- Associated Press - Sunday, November 23, 2014

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - When University of Iowa education professor Brian Hand talks about the basic components of the Science Writing Heuristic approach he developed and has been teaching for the past 16 years - asking questions, gathering data, making claims - it doesn’t sound like a paradigm-shattering learning tool. It just sounds like good science.

Yet for thousands of science teachers around the world - along with more than 20,000 students - SWH training has meant throwing away old, tried-and-true lesson plans and adapting to an approach in which they won’t know for sure what tomorrow’s lesson plan will be until they’ve finished today’s science class, the Iowa City Press-Citizen (https://icp-c.com/1u689hE ) reported.

The approach may seem like common sense if you’re teaching a college science course, said Rhonda Lacina, a third-grade teacher at Lone Tree Community School who has been using Hand’s approach for five years. But elementary school teachers, Lacina said, typically are more comfortable posing the first question, providing the initial claims and leading the students through a tightly structured investigation.

When using Hand’s student-centered approach, however, a teacher opens a conversation/negotiation with his or her students about what questions they have, what steps the students would suggest taking, what conclusions they would draw from their data and how they would convey the results of their investigations in writing.

“When you go into an SWH classroom, what we’re really looking for is for students to be interacting with each other,” Hand said. “We want kids to be able to debate. We want kids to focus on questions, claims, evidence. We want to see the big ideas that are floating around the classroom. It’s not about just doing some repeated experiment; it’s about kids posing ideas.”

Hand said a teacher needs 18 months to two years of training to feel comfortable using his SWH approach. That training began at Lone Tree Elementary five years ago when the school was chosen to participate in a study of the efficacy of SWH in the classroom setting.

“(Brian Hand) basically made my brain hurt,” Lacina said of her initial summer training sessions at UI. “. He really pushed you to get to the root of your understanding about student learning.”

Lone Tree K-12 principal Amber Jacque said the new approach sometimes has caused her teachers “ripping their hair out” frustration over how to use SWF to achieve the specific standards set out in the Iowa Core and various assessment tests.

But Jacque said her daughter, Chloe, was in one of the participating third-grade classes when the school first began participating in the SWH study. So she could see - both at school and at home - how often those planning challenges led to productive classroom experiences.

The approach has become so embraced at Lone Tree that Jacque not only is planning to send other additional teachers for future SWH training, but she also has encouraged her SWH-trained teachers - including Lacina, third-grade teacher Jennifer Wright and fifth-grade teacher Sue Hartsock - to work with the middle school teachers to ensure that SWH’s student-centered principles continue to be part of students’ learning experiences at Lone Tree.

Putting their training into action, third-grade teachers Wright and Lacina recently opened their science classes intending to teach their students the difference between mass and volume - terms that wouldn’t be introduced until the end of the data-gathering section and before the analytical writing section.

For Wright, the hour began with her sitting at one of the small tables along with her students and helping direct the discussion toward the possible ways to to measure and verify the students’ claims. The sometimes noisy process involved Wright peppering the conversation among her 14 students with comments and questions such as:

. “Are you talking to me or to the group?”

. “You’re welcome to join in the conversation.”

. “Can we yield and let other people with new voices weigh in?”

. “If you are a scientist, and you’ve put it on your materials needed list, and it’s available, you don’t have to ask for permission.”

With this question-based approach, there always is a risk that the students will think a teacher is fishing for a lone, single, correct answer. But Wright, Lacina and Hartsock say they keep in mind how the SWF approach encourages them to allow students to investigate even seemingly preposterous claims - such as the initial hypothesis that liquid water will solidify just as quickly in a refrigerator as in a freezer.

Scientists, the teachers said, learn just as much - if not more - from their failed experiments as from successful ones.

Originally from Australia, Hand said he first came to Iowa on sabbatical and decided to say after his American-born wife said she was ready to come home. After seven years at Iowa State University, Hand came to UI in 2005 as a professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning.

About the time he came to Iowa, Hand came up with his approach for teaching teachers how to create learning environments in which students are engaged with topics that the students themselves already find meaningful.

“It’s not a product,” Hand said of the SWH training he offers to teachers. “We don’t sell them anything.”

Over the past decade at UI, Hand’s graduate students have challenged the theoretical rigor of his approach and investigated SWH’s on-the-group impact in classrooms through Iowa, South Korea, Turkey and many other locations around the globe.

The results of those short- and long-term studies, Hand said, have shown great progress in reducing the recurring gaps found in students’ performance in more traditional science classes - including the gender gap, the socioeconomic gap as well as the special education gap. And quick search of the UI library catalog finds 11 graduate theses containing the words “Science Writing Heuristic” and studying how the approach has come to be used in settings from pre-kindergarten to undergraduate classes.

By borrowing from language learning to learn science, Hand said, SWH helps teachers create environments where students don’t always know where language class ends and science class begins. The approach also helps the teachers understand that “learning is not information transfer; it’s a negotiation of ideas.”

The Lone Tree teachers report that, over the years, they have witnessed their own students drawing on the language and skills learned as part of the SWH approach when working in math and other classes.

Although pleased that his Science Writing Heuristic has been so well embraced over the past 16 years, Hand said he recognized early on that the name itself can be off-putting to the non-scientist public.

Hand decided to add the word “heuristic” to his blending of science learning and writing learning because the term simply means “problem solving device.” He thought the term described well how his approach taps into the way that human beings tend to store knowledge in “big idea” clusters.

Hand said his colleagues quickly pointed out the potential problems with the name, but the grant applications already were written and the approach already was starting to catch on as the acronym, SWH.

So the name itself, Hand said, continues to illustrate how learning happens best when students figure out how to translate scientific language into their own, personal language and then - through speaking and writing - translate it once again into the language of their fellows students.

“We focus on students being able to negotiate ideas, and not each other …,” Hand said. “So we want to see very interactive classrooms where teachers are pushing students to supply evidence to all the claims they’re making and to be able to do that in a safe place. . So it’s an open, noisy, interactive classroom.”

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Information from: Iowa City Press-Citizen, https://www.press-citizen.com/


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