Global Sensemaking

Tools for Dialogue and Deliberation on Wicked Problems

As part of thinking through our SocialLearn platform for socially-based, informal and formal learning, I am pondering the overlaps and differences between sensemaking and learning, in theory and practice. In my view, SL as a platform designed to connect learners with each other via common learning goals, interoperable with many Web 2.0 tools, could be a potential GSm platform for analysts and subject matter experts working on a wicked problem.

I'd like to do some kind of mapping between e-learning pedagogy models, and sensemaking models. Meantime, if anyone has good resources to point to that bridge these two worlds, then let me know.

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Comment by George E. Mobus on July 12, 2008 at 1:50
Boy Simon, this has been one of my concerns as well. I come at it from the "mental models" perspective and learning as the construction of mental models. I had not run across the term sensemaking until I joined up with this tribe. But as I've been digging it seems to me that model making and sense making are essentially one in the same. The purpose of a mental model is basically the same as any external model that we build (as an aid to thinking) and that is to understand the world (phenomena) in the sense that we can either make predictions or anticipate future states of the world by running our models fast forward. Jack Park and I have both been interested in Robert Rosen's work in anticipatory systems.

Learning, as constructing said models, is a subject I have pursued and I can point to some literature on that. But this has been mostly geared to "natural" learning as opposed to school learning in which, these days, the objective isn't to make sense of the world. It is to memorize bits and pieces of it, at least as practiced by most high school and many college educators. I have a great deal to say about education in the US, not much of it kind.

People naturally learn because they are motivated to make sense of the world in which they live in order to adapt and behave appropriately. We see students do just that when they learn to game the education system by figuring out what the teacher wants and then giving them that for the good grade.

Over the last several years I have adopted a discovery-based, integrated knowledge framework based on systems science wherein I act as guide after giving a project that requires the student to delve into subject from many angles - a transdiciplinary approach. I've been trying to bring out their natural learning (model building) and getting some pretty good results. But this will not help you with e-learning pedagogy I'm afraid.

But what might help is the fact that I have found that teaching students mapping concepts helps them explore and keep track of the subject matter. I just taught a course last quarter called "Maps of the World and of the Mind" that covered a wide variety of map applications from geography to concepts. The students unanimously proclaimed it one of the best courses they had taken (ever!) Some of them mentioned that it helped them make sense of things!

If you are interested in the mental models stuff (and you haven't already looked into it) and if and when I get back to my office I can find some of my references. Don't know how much help they would be. I'm still trying to make sense of it myself!
Comment by Jack Park on July 12, 2008 at 14:59
I second what George said. In a past life, I built a program called The Scholar's Companion (TSC). It was, best to read this sitting down, an evolutionary programming qualitative process theoretic discovery system. Don't say I didn't warn you. The system was my attempt to do a rational reconstruction of Douglas Lenat's Eurisko progam (evolutionary programming, frame-based AI system) using Ken Forbus' Qualitative Process Theory as an underlying paradigm. I built it to do modeling with a theatrical metaphor: you set a stage with actors, relations, and states, then you ask a body of process rules to fire against that stage. If a rule fires, a new stage is set with whatever changes the fired rule creates. Each new stage is called an episode, and it is wired back to the previous episode, and the previous episode maintains links to all of its next episodes. Thus, you build an envisionment, which I call a model. TSC was used to research and defend a PhD thesis at University of Dayton around 1995, and was also used in modeling of immune responses and in other biomedical fields.
Why did I say all that? Because I think that this approach to using a computer to model things is appropriate to learning along several dimensions. One is in the classroom. I wrote a simple template-parsing "natural language" interface to TSC; my then 7 year old daughter used it to describe what we would call a simple Linnaean description of an imagined universe that included mammals, fish, birds, and one particular human, her. The program parsed her sentences, built an internal representation of her descriptions, then painted a tree. She got it wrong on the first pass, figured out where her sentences didn't make sense, and reconstructed them to better reflect her ideas. This is very much along the same lines as Novak's concept mapping, except done by a model building tool from sentences written by kids. It's a start. More importantly, the very same system was used later in a high school biology classroom in Dayton Ohio with a built in model of immune response; learners would query the system to find out how an immune system responds to various antigens.
TSC can be "taught" process rules related to nearly any domain that can be modeled that way. Thus, it can be used in both learning and sensemaking (which I happen to think are one and the same thing).
Comment by Jack Park on July 12, 2008 at 15:02
At my wiki blog, I provide links to a variety of things, one of which is a one-hour video of Michael Wesch talking about the future of education. I think those links provide a lot of useful information that relates directly to sensemaking. Apparently, George Mobus things so too.
About GSm: the links I provide would give us, I think, a good starting point for a dialogue map (asynchronous, long term) on the future of education.
Comment by Robert Parks on July 12, 2008 at 20:13
I'm glad Simon raised this issue explicitly. Multiple meanings of the same term create semantic issues; and multiple terms for the same concept can also skew the discussion. In this case, I think the concepts are closely related, but not identical; which makes the territory rich and worth exploring.

George's class on maps and mental models seems quite interesting.
And Jack's TSC is fascinating. I'm interested in a tool that allows research (learning/sensemaking) that is (1) personal (not inherently social, since I may not want to share undeveloped thoughts; (2) historical (i.e., keeps track of the changes in the model, in order to track the changes/development of my understanding; (3) sharable (in the way Jack has suggested "subject maps" allows federation of knowledge).
Comment by Robert Parks on July 12, 2008 at 20:17
My conclusion is that a note taking utility, similar to Google's "Notebook" or Zotero, is at the center of the sensemaking process. Any thoughts on how to develop such a tool? I'd like to have a dictionary at the core of this notetaking tool, both as a reference support, and as an index of the quotations I would collect illustrating different uses/definitions of terms.
Comment by Jack Park on July 12, 2008 at 20:57
I should clarify my parenthetical comments to wit: learning and sensemaking are not the same thing; rather, I suspect they share the same processes, but, perhaps, with different goals. Note taking is clearly one of the important processes. I'm playing with both zotero and diigo.com.

But, in some sense, little of this responds directly to some question Simon posed. In a direct sense, he asked for references: crowd-sourcing at work. In another sense, he said "Sensemaking vs. Learning" which, perhaps, entails the question: what differentiates the two?

Happy to start a thread on TSC, best, I suspect, over on the wiki.
Comment by Robert Parks on July 12, 2008 at 22:59
Regarding the differences between "sensemaking" and "learning". First, "sensemaking" is a coinage linked with academic theories. It is a gerund, while in ordinary language we might use the verbal phrase construction "making sense out of" something. When we "make sense out of" something, it starts as an undifferentiated mass of information. On the other hand, when we say someone "learns" something, we usually mean acquiring knowledge someone else already has worked out and made available. When the learning occurs in the context of an undifferentiated mass of information, we might be more likely to say we are "discovering" something rather than learning something - although we certainly have learned what we discovered. This is the territory I think Pierce wants to identify with the cognitive process of "abduction".

Consider two general approaches to truth (and meaning and knowledge): the "reference" theory focuses on how close one gets to an objective reality that is referred to; the "coherence" theory focuses on how close one gets to a model that brings a world and a way of life into balance, regardless of how precisely objective each component of the system of knowledge may be. The former approach involves building models in relation to an objective criterion, established and maintained by a community. The later approach builds on "personal/tacit knowledge". My sense is that when people use the term "learning", they usually mean acquiring the shared concepts of a community. But "sensemaking" might end with a model that is internally coherent, but at odds with the community's understanding. Thus, "sensemaking" seems easier to apply to the stage of inquiry where we're generating hypotheses (abduction); while "learning"
Comment by Andy Streich on July 13, 2008 at 1:18
Bob, I eagerly await the completion of your thought. (If you didn't notice, it seems your comment got chopped off.)
Comment by Andy Streich on July 13, 2008 at 3:06
Above Bob says, "I'm interested in a tool that allows research (learning/sensemaking) that is (1) personal (not inherently social, since I may not want to share undeveloped thoughts; (2) historical (i.e., keeps track of the changes in the model, in order to track the changes/development of my understanding; (3) sharable (in the way Jack has suggested 'subject maps' allows federation of knowledge)."

I'm interested in building that tool, mostly because I think those three attributes fit for me and many other people too. They also have direct analogs in the software development world (where I've been living most of my professional life).

Bob again: "My conclusion is that a note taking utility, similar to Google's "Notebook" or Zotero, is at the center of the sensemaking process. Any thoughts on how to develop such a tool? I'd like to have a dictionary at the core of this notetaking tool, both as a reference support, and as an index of the quotations I would collect illustrating different uses/definitions of terms."

As a new Zotero user I'm alread a fan but a frustrated one, as always there's more stuff I'd like it to do. I think a new tool might be built on top of Zotero or incorporating it.

Can you say some more about what it means to have a dictionary at the core? How would it interact with the tool? Does the tool interact, say, with your dictionary/thesuaus @ WordSmyth?
Comment by Simon Buckingham Shum on July 15, 2008 at 8:32
Hi all -- I'm still processing your constructive commentary on this, but in parallel have posted these thoughts on Sensemaking, resilience, and liminal space to my blog...

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