Sunday, September 05, 2010

The Marshmallow Challenge: Starting a Yearlong Conversation about Communication, Creation and Collaboration

Last week was the first week that I saw classes in the library. I have been thinking hard about where to begin this year and about the big goals for the students. Because this is the 3rd year I've had with these students, I have an idea of where they are when it comes to the way they use the library. I have worked over the past few years to focus on the tools in the library and about building independence. This year, kids will be checking out themselves so that we are freed up to do more work with students as they dig into their learning.

After looking hard at our state Library Guidelines and thinking about the skills our students need to be literate in the 21st Century, I wanted to move to a new level of what kids could do in the library. I continue to refer back to NCTE's definition of 21st Century Literacies as I think and plan.

When I watched the TED Talk on The Marshmallow Challenge, I knew it was the activity I wanted to kick off our year in the library with. So, this week, every 3rd, 4th and 5th grade class participated in the Marshmallow Challenge. Each team of 3-4 had 18 minutes to create a structure using the materials included with a big rule being that the marshmallow had to be on top. I had several goals when I decided that it was worth counting out so many pieces of uncooked spaghetti.

First of all, I want the library to become a schoolwide community. One challenge that is different from the classroom is that not all members of the library community are in the space at the same time. So I need to connect their conversations in different ways. I knew that if I did this with all 3rd, 4th and 5th graders, it would become a topic of conversation on the bus, at dinner tables and at recess. From what I heard from the kids, I was correct in my thinking. I will also expand on the conversation by creating a display in the library highlighting some of the things that each group created and learned.

I also want the library to continue to be a place where kids can create--we'll build on the work with film-making that we did last year, do more content-connected projects, etc. and I want them to have thought hard about collaborating and problem solving.

So, every 3rd, 4th and 5th grade class spent the first 18 minutes of their library time this year participating in THE MARSHMALLOW CHALLENGE. ( I let them use tape on the base which may be against the official rules, but I think that was the only difference.) I learned so much from watching the groups. I know that if kids are going to use the library in the ways I hope they do, collaboration is key. It was interesting to watch them share ideas, deal with frustrations, and stay focused (or not) on the task.

The powerful piece was the conversation kids had afterwards. The challenge is designed so that groups MUST collaborate. There is not enough time to not collaborate. So the conversations following the Marshmallow Challenge about collaboration were key. It seems that many young children think that collaboration is about being nice, being a team player. But I think when I look back at the work in 21st Century Literacies, I want more than that for our kids. I want them to problem solve collaboratively--to listen to others' ideas, build on people's thinking and to be able to create ideas and projects together that they could not possibly create on their own.

So, following the activity, each class talked about collaboration. They shared the things they did that felt collaborative. Just as I used to do in Reading Workshop, we had a 2-column conversation. I asked them to answer these two questions: What does collaboration look like? What does collaboration sound like? These initial conversations were amazing. Kids really thinking about the kind of collaboration they did and how they might improve it next time. Did they listen to others' ideas or just try to push their own? How did they deal with frustration? How did they include teammates? What did they do when another teammate became frustrated. Kids said things like,

"When something messed up, we didn't complain. We laughed and fixed it."

"It is better when you talk before you work.

"We learned from our mistakes and to combine ideas to make something we like."
“Wh learned to learn from our mistakes and to combine ideas to make something we all liked
This led right into a conversation about creating because they quickly realized that so much of collaboration comes from problem-solving when things don't go well. We also talked about creation and the fact that trying things that didn't work forced them to think about a new way to do something. So many kids are so worried about doing things the right way and not making mistakes that I loved this part of the conversation.

For the classes I've seen a 2nd time, I did a quick 15 minute follow-up activity using Marbleworks. Kids were again assigned to a team of 3-4 and we talked about setting challenges or goals for ourselves. For the last few years, kids have been doing lots of great exploration with many of the building toys and games. Although I think free exploration time is important, I also want to bump it up a bit since it hasn't happened naturally. I want the toys to be a source of independent hands-on research. So, I gave kids a challenge--"In 5 minutes, create the tallest structure you can with only 8 pieces." The 8 pieces threw them a bit but they quickly took on the challenge. We discussed the difference in free play and committing to a challenge and they talked again about having to dig in and try new things when something didn't work. Then they brainstormed other challenges that kids might try with Marbleworks. (Build a track in which the marble goes through all of the pieces. Build the lowest structure you can that works and used 8 pieces. Create a track that takes exactly 45 seconds for the marble to travel on.) I will add these challenges and spaces for kids to add new ones to the area around the Marbleworks--inviting others to think differently about the way they design. I think this piece will be key when it comes to research--asking your own questions, finding answers, documenting work over time. For young children, this step will help them understand more text-based research.

I'm glad that we started the year like this. Yesterday, I developed the 180+ pictures that I took and will add those to a wall display near the door, along with quotes from the kids on what they learned about collaborating and creating. I am hoping that conversations will begin to happen across classes and that kids will see things in the pictures that spark new thinking and talk. I have always believed that it is these yearlong conversations that make a difference to student learning and this one on creating and collaborating will be one we add to every week throughout the year.


  1. Thank you for sharing this! I just watched the TED talk--TED is such a wonderful resource.

    Your insight on using this exercise with students to have a common experience to discuss is brilliant.

    Collaboration with a single marshmallow--I'll always think of this whenever a marshmallow presents itself...well, and the delayed gratification experiment associated with marshmallows!


  2. Collaboration can be so challenging for some...being vulnerable to others often seems to be the clencher. What a nice idea to get kids comfortable at the start of a new year.

  3. School starts tomorrow for me and I plan to try the marshmallow activity on day 2. How did you present the activity to the kids? Did you tell them you were looking for collaboration?

    PS I love your books!! :)


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