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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Marshmallows, Innovation, and Good Talk at ISTE

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

ISTE, the world's largest educational technology conference, drew record crowds to Denver this year to talk about the latest trends in everything from cloud computing to social media to interactive white boards. On the last morning of this mega-event, as I stood in front of my poster station clutching a bag of marshmallows, I couldn't help but wonder what I'd gotten myself into.

This mother-daughter team take the Marshmallow Challenge at ISTE.

Credit: Suzie Boss

Against the background of bright, shiny objects that compete for attention at ISTE, I was betting on the power of string, tape, dry spaghetti, and those marshmallows to generate some good conversation. My topic: The Innovator's Toolkit. Experts tell us that innovation is one of the key 21st century skills our students need to prepare for the future. But what does it really mean? And how do we encourage it?

Assembling Ideas

One of the best innovation exercises I know of is called "The Marshmallow Challenge." It comes from the world of design and has been used to foster creative problem solving among CEOs, business students, and others whose livelihood depends on being able to come up with ideas. The rules are deceptively simple: using 20 sticks of dry spaghetti, a yard of tape, and a yard of string, build the tallest freestanding structure you can that will support the weight of one marshmallow. Work in teams of four. You have 18 minutes. Go!

Tom Wujec, a business visualization expert and fellow at Autodesk, didn't invent the Marshmallow Challenge. But he has spread the word of its benefits through a TED talk and the Marshmallow Challenge Web site. Wujec has personally facilitated more than 70 Marshmallow Challenges around the globe and sees this simple but profound activity as a method for improving a team's ability to generate ideas and to incorporate prototyping -- essential routines, it turns out, for thinking innovatively.

I'm convinced that low-risk activities like the Marshmallow Challenge belong in classrooms, too, if we hope to jumpstart our students' creative thinking and help them appreciate the power of teams. Especially for teachers who use project-based learning, I suggest doing the challenge early in the school year to help your students build their teamwork chops. What's more, they'll have a shared experience for reflection if their teams run into difficulties during projects in the future.

Team Power

What happens during a Marshmallow Challenge can be entertaining, as teams race the clock to turn flimsy ingredients into stable towers. But what happens afterwards can be profound. During the debriefing, you can get teams to talk about how they worked together:

  • Did one person dominate, or did everyone literally get a hand in designing the solution?
  • Did teams allow themselves time to try and fail at different approaches -- the route to good prototyping -- or did they rush to implement one idea?
  • And how well did they do? If they were to repeat this activity with the same team members, what would they do differently?
  • How would they build on what worked the first time around?

At ISTE, I had Wujec's TED Talk running on a monitor and all the supplies ready for conference-goers to give the Marshmallow Challenge a whirl. The display drew plenty of curiosity and sparked some interesting conversations -- but not much hands-on engagement at first. Busy adults, it seems, have little time to play.

Finally, a curious girl approached and asked if she could give the challenge a try. When I encouraged her to work with a team, she promptly volunteered her mother to be her partner. Before long, a crowd gathered to watch them build. Soon, others were finding time to challenge themselves, too.

We need more activities like the Marshmallow Challenge to bring into classrooms. Many of those I spoke with at ISTE told me about team-building or creativity exercises they already do. If we could gather these ideas, along with insights from savvy educators, we'd have the prototype for a new Innovator's Toolkit for the classroom. I've started a Google document to collect more good ideas. Several thoughtful educators have already contributed their thinking. Please share yours, too, and I'll summarize suggestions in a future post.

Meanwhile, if you decide to give the Marshmallow Challenge a try this summer, or in the fall, I'd love to hear how it goes.

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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