Meaning making is an idea that seems to resonate with lots of people studying learning or creating contexts for learning. We want visitors or students to make meaning of their experiences. As a construct, meaning making seems to be a way to capture the active elements of learning as well as the uniqueness of each learner’s prior experience and knowledge and the open ended nature of free-choice learning experiences in general.
But what do we really mean by meaning making? And how should we approach operationalizing it for research? For Vygotsky, meaning had two components – meaning proper and personal sense. The component of meaning in Vygotsky’s work focuses attention on the shared, distributed, what Bakhtin would call repeatable, and “public” denotations of a word, gesture, action or event. This is largely the aspect of meaning making that researchers have in mind when they are thinking about education. This approach to meaning encourages researchers to ask whether the students and learners are making the “right” meaning? Are the meanings that they are making recognizable and shareable with us, with more expert others, and with each other? Are they getting the content and ideas and concepts right? But this shared, public aspect is only a part of the whole of meaning that person makes.
For Vygotksy and generations of Activity Theorists, a more primary aspect of this shared, public, testable, and authoritative meaning is personal sense. The construct of personal sense attempts to capture the very personal, biographical, embodied, situated connotations of words, gestures, actions and events. This is the realm of what those things mean for us as part of our personal narratives about ourselves, our experiences, sense of place or even sense of ourselves. It is about how they resonate (or not) with our values, beliefs, judgments and knowledge. As learning researchers, we often discount or ignore this hugely important aspect of meaning making, and yet when people visit a museum or learn something new, this element of personal sense may be in the forefront of the experience. The realm of personal sense is where emotional experiences get burned into memory, where motivations and identities are negotiated, tried on, and appropriated or rejected. This is also the realm where we need the most help from learners as co-researchers. We can measure and document the meaning aspect of their meaning making relatively easily, but we rely on them to report about the personal sense they are making. As researchers, we should add to our documenting of the development of accurate and sharable meaning and develop serious ways to embrace the notion of reflection instead. Experiences that support meaning making as personal sense making are effective in supporting the overall learning process because they are essentially reflective.
What kinds of dialogues with learners most support that reporting are an open question to me right now. I’d welcome ideas here!