Sense-making and sense-giving: What makes sense for me has to make sense for you

It has been quite a while since I last wrote here, but it doesn`t mean that I haven`t been doing any thinking about current issues involving teachers, especially what is going on in the private ESL market. Therefore, in this month’s post, I briefly discuss how private organizations may impact our beliefs about what we do and how these ideas may be deconstructed.

As I write these lines, many schools and English language institutes in Brazil are being taken over and are being ‘reformatted’ by other companies, a.k.a. holdings, a more accurate technical term for companies that own other companies` stocks, brand names, and trademarks, among other assets, including us teachers.  This has been happening in Brazil for a while. Hospitals, clinical analysis lab chains, and other businesses, some of which used to be family owned, now belong to holdings and have had their business operations, their policies changed and their mission statements rewritten to resonate with the culture of their holding companies. I must admit, however, that words like takeover, dividends, subsidiaries, and fixed assets were just part of the business textbook glossaries back in the day when I taught in-company courses.

Only when these concepts became part of my routine as a teacher, did they begin to make sense to me. And that’s where the concepts of sense-making and sense-giving came into play. Back then, I didn`t have a name for them, but these two concepts struck deep into me as my school policies rapidly changed.  So, what is the concept of sense-making and sense-giving? In his article, Huemer (2012) explains that sense-making is “the process by which people give meaning to experience (Weick, 1995 as cited in Huemer, 2012:241) while sense-giving “consists of attempts to alter and influence the way others think and act” (Huemer, 2012:241).

We all do it all the time. When we need to justify why we do something that benefits us, we choose to highlight certain meanings over others. For example, think of homework as an idea. Common sense tells us that students benefit from doing homework regularly. The benefits of homework are somewhat debatable, but it is not only our students who may benefit from their homework assignments. Ultimately, our institutions benefit from regular homework in that parents expect their children to develop good study habits and would like the school to help them in this process.  We teachers benefit from homework, too. We are more likely to be regarded as effective teachers when we get our students to do it.  So, how do we communicate this to our students so that they do their homework assignments?

We highlight the fact that homework helps our students practice their English instead of stressing on the fact that we will be more valued as teachers if they do it. Both pieces of information are equally valid, but we choose one piece of information over the other. Our students might challenge us by creating other meanings for homework and by highlighting the fact that homework eats up free time and that it prevents them from being creative. We then try to change their perspective by pointing out that they are the ones who will gain something from it, and thus, help them make sense of something they actually dislike.  Our arguments will perhaps motivate them to do exactly what we want.  This is just an example, but there are so many things we repeatedly tell ourselves and others that we end up believing them as the whole truth.

 Likewise, some organizational values may be highlighted while others may be set aside so that we focus on the ones that are important for the organization. For example, at a certain school, we are told we are valued for our contributions rather than being told we may need to work overtime and sacrifice family time to contribute with more if we we want to be valued.  Schools may make us focus on the former and neglect the latter so that we make sense of the amount of time we spend on planning class projects and school parties.

Takeovers have been happening for a long time, which means that teachers need to grapple with a large array of new policies and routines, and yet, make sense of them.  Carrying out one-size-fits-all class projects that market the school rather than cater for the needs of a particular group of students may become a new routine. Likewise, top-down decisions and programs that label teachers according to student satisfaction surveys in order promote competition — rather than collaboration, is another trademark of some organizations.  Many core values and practices, such as competition between teachers and student retention strategies, are borrowed from other business areas which often have very little to do with education. However, these new policies are often communicated in ways that lead teachers to see only what the institution wants them to see.

Well, the good news is that we can always think critically about policies, mission statements, and company values and not take them at their face value, but try to see the actual values and beliefs behind them. We certainly benefit from our careers, our jobs and our income, but we also need to consider the ways in which organizations construct meaning and how we construct meaning together with the organizations we work for rather than simply consume  ideas as absolute truths.



Huemer, Lars. Organizational identities in networks: Sense-giving and sense-taking in the salmon farming industry.  In: The IMP Journal, vol. 6 issue 3, 2012. Available at:

Teresa Carvalho

Teresa holds a B.A. in Linguistics from USP and Delta Modules 1 and 2 Certificates. She has been teaching for over 25 years and has presented at webinars and at both local and international Conferences, including ABCI, IATEFL, and the Image Conference. She also holds a Specialization degree in English Language from PUC-Rio. She is interested in visual literacy and in language development for teachers of English as a foreign language. She is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Language Studies and is conducting research in the role of images in the construction of identity.

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