I was originally introduced to The Marshmallow Challenge when I was in Scottsdale, Arizona for the Apple Distinguished Educator 2011 Summer Institute. My team emerged the victors, not because of me, but due to a certain physics teacher who also happened to be a former graduate student of Harvard University. Since this time, I have performed the Marshmallow Challenge with all of my fourth grade classes, both at the beginning of the school year and again at the end of the year.
Last week, my principal asked me to conduct the Marshmallow Challenge with the entire staff at a faculty meeting. First, the teachers were divided into groups of six, according to where they were sitting. Each group was given a yard of masking tape and a paper bag that contained: 20 sticks of spaghetti, 1 yard of string, 1 marshmallow, and 1 pair of scissors. Then, with their materials, the groups were given 18 minutes in order to build the tallest freestanding structure possible, and the marshmallow needed to be at the top. Some more specific rules included:
- The structure cannot be suspended from a higher structure, like a chair, ceiling, or chandelier.
- The entire marshmallow needs to be on the top of the structure.
- The teams can use as much or as little of the kit as they choose.
- Teams are free to break the spaghetti, cut up the tape and string to create new structures.
- Teams cannot hold on to the structure once the time runs out. Once the 18 minutes are over, the towers are measured and the winning group is announced.
As the Marshmallow Challenge was taking place, I was pleasantly surprised by the high level of engagement from all of the staff members. For the most part, everyone appeared to be genuinely intrigued by the challenge. All groups were continuously engaged in back and forth dialogue and problem solving, which are true characteristics of 21st century learning. For the few teachers who appeared disinterested, it was probably more out of frustration than anything else (although, I could be wrong). Also, this event took place at the end of a school day, so fatigue could have been setting in.
Once the 18 minutes were up, the towers were measured and the winning group was announced! At that point in time, I explained that when conducting the challenge with a group of students, I would ask them to individually answer five reflective questions, and then share out:
- If you had all of the time in the world to complete the Marshmallow Challenge, what would you do differently?
- If you could go back in time and talk to yourself before you completed the Marshmallow Challenge, what is one piece of advice that you would offer?
- What is one mistake that you and your group made while doing the Marshmallow Challenge? How did you fix it?
- What school subject is the Marshmallow Challenge? Is it more than one? Explain.
- Why do you think we are starting (or ending) the years with the Marshmallow Challenge?
While discussing these questions, the following points were emphasized:
- “On the surface, this is just a team building activity, but there is much more to it. The Marshmallow Challenge promotes problem solving, collaboration, and critical thinking. This represents what should be taking place in our classrooms on a regular basis.”
- “We should be teaching our students that they should be afraid to make mistakes, and that ‘prototyping’ should be a regular part of the classroom experience.”
- “All of these questions are a way for you to reflect upon your work, which is what students should always be doing, especially when it comes to inquiry-based learning. Similar questions should be used in the classroom.”
- “If you were to do this activity with your students, Question #4 is a great way to show how tasks can be interdisciplinary. This is a great way to lead into STEM or STEAM.”
Ideally, the entire presentation would have ended with the showing of a TED Talk that explains the significance of the Marshmallow Challenge, and reveals who normally performs best (engineers and architects, followed by kindergarten students). Nonetheless, due to time constraints, the video was not shown, and the link to it was emailed to the staff shortly after the faculty meeting.
The purpose of the presentation was not so much to supply my colleagues with an activity that they could use with their students, but rather to demonstrate what inquiry-based learning can look like in the classroom. It is my strong belief that effective professional development should model the classroom instruction that it is promoting, and the Marshmallow Challenge accomplishes this as it leads by example.
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