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!

It is that time again when the wheel of life spins very vividly and consciously in our minds. Another year has gone by and we turn to reflect on the things we did, did not do or wish we had done. It is a time of great emotional upwelling and energy renewal to continue this journey we are all in together, as we hold high hopes, expectations, wishes and commitments we have made to the future.

Have we moved forward in our professional lives? What were the stepping-stones we have jumped across? How many mountains are we still to climb? There is always going to be another one on the way. So it is important not to do it alone, and I think our group is unique in the sense that we really do it together, maybe not in synchrony but nonetheless together. I am grateful to have had everyone of you to share this turbulent academic life with.

Have we grown and learned as persons this last year? We are all individuals full of life and wonder, who bring so much meaning to life around. Were the meanings you constructed this year what you wished to construct? Maybe or maybe not, it does not only depend on you. We are in constant dialogue with ourselves and everything else around us, as Shawn discusses in his dialogicality explanation, the meanings we construct are not solely and absolutely meanings of our own.  Nonetheless they have real implications in our practical lives and I hope, when you look back in time today, you will feel your lives were indeed full of meaning.

What is 2014 reserving for us? We will never know until we come across it along the way, if there is something reserved at all. So build your wishes from the ground up, don’t get disappointed if your wishes are somewhat transformed along the way. Find meaning in all moments that come along, happy or sad, easy or frustrating, fulfilling or unrewarding, grab on to those pieces of an “out there” meaning puzzle for they are to become part of your own “meaning puzzle”.  Keep puzzling because that is what keeps the wheel going.

We are all in different places now, as some stayed home for the holidays, wherever home is, and some traveled to see family and friends in other states. Some will arrive at 2014 first as others wait in celebration, and we all will be celebrating in different ways. So I wanted to send you this New Year’s wish, a wish for an extraordinary time of making meaning and cherishing the people and the things around you contributing to that meaning.

If I was in Brazil at the beach today, I would be joining others in ritual and jumping waves at midnight for good luck, dancing our wishes and holding the hand of strangers in the hope for a better year and better times. I will close my eyes at the turn of the year and imagine I am jumping those waves. What will you be doing?

Have a wonderful day and see you all next week!