Sense-Making is the Core of NGSS

Written by Dr. Melissa A. Hogan on March 28, 2019

Now that the previous blog helped us gain a stronger understanding of the three dimensions of Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), let’s shift our attention to the key innovation for NGSS: sense-making.

What is Sense-Making in NGSS?

Science is fundamentally about making sense of the natural world. Sense-making is the conceptual process in which a learner actively engages with the natural or designed world, wonders about it, and then develops, tests, and refines ideas.

We often use the phrase “figure something out.” When you are trying to figure something out, you are trying to make sense of it. You are engaged in the process of sense-making. Essentially, sense-making is about actively trying to figure out the way the world works (for scientific questions) and exploring how to create or alter things to achieve design goals (for engineering questions).

Integrating Sense-Making with Knowledge

NGSS is shifting instruction away from simply knowing science to emphasizing using science and engineering practices to make sense of the world or solve problems.

Information-based instruction is still important: we still want our students to know science. Students must have information in order to make sense of the information. The converse is not true–students can know information without being able to make sense of it. Take Figure 1 for example. A student could memorize and “know” all of the words/terms in the diagram, without having any understanding of what those terms do or mean. The result is that students may know science without being able to use it–which is what NGSS aims to correct.

Figure 1.

image 5470da27e74a4055bd8e95cd7337dd52

In traditional science classrooms, an observer might be sparked to ask, “What are you learning about right now?” and receive responses such as, “We are learning about photosynthesis.” The observer’s question and the students’ remote response are indicative of how science was taught in the past: through learning and memorizing of facts. The goal of NGSS is for observers to walk into our reformed science classrooms today and ask, “What are you trying to figure out right now?” and receive responses such as, “We’re trying to figure out how the tiny seed becomes this huge oak tree.” This type of observation and student response exemplifies the reformed NGSS classroom: students are figuring out the world and using sense-making in the classroom.

Sense-Making Ties the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs) Together

As we discussed in our previous blog, there are three categories of Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs): Investigating Practices, Sense-Making Practices, and Critiquing Practices. SEPs are how we build, test, refine, and use knowledge to either investigate or solve problems.

Figure 2.

McNeill, Katsh-Singer & Pelletier, 2015

While sense-making is its own dedicated SEP category, the sense-making process ties the SEPs together. Sense-making is part of investigating and critiquing practices, too, and you need all of the SEPs in order to make sense of the world. The SEPs always operate in conjunction with each other—never in isolation—and sense-making is the common thread.

Figure 3.

Schwarz, C. V., Passmore, C., & Reiser, B. J. (2017)

Let’s look at an example. Figure 4 shows the sense-making process that NGSS guides students to follow as they try to figure things out.

Figure 4.

The process essentially boils down to these four questions:

  1. What are we trying to figure out?
  2. How will we figure it out?
  3. How do we keep track of what we are figuring out?
  4. How does it all fit together? What does it mean?

Notice how SEPs from the other categories are used in students’ sense-making process. Sense-making is both used throughout the SEPs, and cannot be accomplished without the other SEPs.

Developing and Using Models (SEP 2) as an Anchor Practice

There are three SEPs under the “Sense-Making Practices” category: Analyzing and Interpreting Data (SEP 4), Constructing Explanations (SEP 5), and Developing and Using Models (SEP 2). Developing and Using Models is extremely important: it is a productive anchor for all of the other science and engineering practices–or, a vehicle by which the other SEPs can be learned.

Figure 5.

Rich Hedman & Cindy Passmore, 2013

Figure 5 illustrates the connection of Developing and Using Models (SEP 2) with all of the other SEPs:

  • Models help identify questions and predict answers (SEP 1)
  • Models help point to empirical investigations (SEP 3)
  • Models are the filter through which data are interpreted (SEP 4)
  • Models are revised and applied to “answer” or explain, predict and solve (SEP 4 & SEP 6)
  • We use Mathematics to formulate some models and mathematical reasoning to evaluate models (SEP 5)
  • Argumentation is involved in both developing and evaluating models (SEP 7)
  • Models hold and organize relevant information and become the focus of communicating ideas (SEP 8)

Models are broadly defined as a set of ideas about how something in the world works. Essentially, models are the tools we use for visualizing and making sense of the natural world. Using models throughout instruction not only helps students learn the other SEPs, but also helps students understand how and when models can be used to figure out something in the world around them–now and in the future.

Applying Sense-Making & Developing and Using Models to the Classroom

Like we said, NGSS is moving instruction away from just providing resources for students to learn or memorize–and toward helping students “figure out.” That means one of the most important shifts for teachers in transitioning into NGSS is learning how to facilitate the sense-making process with students. This shift allows students to make sense of phenomena and problems in the classroom (which demonstrates a deep understanding of the three dimensions).

This often raises a really good question: How? How do I start shifting my instruction from focusing on information to focusing on sense-making?

Models in science serve as the functional unit of scientific thought. A core model can anchor science instruction that includes all of the NGSS science and engineering practices. Simply put: developing and using models are a powerful tool educators can use to start the transition to a sense-making classroom.


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