Marshmallow Challenge Helps Build Team Community
Posted by Jill Spencer on 09/12/2011
A “strong sense of team community” is one of the seven attributes of highly effective middle grades teams identified in the 2004 NMSA Research Summary, “Interdisciplinary Teaming”. A strong community is a secure and nurturing place for its members. Children, adolescents, and adults learn better when they feel physically and psychologically safe. This kind of atmosphere and its accompanying healthy sense of community just doesn’t develop magically on its own—we need to provide academic and social opportunities for our students to participate in, thus developing our own team culture.
Over the years I have discovered that physical team-building challenges help build a strong sense of community. I think there are several reasons why this is so:
- These challenges necessitate collaboration among students who do not normally hang out with one another.
- The situation is non-threatening because no grades are involved. Not worrying about earning an A helps some students to relax and let their creativity be unleashed.
- Students who often do not shine in the world of writing and recitation sometimes hold the key to a successful completion of the task because of their spatial or mechanical acuity. Their peers begin to appreciate them in new ways.
- These challenges are fun yet require students to develop problem solving strategies. Wise team teachers help students transfer these strategies to the “academic” setting.
One of my favorite activities is the marshmallow challenge.
Here’s the challenge:
- Divide the participants into groups of 4
- Give each group the following materials:
- 20 strands of uncooked spaghetti
- 3 feet of tape
- 3 feet of string
- 1 marshmallow
- 20 strands of uncooked spaghetti
- 15 mini marshmallows
- 1 large marshmallow
- Provide the following prompt: Build the tallest, free standing structure that you can with the materials provided. The entire large marshmallow must be on top.
- Give the group a time limit: 15 to 20 minutes
When time is up, record the height of each structure and record it next to the names in each group.
As students work together they are making connections across cliques, friends from elementary school days, and neighborhoods. Their finished product gives everyone a sense of accomplishment.
Another important part of the challenge, reflection, comes at the end of the construction period.
- If it is a small group, ask each quartet to explain their process for building their structure. In a larger group, pair up the quartets and have them share.
- Then, ask the entire group three questions:
- Why was your team able to successfully meet this challenge?
- What might your group do differently the next time?
- How would we apply the strategies we used here to group projects we do in class? (Chart these ideas to use later in class.)
I wish I could say that I created this challenge, but I didn’t. I saw it on TED Talks. Ted Wujec, a developer of new technologies, describes this challenge and its importance in a TED lecture (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H0_yKBitO8M). Watch the video! Wujec frames the challenge as more than just a fun team building activity.
Wujec makes the point in his TED Talk that the majority of groups don’t try to incorporate the marshmallow until the last minute, and its weight causes the structure to collapse. He points out that most endeavors have a “marshmallow” that provides a crushing weight that sends plans astray. Use the marshmallow effect to help students think metaphorically about current studies:
- What was the “marshmallow” in the years leading up to the American Civil War?
- What do some scientists believe will be the “marshmallow” in climate change?
- Think about Scrooge’s 3 visitors. Which experience do you think was the “marshmallow” that led him to change his ways?
There are lots of possibilities for connecting team challenges like the marshmallow tower to the concepts that are tested. But more importantly, students need opportunities to practice this type of thinking because the world economy demands that manufacturers, the military, and even law firms need innovative thinkers if they are to remain competitive. “The army has also turned soldiers who were once just shooters into intelligence analysts, gathering executable information for the very missions they were sending themselves and compatriots on. The process “created guys who were entrepreneurial and always fighting for more information. They owned the mission much more,” emphasized General Stanley McChrystal. We must include opportunities for innovative problem solving within our every day curriculum.
Building a physically and psychologically safe team culture and nurturing innovative thinkers — two excellent reasons to include team challenges throughout the year.!
If you are going to the AMLE’s Annual Conference in Louisville I will be including the marshmallow challenge in my session on teaming. Come test your innovative thinking skills to find out how high a marshmallow tower you can help build. The record in my workshops is about 20 inches–hope to see that record broken in Louisville! The session title is “Teaming Rocks,” and it is on Friday, November 11 at 2:00 in room 216 in the Convention Center.
In the meantime join me at my regular blog on teaming–Teaming Rocks.
This entry was posted on 09/12/2011 at 12:42 PM and is filed under Conference Presenters, NMSA/AMLE Authors. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.