When Problem Based Learning Comes Alive . . .

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 – that the formative information she takes in every day tells her much more than any test ever could. In an effort to provide continuity for her students in problem-based learning, she looped into 5th grade this year with her last group of students.

You can check out Part 1 of our interview with Natasha Nethero, on creating problem-based learning units, here!

Thriving Schools: Last time, we discussed how you went about incorporating problem-based learning into your classroom. Today, we’d like to learn about a few of the structures and strategies you use to support it, starting with cooperative learning. How do you think about student collaboration?

Natasha: More brains are better than one!

Thriving Schools: Well put! Could you give us an example of how you adapt cooperative learning in support of PBL?

Natasha: I should point out that our district uses Kagan, so a lot of the language that I use will be rooted in that. But one of the things I do is to take collaborative learning principles and implement them with modifications to support problem-based learning. For instance, let’s say we’re doing some work during a guided practice portion of class. I might place students in groups of 4 and provide these instructions - Student 1 will provide an answer or hypothesis to a question; Student 2 will agree, disagree, or add something to the 1st response; Student 3 is responsible for synthesizing and recording the group’s response; and Student 4 is responsible for presenting the information to the class. So again, using the principles of collaborative learning, I’m ensuring students have interdependence and equal participation. And if I had 4 roles, like I do in this example, then I would try to have at least 4 rounds so that every partner gets an opportunity to practice each role.

Thriving Schools: And can you tell us why it’s so important to rotate these roles?

Natasha: I feel like the traditional use of roles is sometimes misused. In working with student-teachers, I often see them decide to fix student roles. And this can actually be harmful because some students start believing they’re only good at 1 or 2 of the roles. That’s why I rotate them – I want my students to have the opportunity to experience all of them. We all have strengths and weaknesses, but I think it’s best if we attempt to grow in different areas. Everyone needs practice presenting to groups of people. Everyone needs practice writing. Everyone needs to learn how to agree and disagree in an intelligent manner. The last thing I’d add is you also need to have a task that isn’t going to get old after 2 rotations. You need to keep students engaged.

Thriving Schools: Staying on this front, could you give us an example of a collaborative structure you think more teachers could benefit from?

Natasha: I’m not sure if the Kagan folks have a name for this, but something that I feel is not used nearly enough is what I call a “Consensus Mat.” And this also gets back to our classroom mantra of “more brains are better than one.” To begin, I’ll pose a question and have students answer it individually. Then, I’ll have students share their responses using another structure, like a round robin, in their table groups. But after they’ve done this, we take it a step further by having students come to a group consensus. In this way, they learn how to respectfully modify, improve, and revise their thoughts based on group conversation. Then we might use another structure, like Numbered Heads Together, to share our thoughts with the entire class.

Thriving Schools: Shifting gears a bit, you’ve also made it clear that how you develop class culture is critical to the success of problem-based learning. For instance, you’ve decided that it's important for students to understand the difference between “fair” and “equal.” Can you tell us more about this?

Natasha: During the first week of school, I always teach a lesson about the difference between “fair” and “equal” using the graphic below. And what students see in the left-side of the graphic is that even though students are each given one box to stand on, the tallest kid didn’t need his (and one box wasn’t enough for the shortest student). In the second picture, the boxes are rearranged to give each student what they need in order to see above the fence. And while this is only an hour-long lesson, I’m constantly referring back to it throughout the year – whether I’m handing out different versions of homework or varying in-classroom activities. I’m constantly making comments like, “There are 4 different versions of this assignment because we all have different needs and we need different supports to do our best job on this.”


Thriving Schools: Has your thinking around such modifications changed over time?

Natasha: Definitely! Just a couple of years ago I was quite opposed to differentiating in that way because I felt it could hurt a student’s self-esteem. But I had a student-teacher who pushed me into trying it and I saw some pretty incredible things as a result. I also realized that students could handle a conversation on our different academic and behavioral needs. So for my students with ADHD, they have access to stress balls and pipe cleaners to help them when they feel the urge to fidget. But my other students who don’t need those tools don’t complain and don’t think anything of it because we’ve hammered home the point about having different needs.

Thriving Schools: Are there any other ideas or resources you could share that help reinforce this point?

Natasha: Yes! There’s this quote that I like to share with my students. Albert Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” And again, it just reiterates the point that we have different needs and we all succeed in different ways.

Thriving Schools: Wrapping up, are there any books or resources that you’d recommend to our community of educators?

Natasha: Of course! Here are several:

Tattoos on the Heart – This is a memoir that change the whole way I approach teaching; it moved me from seeing everything as a number to focusing on the child and ALL the needs they might have  

Black Ants and Buddhists – This is a book that helps teachers gain a better understanding of how students can drive lessons

Fish in a Tree – This is a novel that pairs perfectly with the idea of “fair” vs “equal;” I’m actually planning to use this book to begin our first PBL unit this year

Paper Tigers – This is a documentary that showed me the need for teachers to understand adverse childhood experiences; you MUST watch it!