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Thinking Together and Making Meaning


Making meaning is creating a shared perception of events that helps us all get more of what we want when what we want is good for all of us. Dialogue plays a key role in making meaning and thinking together. The purpose of dialogue is "seeking mutual understanding and harmony." Dialogue is also seen as initiating team learning so the team members gain the ability to suspend assumptions and enter into genuine "thinking together" (Yankelovich, 1999, p.14).

Checklist of Observable Behaviors

___ 1. Using dialogue

___ 2. Inquiry

___ 3. Advocating

___ 4. Suspending judgment

___ 5. Finding value in all members of the team (key words: value all team members)

___ 6. Helping members who need support (key words: provide support as needed)

___ 7. Positively influencing other team members (key words: positively influencing others)


            Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline – The art & practice of the learning organization. New York : Currency Doubleday.

            Yankelovich, D. (1999). The magic of dialogue: Transforming conflict into cooperation. New York: Simon & Schuster.


To portray thinking together and making meaning, a teacher might make use, for instance, of a videotape of the film Dances With Wolves, directed by Kevin Costner. A good example of thinking-together skills is the scene in which the Sioux gather around the fire trying to decide what to do about the white man, John Dunbar. After playing the scene, the teacher may ask the students questions about what kind of behaviors they noticed in the dialogue. Then they can discuss and try to define ideas about dialogue, inquiry, suspending judgment, finding value in all members of the group, and positively influencing other members of the group through advocacy. The class definitions may be something like the following:

Dialoguing is seen as a process of speaking and listening between two or more people in a way that allows the participants to change their minds or their thinking about a particular idea. It means building a deep understanding of a specific activity or event so that the participants’ thinking is as good as it can be.

Inquiry is a process of gathering information about a particular idea or event in a way that allows you to have as accurate an understanding of it as possible. The skills of inquiry include observing, describing, comparing, identifying, associating, inferring, predicting, and applying.

Advocacy is openly stating beliefs and reasons for your beliefs so others can understand completely what you are saying and exposing any weaknesses in your beliefs.

By suspending judgment, you put your own thinking on hold in an effort to listen carefully so that you can fully understand the other person’s thinking. 

Finding value in all the members of the group means to appreciate that others have a different perspective based on different experiences, beliefs, and values, and that it may help you get more out of the situation to fully understand someone else’s position, shared values, and beliefs.

Helping members who need support means showing clear concise communication, telling the truth, being dependable, being predictable, being capable, emphasizing similarities and looking for mutual benefit.

Positively influencing others through advocacy is openly stating beliefs and reasons for your beliefs so others can understand completely what you are saying and why you are exposing any weaknesses in your beliefs. In this way, your beliefs can be collectively examined and strengthened (Callahan, 1998).

Then the teacher might use a role-play activity. The students might be assigned to play the roles of Native Americans, each trying in their turn to think together and create a shared perception of the situation. Here are some of the roles and dialogue from this movie scene:

Wind In His Hair:

"I do not care for this talk about a white man. Whatever he is, he is not a Sioux and that makes him less. When I hear that more whites are coming, I want to laugh. We took a hundred horses from these people. There was no honor in it. They don’t ride well. They don’t shoot well. They’re dirty. These soldiers could not even make it through one winter here. And these people are said to flourish? I think they will all be dead soon. I think this fool is probably lost."

Kicking Bird:

"Wind In His Hair’s words are strong and I have heard them. It’s true the whites are a poor race and hard to understand. But make no mistake. The whites are coming. Even our enemies agree on this. So when I see one man alone without fear in our country . . .  I do not think he is lost. I think he may have medicine. I see someone who might speak for all the white people who are coming. I think this is a person with which treaties might be struck."

Native American 1:

"Kicking Bird is always looking ahead and that is good. But this man cannot cover our lodges or feed our children. He is nothing to us. I will take some men. We will shoot some arrows into this white man. If he truly has medicine, he will not be hurt. If he has no medicine he will be dead."

Native American 2:

"No man can tell another what to do. But killing a white man is a delicate matter. If you kill one, more are sure to come."

Native American 3:

"It’s easy to become confused by these questions. It’s hard to know what to do. We should talk about this some more. That is all I have to say."


            Callahan, W. (1998). The individual's tools of making meaning [On-line]. Available: [April 17, 2001]

            Costner, K. (Producer & Director). (1990). Dances with wolves [Videotape]. Orion Pictures.