The Marshmallow Challenge

Since watching the TED Talk on the Marshmallow Challenge, we have been doing it once a month this year.  I thought they would tire of it, but if anything, the enthusiasm has risen as the year progresses.  One month, when it slipped my mind, they insisted we do it twice the next month to make up for lost time.  A week doesn't go by when somebody reminds me that we still have to do the marshmallow challenge this month.

It is amazing how many lessons have emerged out of this.  It kicked off a really interesting inquiry into shapes and construction early in the year.  In December, we spent the debrief time making a list of the roles people play while working in a team; the listener, the idea-generator, the criticizer, the worker, etc.      It also creates a space for powerful self and collective introspection, paying attention to themselves and their role in the group.  Every month, the groups are randomized, so you never know who you are working with until the day comes.

A colleague of mine in Calgary did this with her High School Calculas students and sent us along their height.  My kids were pretty impressed that their best scores were much higher than high school students.  Of course, we have had a bit more practice...

This activity, from my perspective, has a two-fold perspective:

1) Get them thinking about collaboration.  What roles do people play?  Why do people play those roles?  Do you switch roles?  Why do you switch?  Do you play multiple roles at the same time?  Are some roles more helpful than others?  Which roles do effective groups play?  Do you ever get the feeling that nobody has a role?

2) Have an awareness for where ideas come from.  Who suggests ideas?  How do they change?  Do others tweak the ideas?  How many different ways could you twist an idea and make it something new?  Why do some ideas work and others fail?  How do you test the ideas?  When ideas have been twisted and changed many times, whose idea is the final outcome?

Yesterday, we did it yet again.  One of the three groups completed their tower (at a record breaking height of 64cm, we track each months progress on a graph) and the other two crashed at the end of the 18 minutes.  After a brief moment of craziness, where they debrief with their groups and talk about what they did wrong, and come up with ideas to fix their problems next time (this moment is like a force of nature, they need to get these ideas out of their system of they will burst), I brought them together as a group.

I introduced the verb enthralled to.  I gave a couple of examples of how people become enthralled to an idea and cannot let it go.  Then, I asked them what ideas they were enthralled to in their construction of the tower.  Things that they just assumed they had to do.  Here is their list, and the lessons we learned:

a) Pyramid Base. They see towers all over their world (Sky Tree, Tokyo Tower, Eiffel Tower, etc) and they have a pyramid base (square based or triangular) and they assume they have to copy it.  Each time, they start with their pyramid base and then as the tower sags under the weight of the marshmallow, they try and solve problem after problem to fix it, without going back and re-examining what might be a core problem.

Plan ---> Test ---> Refine

They were getting stuck in this cycle of testing and refining, and they were not re-examining the core plan.  Several students mentioned that they did mention this, but the other members of the group dismissed their ideas.  It was a powerful lesson in listening to all members of the group, and the importance of discussing the plan before jumping into something.

b) The Tower must be standing straight.  Everybody tries to build a tower that is aesthetically pleasing, symmetric, and straight.  That is how towers stand!  But those towers are designed to stand that way because their purpose to get as high as possible.  Their purpose is to stand above, to be commanding and powerful in the sky.  Is that the purpose of the marshmallow tower?  No.  The purpose of the marshmallow tower is to hold up the marshmallow.  Who cares what it looks like?  They were using the design to create something pleasing and beautiful, and forgetting the purpose of the design.  The problem you are trying to solve should never move to the periphery, but always be straight in front of you.

c) The Marshmallow must be at the top.  Of course if it is at the top, it will be higher, but when you put it at the top, the weight of the marshmallow is amplified.  It creates tension on the rest of the structure.  If you could move that tension elsewhere and leave the marshmallow lower, it might allow the structure to stand.  It causes you to re-imagine the shape of the tower, and to re-design it to account for the marshmallow.  Usually, the tower is built and it is assumed that the marshmallow will be stuck at the top.  Thinking outside the box would allow for more interesting designs to emerge.

I love this activity so much.  I love just sitting and watching.  For 18 minutes, I get to watch them solve problems, work together, and think out loud.  I just sit there and observe.  I notice so much about each kid and learn so much about them.  Some of them have really grown and matured this year, and are learning to take control and be assertive, to fight for the ideas that they believe in.  Others have become more passive and better listeners, where at the beginning of the year it was my way or the highway.  This allows me to take watch, listen, take notes, and give individual constructive feedback to each child about how they work in groups and collaborate with others.  In the past I have sat at my computer and send emails to the kids as I noticed things.  Short simple emails like; Dear K, J suggested an idea to tap the string to the table and you dismissed it without even talking about it.  These are not meant to criticize, but rather get help them become self-aware of the collectivity around them.

I would love to start collecting some kind of database of pictures, student reflections, and tower heights from around the world if anybody else out there tries this wonderful activity.

Email me.