Experiments in Problem Based Learning

Natasha Nethero has taught 4th grade for the last 9 years at Sunland Elementary School in South Phoenix. Natasha usually sees her students grow between 1-2 years in reading, despite entering her class, on average, at a 2nd grade reading level. The growth she sees in math is typically higher. Even with this strong growth, Natasha would tell you that her daily practice is nearly all qualitative and that the formative information she takes in every day tells her much more than a test ever could. In an effort to provide continuity for her students in problem-based learning, next year Natasha will loop with her kids into 5th grade.

Thriving Schools: We’re going to be talking about your experiences and experiments with problem-based learning. What are some of the things you need in place for PBL to work?

Natasha: First of all, I don’t think problem-based learning is for every teacher. I think every teacher should try it and try it more than once because it takes a long time to work the kinks out. But I also think to make it work it has to match up with how the teacher thinks. Also, in order to make PBL effective, I think you need to be very strong with cooperative learning. These strategies ensure that all students are learning and that you avoid situations where one student does all the work. The last thing I’d mention is that an instructor needs to be a “patient teacher.” By this I mean you have to be comfortable with not seeing success right away and that you’ll definitely feel frustrated throughout the process. For example, I’m starting to see the results of problem-based learning now, in April and May, and the results are bigger than what I have ever seen with any other teaching strategy.

Thriving Schools: How has problem-based learning changed your thinking about planning?

Natasha: Well, flexibility is another big thing you need to make this work. And flexible is something that I am not! I’ve been a very detailed planner for most of my career. So moving to problem-based learning has been a huge challenge for me personally because the learning is student-driven. That means my typical style – planning by the month and the week with all my plans copied and neatly placed in bins – forget that! Because a lot of them will end up in the garbage can! So you need to start with the standards, know where you want your students to go, and be willing to adjust all your plans day by day!

Thriving Schools: So while you were tinkering with PBL in your classroom, you must’ve had times when things didn’t go the way you wanted. Could you give us an example of that?

Natasha: Certainly. The very first problem-based learning unit that we did I got as a resource from PBLU.org. They had this project that was called “Schoolyard Habitat” that was aligned with Arizona’s 4th grade standards. In it, students would select certain animals, explore the school grounds, and determine whether or not the environment was a good habitat for the selected creature. And what my students found was that our school wasn’t a good habitat for any living animal! Surprise! So in the next part of the project, students had to determine what changes we would need to make in order to make it a good habitat.

Thriving Schools: And why didn’t the project turn out the way you had planned?

Natasha: So I should make clear that my students would’ve never called the experience a failure – they definitely got a more real experience of the material by doing the project. But there were several things that didn’t go as planned. The chose to study a lizard while I thought they were going to select something else. Something pretty, you know? I was hoping they’d pick a butterflies so we could build a garden. Or birds, so we could make birdhouses. But PBL is student-driven and they decided they were going to create lizard nesting sites. And let’s just say their habitats ended up looking like garbage dumps. Not pretty at all! But again, even though none of this was a pretty sight, there ended up being a fair amount of knowledge contained in the habitats or nesting sites that they made. And we did it all while covering our reading, writing, science, and social studies standards.

Thriving Schools: And what were some of the problems that students had to resolve along the way?

Natasha: There were several! Some groups put a fair amount of food inside the nesting sites. But we can’t have apples and rotten bananas in our classroom because we already have issues with ants. So students decided to take the nesting sites outside. Then they thought that others might “mess” with them so they placed the habitats right outside our classroom window so we could keep an eye on them. Then, the day we took them outside it was raining. So students needed to build a shelter for the habitats that allowed for shade and sun.

Thriving Schools: Ok – let’s get another example! Perhaps a unit that turned out closer to how you thought it would?

Natasha: Well, I have a huge love for literature and I want to instill that in my students. So later in the year, we did another unit that was based on a book that we read. And I felt this one was super, super successful – it touched on all our reading standards and a large set of the science ones as well. The book we used is called The Wild Robot, and if you haven’t read it, you should! It’s about a robot that crashes on an island and has to survive in the wild. Essentially, it’s about survival through observation, adaptation, and mutualism. And, of course, friendship!

Thriving Schools: Sounds like fun – how did you build a PBL unit around this?

Natasha: The first part of the unit was more or less a book study. But when the book ended, we decided that we were going to build our own robot around the question: “How can we build a robot that solves a real-world problem in a particular environment?” So we took the book, our 4th grade science standards, and mashed it all together. And we put together a unit that covered circuits, magnetism, the life sciences, engineering principles, and prototyping. The majority of groups decided to create robots that would provide water, shade, and/or first-aid for animals and/or people in the desert. So we created a rubric for this unit and decided all the robots had to light up, they all needed to incorporate magnets, and they all needed to move in some way, among other things. And the problem-solving I saw in my students during this project was incredible. I know a unit has been successful when I see the growth and progress in all of my students, rather than just a few.

Thriving Schools: So where did this unit come from?

Natasha: Actually, I created this unit on my own!

Thriving Schools: If a teacher wasn’t quite ready for this leap, where might you recommend they find good materials?

Natasha: It’s really hard to find really good PBL materials. The first unit that I described, from PBLU.org, was made for the masses. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great place to start and learn the steps. But I feel like when you’re doing problem-based learning, it’s also very personal to the teacher. And by that I mean a unit is going to be better when a teacher is inspired and excited by the content. And that’s not to mention the personalization and student self-direction that will occur along the way. So I’m torn! On the one hand, I feel like these resources are excellent starting places for teachers wanting to learn this style of teaching. But a lot of the times, the plans become an absolute mess because you’re changing everything! So I think there’s something really colorful about teachers creating things that they’re passionate about because that’s how you’re going to capture a student’s imagination.

Thriving Schools: Creating a unit like this seems like it’d be a huge time commitment? How do you make teaching this way sustainable?

Natasha: It’s funny you say that. Because with 9 years of experience in my content, I would argue it actually takes me less time to plan for PBL. That’s because I’m not so focused on: “I need a unit plan, I need my weekly plans, and I need all of my materials done and copied out.” That stress is off me because of the flexibility that PBL-units require. So again, I think once teachers are confident with their content and their ability to guide students through it, this type of learning actually requires less planning. The last thing I’d add is that I’ve served as a mentor for several student teachers over the last few years. So having another adult in the room in which to collaborate with has been a huge help to me.