with whom they collaborate, in particular Pat Berkley and Sylvio Hippolite from the Graham and Parks Alternative School, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Dr. Beth Warren and Dr. Ann S. Rosebery are co-directors of Sense-Making in Biology in Language Minority Classrooms.

Gillian M. Puttick and Faith R. Conant are research associates.

Project staff also include Josiane Hudicourt-Barnes, Eric Johnson, and Amy Taber.

Reprinted from Hands On!, Fall 1992, Volume 15, Number 2 (TERC, Cambridge Massachusetts).

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