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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” (http://www.nmsa.org/Research/ResearchSummaries/Summary21/tabid/250/Default.aspx).  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—you need to provide academic and social opportunities for your students to participate in, thus developing their own team culture.

Physical problem-solving challenges are just one effective strategy you should employ to develop a strong sense of team community with your students.  These challenges require critical and creative thinking, collaboration and should include significant time for reflection and adaptation of lessons learned.

These types of challenges might be used exclusively in advisory periods, however by adding a metaphorical thinking component they can be used in academic classes to help students internalize ideas and concepts. Marzano and colleagues have identified comparing and contrasting as a strategy with a high probability of improving achievement.  Metaphors, similes, and analogies require this type of thinking.

One of my favorite activities is often called the marshmallow challenge. 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.

Here’s the challenge:

  • Divide the participants into groups of 4
  • Give each group the following materials:
  1. 20 strands of uncooked spaghetti
  2. 3 feet of tape
  3. 3 feet of string
  4. 1 marshmallow
  • Provide the following prompt: Build the tallest, free standing structure that you can with the materials provided. The entire 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.


The most 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:
  1. Why was your team able to successfully meet this challenge?
  2. What might your group do differently the next time?
  3. How would we apply the strategies we used here to group projects we do in class? (Chart these ideas to use later in class.)

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?

Another exercise in metaphorical thinking might be to ask student to compare the different materials in the challenge (spaghetti, tape, string, marshmallow) to elements of a concept:

  • What do the string, spaghetti, tape, and marshmallow represent in the process of photosynthesis?
  • How are the materials in the challenge similar to the steps of solving an equation?

There are multiple ways to help your students reflect on the process they used to solve this challenge. Too often it is a step we leave out of group work because we feel pressed for time.  This omission is a mistake.  Asking students to figure out how to adapt and use their process in another situation will lead to critical thinking.  Having your students work together on a non-graded activity will allow them to practice collaboration in a low stress situation that can be transferred to their academic studies.

Have the groups repeat the challenge with the goal of besting the height of their first structure.  With this approach the emphasis is not on competition among groups but rather on improving the group’s personal best.  It’s easy to make the second or third time a bit more challenging by adding a complication.  No one can talk or everyone holds one arm behind their back so each person  has the use of only one hand.  As long as the “complication” doesn’t make things unsafe for the students, your imagination is the only limit.  Using the same challenge multiple times throughout the year with additional complexities will develop flexible thinking in your students.

One last twist. Recruit another staff member to come and facilitate so that the you and your teammates can join in the activity. Working together as one of the groups models collaboration and demonstrates that adults also struggle with problem solving challenges.  Both good lessons for your students to observe. Have fun!


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