It’s only ten minutes in to their advisory period and Jane Kern’s students have already started selling on the black market. “You got any spaghetti?” a boy from one group calls out to a girl from another. “We broke all of ours!” An older student tries to bribe her teacher for just a few more sticks. What has Gateway High School’s students so keen to beg, borrow or steal handfuls of dry, uncooked pasta? The Marshmallow Challenge.
Jane Kern and Sean Gass, teachers and advisors at Gateway High School, came across the Marshmallow Challenge while viewing YouTube videos from the 2010 TED Conference. One talk in particular, given by Tom Wujec, a Fellow at Autodesk, immediately inspired them. Wujec had hosted over 70 marshmallow challenges with “designers, architects, students - even leadership teams of the Fortune 50,” as part of a design workshop, and had learned some compelling insights about how groups function best as a result.
The challenge seems simple: participants have eighteen minutes to work in teams of four and build “the tallest freestanding structure out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow [with] the marshmallow . . . on top.” As Wujec points out in his talk, though, in “forc[ing] people to collaborate quickly,” the challenge quickly brings to light key patterns common to group dynamics.
After watching Wujec’s TED talk, Gateway’s Kern and Gass were inspired. As advisors, “our goal is for our students to belong, aspire, and connect,” Kern, explained. “So, this activity really fits in with our goal for the students to connect and aspire. They connect through teamwork--by working together to learn what teamwork means--and they aspire by discovering the value in trying and trying again.” So, the two teachers devised a lesson plan and shared it with Gateway High School’s team of advisors.
Each Gateway High School student is matched with the same faculty member for all four years of high school, so the advisory groups function as small learning communities, or “Houses”, within the larger school community. The groups are small, comprised of no more than 14-18 students from various grade levels, who meet twice per week to build community and lean on each other for academic and personal support. The marshmallow project, with its emphasis on teamwork, collaboration and triumph in the face of adversity (creating a tower that’s taller than one spaghetti stick can frustrate even the most patient of participants), seemed tailor made to generate the right kind of discussion and effort as an advisory activity.
Luckily, the students proved Kern and Gass right: not only were they engaged, but some students showed sides of themselves their advisors hadn’t seen before. “The students I thought would be introverted are actually stepping up and contributing really well,” Kern said. “They’re even manipulating it along with the other members of the group.” When asked what her students struggled with the most, Kern spoke of the benefits of learning how to work as a team: “The biggest struggles are figuring out who gets to do what and determining what group work really should look like. What’s effective group work? What’s efficient group work? Who gets to put the pieces together and who gets to decide which pieces go where? Seeing the kids work through that has been very interesting.”
At the end of the eighteen minutes, the four advisory houses all had at least one standing structure to place in the school-wide competition. More importantly, though, the students now had a road map--forged together--of not only how to be productive, empathetic, and collaborative team members but also how to draw on wells of focus they didn’t know they had. As one student reflected, “The marshmallow reminds me of real life. It’s like it’s representative of my goals and now I know what I need to build in order to reach them.”
Interested in learning more about the Marshmallow Challenge? Click here to browse Ted Wujec's Marshmallow Challenge site or here to be taken to the photo gallery for more Gateway High School images.